June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
A century after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern blacks still were denied the vote. In 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr, set out to change that—by marching through the heart of Alabama.
From the frozen steps of Brown Chapel they could see the car moving toward them down Sylvan Street, past the clapboard homes and bleak, red-brick apartments that dotted the Negro section of Selma, Alabama. In a moment it pulled up at the chapel, a brick building with twin steeples, and the people on the steps sent word inside, where a mass meeting of local blacks was under way. He was here. It was Dr. King. They had waited for him much of the afternoon, singing freedom songs and clapping and swaying to the music. Now they rose in a burst of excitement, and local leaders rushed to greet King and his staff at the doorway. Dressed in an immaculate black suit and tie, he was a short, stocky man with a thin mustache and sad, Oriental eyes. As he mounted the speaker’s platform, the crowd broke into such a tumultuous ovation that the entire church seemed to tremble.
It was January 2, 1965, a decade since the Montgomery bus boycott had launched the Negro protest movement in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the boycott and founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was here this day to help mount a concerted voting rights drive for Alabama’s disenfranchised Negroes. And the cheering people in Brown Chapel were ready to follow him. Regardless of the danger, many of them believed, King would show them how to stand and walk with their backs straight, for he was the Moses of the movement and would lead them to the promised land. …
The movement had come to Selma two years before, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—which King had helped establish—sent in several young workers as part of a campaign to organize Alabama blacks at the grass roots. But this proved a formidable task in Selma, an old black-belt town on the banks of the murky Alabama River, fifty-odd miles west of Montgomery. The lives of Selma’s twenty-nine thousand people, more than half of them black, were regulated by a Jim Crow system that forced Negroes to live in an impoverished “colored” section and barred them from white schools, cafés, lunch counters, and theaters—and the polls.
White Selma recoiled from the boycotts and demonstrations and sit-ins and freedom rides that shook Dixie during the fifties and early sixties, recoiled from federal efforts to desegregate schools and public accommodations there. But worst of all was the arrival of the SNCC workers. A local judge, noting that they were racially mixed, wore blue overalls, and came mostly from outside Alabama, branded them “Communist agitators” in the employ of Moscow, Peking, and Havana. And agitate they did. They complained that of the fifteen thousand eligible Negro voters in Dallas County, just over three hundred were registered. Why? Because the county board of registrars met only two days a month and cheerfully rejected black applicants for reasons no more momentous than failing to cross at on the registration form. The SNCC people also stirred up trouble by leading small, tentative protest marches to the courthouse in downtown Selma. At the same time, a dental hygienist named Marie Foster, a proud, forthright woman who served as secretary of a black organization called the Dallas County Voters League, conducted nighttime citizenship classes for her neighbors. These in turn led to weekly mass meetings at the Negro churches on Sylvan Street.
As the movement gained momentum in Selma, the white community sharply disagreed over what should be done. Wilson Baker, the hefty new director of the city police and a thoroughly professional lawman who had taught at the University of Alabama, was determined to avoid the kind of racial explosions that had rocked other Southern cities. With the support of Mayor Joe T. Smitherman and Selma’s old and affluent families, Baker intended to meet nonviolent protest with nonviolent law enforcement, deal quietly with federal officials, and get around national civil rights laws with minimal compliance. But the die-hard segregationists—particularly the country people of Dallas County—vowed to protect the old ways, come what may.
Their spokesman was Sheriff Jim Clark, a burly fellow who hailed from rural Coffee County, where populism and Negrophobia both ran deep. Clark was out “to preserve our way of life,” he told his wife, and “not let the niggers take over the whole state of Alabama. ” And nobody was going to get in his way.
In July, 1964, a segregationist state judge banned all marches and mass meetings in Selma, and Sheriff Clark enforced the injunction with a vengeance. By December the movement was paralyzed. In desperation local Negro leaders contacted SCLC headquarters in Atlanta and implored Dr. King to come and take charge.
So it was that King picked Selma as the next target for his civil rights crusade. Inspired by Gandhi, King had embraced nonviolent direct action as the most effective weapon to combat segregation in Dixie. While the Congress of Racial Equality had actually pioneered direct action in America, King and the SCLC had refined the technique in civil rights battlefields across the South, for the first time drawing the Negro masses there into the struggle for equality. King and his lieutenants would select some notoriously segregated city, mobilize the local blacks, and lead them on peaceful protest marches. They would escalate the marches, increase their demands, even fill up the jails, until they brought about a moment of “creative tension,” when white authorities would either agree to negotiate or resort to violence, thereby laying bare the brutality inherent in segregation and appealing to the national conscience that would force the federal government to intervene. The technique failed in Albany, Georgia, where white authorities handled King’s marchers with unruffled decorum (“We killed them with kindness,” chuckled one city official). But it succeeded brilliantly in Birmingham, where Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor turned police dogs and firehoses on the marchers in full view of reporters and television cameras. Revolted by such scenes, Congress had produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which desegregated all public facilities.
And now, hurrying down to Selma in early January, 1965, King would employ nonviolent direct action again, this time against discrimination at the polls. He and his staff would defy Clark, challenge the court injunction, and start a movement that they hoped would force Congress to guarantee Southern blacks the right to vote. And Selma’s embattled Negroes, thrilled that so celebrated a man would lead them personally, greeted King with the most incandescent mass meeting ever seen in Brown Chapel. They would start marching when the registrars next met, King promised them, and they would keep marching until victory was theirs. “Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one: Give us the ballot! ” He had them shouting out. “We’re not on our knees begging for the ballot. We are demanding the ballot.” They were on their feet cheering. Then they broke into the great hymn of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
And so on January 18 the campaign began as King led four hundred people to the courthouse. Wilson Baker, however, broke them up into small groups. Otherwise, he said, he would have had to arrest them for parading without a permit, and Baker wanted no arrests.
At the courthouse, however, the marchers passed into Clark’s jurisdiction. And the sheriff stood there now, in his uniform and braid-trimmed hat, gripping his billy club as King recited the grievances of local Negroes and in his most dignified manner asked that they be registered to vote. Going along with Baker for now, Clark simply ushered the demonstrators into a back alley and left them there.
But the next day wave after wave of Negroes besieged Clark’s courthouse. With the campaign attracting blacks of all ages and occupations, civil rights workers told one another, “Brother, we got a movement goin’ on in Selma.”
On Monday, January 25, they were back at the courthouse again, demanding the right to vote and singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round.” Now they were protected by a federal court order, just handed down in Mobile over the weekend, that overruled Clark’s injunction and barred city and county officials from impeding the “orderly process” of voter registration. Wearing a lapel button that read NEVER, Clark strode angrily down the line. When Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper, a huge woman, remarked that “there ain’t nobody scared around here,” Clark pushed her so hard that she lost her balance. She rose up, punched the sheriff to his knees, and then slugged him again. A deputy grabbed her from behind, but she stamped on his foot and elbowed him in the stomach and then knocked Clark down a second time. At last three deputies subdued Mrs. Cooper and held her fast as Clark beat her methodically with his billy club, ignoring the newsmen and their cameras.
Several black men started to interfere, but King stopped them. “Don’t do it, men. I know how you feel ‘cause I know how I feel. But hold your peace.” He was determined to have his followers adhere to his philosophy of nonviolence, never hating or fighting their white oppressors but relying on the redemptive power of love and dignity. And it was the only way black men could protest in the South without getting killed. As the SCLC’s James Bevel put it later, any man who had the urge to hit white officers was a fool. “That is just what they want you to do. Then they can call you a mob and beat you to death.” In any case, a photograph of the beating of Mrs. Cooper was soon circulating across the country.
That Monday night, with passions running high, local blacks crowded into Brown Chapel to hear Ralph Abernathy. A stout, earthy Baptist preacher who had marched and gone to jail with King since the early days of the movement, Abernathy soothed his people with a mixture of droll humor and defiance. He pointed to a radio antenna attached to the pulpit and said the police had installed that “doohickey” and had warned him to watch what he said. “But they forgot something when they said that,” Abernathy exclaimed with his jowly face set in a frown. “They forgot that Ralph Abernathy isn’t afraid of any white man, or any white man’s doohickey either. In fact, I’m not afraid to talk to it, man to man .” He held the antenna up and cried, “Doohickey, hear me well!” and shouts and waves of laughter rolled over the sanctuary. “We don’t have to spread out when we go down to that courthouse, doohickey. And the next time we go we’re going to walk together, we’re not going to go two together, twenty feet apart. We’re not going to have a parade, we’re just going to walk down to the courthouse. When we want to have a parade, doohickey, we’ll get the R. B. Hudson High School Band and take over the town!”
His speech scared Mayor Smitherman. Convinced that mass demonstrations were afoot, he called in the Alabama state troopers under Colonel Al Lingo, an ally of Governor George C. Wallace and a small-town businessman with firm views about what should be done with “outside agitators.” Lingo’s troopers rumbled into Selma in their two-tone Fords, with the stars and bars of the Confederacy emblazoned on the front bumpers. Sensing that the moment of “creative tension” was fast approaching, King and his staff called for mass marches and mass arrests and decided that it was time for King himself to go to jail. Accordingly, on February 1, King led 250 people en masse down Selma’s streets, forcing a disheartened Wilson Baker to arrest them for parading without a permit. By week’s end, more than three thousand demonstrators—King and Abernathy included—were locked up in Dallas County jails, subsisting on a cup of black-eyed peas and a square of cornbread twice a day. King’s incarceration, of course, made national headlines and brought reporters and television newsmen swarming into Selma.
Now that he had a national audience, King posted bond and held a news conference about his next step; he would personally ask President Lyndon Johnson to sponsor a voting rights bill for Negroes in Dixie. On February 9 King flew off to Washington for a round of talks with administration officials, including Johnson. Although the administration was actually planning some sort of voting legislation, Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey doubted that Congress would pass an additional civil rights bill so soon after the 1964 measure. But Humphrey told King that Congress might do so “if the pressure were unrelenting.”
In Selma, however, the number of marchers had begun to dwindle, and Baker’s hopes were rising. If Clark could be restrained, maybe King’s campaign could yet be derailed. But Clark could not be restrained. On February 10 he and his possemen attacked a column of young student marchers and drove them out of town at a run, hitting and shocking them with cattle prods. “You wanted to march, didn’t you?” the possemen yelled. “ Now march! ” They chased the youngsters until they stumbled vomiting and crying into ditches.
Back from Washington, King led twenty-eight hundred furious Negroes on the biggest protest march of the campaign. At the courthouse a deputy smashed one of King’s aides in the mouth with his billy club. As Time reported, Clark was the movement’s energizing force: every time it faltered, the sheriff and his deputies revived it with some new outrage. The Nation proclaimed King himself “the finest tactician the South has produced since Robert E. Lee.” And like Lee, The Nation observed, King got a lot of help from his opponents.
By now movement leaders had expanded the voting rights drive to contiguous Perry and Wilcox counties. In backwater Wilcox County racial oppression was so grim that blacks on one plantation had never even seen United States currency: they used octagonal tin coins parceled out by the white owners and shopped at a plantation commissary. Conditions were almost as bad in rural Perry County, where, aroused by King, a group of luckless Negroes attempted a night march in the county seat of Marion; Lingo’s state troopers ambushed the blacks and clubbed them, sending them screaming through the streets. When Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young pulpwood cutter, tried to defend his mother and grandfather, a trooper shot him in the stomach with a revolver. An ambulance rushed him to the Negro hospital in Selma, and as he hovered near death, Colonel Lingo served Jackson for assault and battery with intent to kill a police officer. On February 26 Jackson died, and King and hundreds of blacks from the area buried him on a rainswept hillside.
After the funeral, King escalated the campaign once again. He announced a mass march to the Alabama capital in Montgomery, to begin in Selma on Sunday, March 7, and to proceed down Highway 80—popularly known as the Jefferson Davis Highway. SCLC’s James Bevel, a brooding young minister who wore denim overalls and a skullcap, had conceived the idea for the march. “I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten,” King told his followers. “But we must stand up for what is right.”
The announcement appalled Alabama officials: the image of hundreds of flag-waving Negroes descending on the state capital was more than they could bear. Wallace banned the march and instructed Lingo to enforce his order “with whatever means are necessary.” The governor’s aides, though, assured Mayor Smitherman that there would be no violence, and Smitherman in turn promised the full cooperation of the city police. All of this infuriated Police Chief Baker. Smitherman and Wallace were both “crazy,” he said, if they thought Lingo and Clark would not molest the marchers, and he threatened to resign before he would let his men participate in what was sure to become a blood bath. At last Smitherman relented and allowed the city police to stay out of the matter. Once the marchers crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge and left Selma, they would be in the hands of Lingo and Clark.
On Saturday, March 6, King was back in Atlanta, where he decided to postpone the march until the following Monday. On a conference phone call with his aides in Selma, he explained that for two straight Sabbaths he had neglected his congregation—he was co-pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—and that he really needed to preach there the next day. He would return to Selma on Monday to lead the march. All his staff agreed to the postponement except Hosea Williams, a rambunctious Army veteran with a flair for grass roots organizing. “Hosea,” King warned, “you need to pray. You’re not with me. You need to get with me.”
On Sunday morning, though, King’s aides reported that more than five hundred pilgrims were gathered at Brown Chapel and that Williams wanted permission to march that day. In his church office King thought it over and relayed word to Brown Chapel that his people could start without him. Since the march had been prohibited, he was certain that they would get arrested at the bridge. He would simply join them in jail. He expected no mayhem on Highway 80, since even the conservative Alabama press had excoriated Lingo’s troopers for their savagery in Marion.
With King’s blessings 525 people now left Brown Chapel in Selma and headed for Edmund Pettus Bridge toting bedrolls and blankets. Williams and John Lewis, a SNCC veteran who had been savagely beaten as a Freedom Rider several years earlier, were in the lead; an escort of borrowed ambulances took up the rear. It was gray and hazy, with a brisk March wind gusting up from the Alabama River as the column came over the crest of the bridge and saw a chilling sight. “Wallace’s storm troopers,” as civil rights workers called the state police, stood three deep across all four lanes of Highway 80, wearing gas masks beneath their sky-blue hard hats and armed with billy clubs. Williams turned to Lewis and asked, “John, can you swim?”
“No,” Lewis replied.
“I can’t either, and I’m sure we’re gonna end up in that river.”
As the blacks approached the wall of troopers, Major John Cloud raised a bullhorn and shouted, “You’ve got two minutes to disperse! Turn around and go back to your church! You will not be allowed to march any further!” Sixty seconds later Cloud ordered a charge, and the troopers waded in with clubs flailing. They shoved the front ranks back, fractured Lewis’s skull, hammered women and men alike to the ground. Then they regrouped and attacked again, this time firing canisters. “Tear gas!” a marcher cried. Soon clouds of yellow and white smoke swirled across the highway, and the marchers fell back choking.
As white onlookers cheered, Clark’s mounted posse now rode out from between two buildings, their leader bellowing, “Get those goddamn niggers!” With a Rebel yell, the possemen charged into the Negroes, lashing out at them with bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. “Please, no!” a marcher cried. “My God, we’re being killed.” In chaos the blacks retreated to Brown Chapel, the road behind them littered with bedrolls, shoes, and purses. At the chapel some Negroes hurled bricks and bottles at the possemen, while Lewis—his head covered with blood—and Williams guided their stricken people inside. The air reeked of tear gas as they huddled in the sanctuary, some groaning and weeping, others in shock.
Outside, Wilson Baker tried to assume jurisdiction, but the sheriff pushed past him, shouting, “I’ve already waited a month too damned long about moving in!” At that, his possemen stormed through the Negro section, beating people, and shoving their way into the First Baptist Church, where they seized a black youth and flung him through a stained-glass window depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. At last Baker ordered Clark to “get your cowboys the hell out of here,” whereupon the possemen raged through downtown Selma, pounding on the hoods of Negroes’ cars and yelling, “Get the hell out of town. We want all the niggers off the streets.” By nightfall seventeen blacks had been hospitalized and seventy others treated for injuries.
That evening, ABC television interrupted its Sunday-night movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, to show a film clip of Selma’s bloody Sunday. In Washington, President Johnson publicly deplored such brutality; thousands of people in cities all over the country marched in sympathy demonstrations over the next few days.
In Atlanta, Martin Luther King was horrified at the news and guiltstricken that he had not been there with his people. But the events on Sunday also gave him an inspiration: he had long complained that clergymen “have too often been the taillight rather than the headlight” of the civil rights movement, and here was a tremendous opportunity to enlist them actively in the struggle. Accordingly he sent out a flurry of telegrams, summoning religious leaders across the nation to join him in Selma for “a ministers’ march to Montgomery” on Tuesday, March 9.
The response was sensational. Overnight some four hundred ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns, students, and lay leaders—black and white alike—rushed to stand in Selma’s streets with King. State authorities branded them all agitators. “Why not?” one retorted. “An agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out.”
On Monday morning King’s attorneys filed into Judge Frank M. Johnson’s U.S. District Court in Montgomery and asked that he enjoin Alabama officials from blocking Tuesday’s march. King expected a favorable ruling since Johnson was thought to be the most sympathetic to civil rights of all the federal judges in the Deep South. But Judge Johnson refused to hand down an injunction that day. Instead he asked King to postpone the march until after a court hearing on Tuesday. At first King agreed. But when he reached Selma on Monday evening and found all those clergymen prepared to stand with him, he resolved to march as planned.
All that night civil rights leaders debated about what kind of march should be undertaken. Should they attempt to reach Montgomery or settle for a token demonstration here in Selma? Clearly the troopers and possemen would be massed out on Highway 80 tomorrow. Under considerable duress, King argued that it was not the nonviolent way to try to break through an armed wall, and he sold his colleagues on a compromise. They would march to the site of Sunday’s beatings and confront the police line, making it clear to all the world that Alabama planned to stop them with violence. Then they would turn back.
Tuesday morning brought an unexpected blow: Judge Johnson officially banned the march that day. For the most part the federal judiciary had been a powerful ally of the movement; but now King would have to proceed in defiance of a federal court order, and some advisers pressed him to cancel the march lest he alienate the very Washington politicians on whom his hopes depended. But King would not cancel the march, he said; he could not cancel it. If he waited until after protracted court hearings, all the clergymen in Selma might leave, public interest evaporate, and a decisive moment in the struggle be irretrievably lost. And there was still another consideration: if he did nothing today, pent-up emotions might explode into “an uncontrollable situation.” He had to march at least to the police barrier.
Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach phoned and asked King not to march. “Mr. Attorney General,” King said, “you have not been a black man in America for three hundred years.”
At Brown Chapel that afternoon, some fifteen hundred marchers listened quietly as King spoke of his “painful and difficult decision” to defy the court injunction. “I do not know what lies ahead of us. There may be beatings, jailings, and tear gas. But I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience. ” He led them through town two abreast, stopping at the Pettus Bridge to hear a U.S. marshal read the court’s restraining order. Then he walked them out to the Jefferson Davis Highway, where columns of state troopers, with billy clubs, again barred their way.
“You are ordered to stop and stand where you are,” Major Cloud boomed through his bullhorn. “This march will not continue.” King shot back, “We have a right to march. There is also a right to march on Montgomery. ”
When Cloud repeated his order, King asked him to let them pray. “You can have your prayer,” Cloud replied, “and then you must return to your church.” Behind him the troopers stood sullen and still. As hundreds of marchers knelt in the crisp sunlight, King motioned to Abernathy. “We come to present our bodies as a living sacrifice,” Abernathy intoned. “We don’t have much to offer, but we do have our bodies, and we lay them on the altar today.” In another prayer, a Methodist bishop from Washington, D.C., compared this to the exodus out of Egypt and asked God to part the Red Sea and let them through. As he finished, Cloud turned to his men and shouted, “Clear the road completely—move out!” At that the troopers stood aside, leaving the way to Montgomery clear. The Methodist bishop was awe-struck, certain that God had answered his prayer.
King eyed the troopers suspiciously. He sensed a trap. “Let’s return to the church,” he said, “and complete our fight in the courts.” And the marchers, some singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round,” headed unmolested back into town.
Back at Brown Chapel, King pronounced the march a victory and promised that he and his people would get to Montgomery one day. Most of his followers were content with the abbreviated march, but the Methodist bishop felt betrayed. And the SNCC people were furious. They wanted to storm on to Montgomery that day, even if it meant crashing through Lingo’s line. Many of the students were already jealous of King, feeling that SNCC had begun the Selma movement but King and “ SLICK ” had received all the glory. Now they censured him bitterly for turning around at the police barrier, fumed about the white people he had brought into the movement, and denounced his admonitions to love those who oppressed them. “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy,” raged SNCC executive director James Forman, “we’ll knock the ___ing legs off.” Soon SNCC was in virtual rebellion against “de Lawd”—their name for King—and officially withdrew from his projected Montgomery trek, although members could still participate as individuals.
Harmony between King and SNCC was not the only casualty of Tuesday’s demonstration. That night James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, and several other whites dined at a Negro café. Afterward, on their way to SCLC headquarters, four men emerged from the shadows and fell upon them with clubs, one smashing Reeb in the head. Reeb collapsed in a coma, and an ambulance sped him to a hospital.
In Selma, Reeb’s beating touched off fresh waves of protest marches—one led by six smiling nuns from St. Louis. When Mayor Smitherman banned all demonstrations and Wilson Baker tied a rope across Sylvan Street, civil rights workers dubbed it the “Berlin wall” and started a round-the-clock, sit-down prayer vigil in front of Brown Chapel. Two days later, in a chill rain, an unshaven, red-eyed Baker brought them the news that Reverend Reeb had died.
Reeb’s murder whipped up a storm of public indignation. Telephone calk and telegrams blazed into Washington with demands that federal troops be sent to Selma. President Johnson said that he was “concerned, perturbed, and frustrated,” then came to a momentous decision: he announced that he intended to appear before Congress the following Monday night, March 15, and personally submit a strict new voting rights bill. The President even asked King to be his special guest in the Senate gallery.
But King was in Selma that Monday, conducting a memorial service for Reeb at the courthouse. That night he and his assistants settled down to watch Johnson’s congressional appearance on television, the first time a President had personally given a special message on domestic legislation in nineteen years. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote,” Johnson said in his slow Texas drawl, and he reviewed all the obstacles to Negro voting in the South. His bill proposed to abolish these impediments through federal overseers who would supervise registration in segregated counties—exactly what King had been demanding. With Congress interrupting him repeatedly with applause, Johnson pointed out that “at times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” But “even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement... the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.” In closing he spoke out of his south Texas past and his own brush with poverty and racism as a young schoolteacher. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. ” He added slowly and deliberately, “And we shall overcome!”
Congress exploded in a standing ovation, the second of the night, indicating that the passage of Johnson’s bill was certain. As television cameras swept the hall, King wept. “President Johnson,” he said later, “made one of the most eloquent, unequivocal, and passionate pleas for human rights ever made by the President of the United States.”
Nine days later, in Montgomery, Judge Frank Johnson handed the movement still another victory. After almost a week of hearings, during which contempt charges against King were dropped, Johnson ordered Alabama officials not to interfere with the Selmato-Montgomery march. The plan Johnson endorsed, one worked out with military precision by civil rights leaders, called for the pilgrimage to commence on March 21 and culminate in Montgomery four days later. Only three hundred select people were to cover the entire distance, with a giant rally at the Alabama capital to climax the journey. “The extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate, and march should be commensurate with the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against,” Judge Johnson ruled. “In this case, the wrongs are enormous.”
King and his followers were ecstatic, but Wallace was furious. He telegraphed President Johnson that Alabama could not protect the marchers because it would cost too much. Scolding Wallace for refusing to maintain law and order in his state (“I thought you felt strongly about this”), the President federalized 1,863 Alabama National Guardsmen and dispatched a large contingent of military police, U.S. marshals, and other federal officials to Selma.
And so on Sunday, March 21, some thirty-two hundred marchers left the sunlit chinaberry trees around Brown Chapel and set off for Montgomery. In the lead were King and Abernathy, flanked by Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, also a Nobel Prize winner, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, with his flowing white beard and windtossed hair. Behind them came maids and movie stars, housewives and clergymen, nuns and barefoot college students, civil rights workers and couples pushing baby carriages. In downtown Selma, Clark’s deputies directed traffic, and the sheriff himself, still wearing his NEVER button, stood scarcely noticed on a street corner. As two state trooper cars escorted the marchers across the bridge, a record-store loudspeaker blared “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
The procession headed out Highway 80 now, helicopters clattering overhead and armed troops standing at intervals along the route. Several hundred whites lined the roadside, too, and a car with “Cheap ammo here” and “Open season on niggers” painted on the sides, cruised by in the opposite lane. Confederate flags bristled among the bystanders, some of whom gestured obscenely and held up signs that read, “Nigger lover,” “Martin Luther Kink,” and “Nigger King go home!” A woman in her early thirties screeched, “You all got your birth-control pills? You all got your birth-control pills?” On the whole, though, the spectators looked on in silence as King and his fellow blacks, United States flags floating overhead, trampled forever the old stereotype of the obsequious Southern Negro.
At the first encampment, some seven miles out, most people headed back to Selma by car and bus. King and the rest bedded down for the night in wellguarded hospital tents, the men in one and the women in another. “Most of us were too tired to talk,” recalled Harris Wofford, a friend of King and a former adviser to John F. Kennedy. But a group of Dallas County students sang on: “Many good men have lived and died,/ So we could be marching side by side.”
The next morning, wrote a New York Times reporter, “the encampment resembled a cross between a Grapes of Wrath migrant labor camp and the Continental Army bivouac at Valley Forge,” as the marchers, bundled in blankets, huddled around their fires downing coffee and oatmeal. At eight they stepped off under a cloudless sky.
As they tramped through the rolling countryside, carloads of federal lawmen guarded their flanks, and a convoy of army vehicles, utility trucks, and ambulances followed in their wake. Far ahead Army patrols checked out every bridge and searched the fields and forests along the highway. Presently, a sputtering little plane circled over the marchers and showered them with racist leaflets. They were signed by White Citizens Action, Inc., which claimed the leaflets had been dropped by the “Confederate Air Force. ”
At the Lowndes County line, where the highway narrowed to two lanes, the column trimmed down to the three hundred chosen to march the distance. They called themselves the Alabama Freedom Marchers, most of them local blacks who were veterans of the movement, the rest assorted clerics and civil rights people from across the land. There was Sister Mary Leoline of Kansas City, a gentle, bespectacled nun whom roadside whites taunted mercilessly, suggesting what she really wanted from the Negro. There was one-legged James Letherer of Michigan, who hobbled along on crutches and complained that his real handicap was that “I cannot do more to help these people vote.” There was eighty-two-year-old Gager Lee, grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who could march only a few miles a day, but would always come back the next, saying, “Just got to tramp some more.” There was seventeen-year-old Joe Boone, a Negro who had been arrested seven times in the Selma demonstrations. “My mother and father never thought this day would come,” he said. “But it’s here and I want to do my part.” There was loquacious Andrew Young, King’s gifted young executive director, who acted as field general of the march, running up and down the line tending the sick and the sunburned. And above all there was King himself, clad in a green cap and a blue shirt, strolling with his wife, Coretta, at the front of his potluck army.
They were deep inside Lowndes County now, a remote region of dense forests and snake-filled swamps. Winding past trees festooned with Spanish moss, the column came to a dusty little Negro community called Trickem Crossroads. Walking next to King, Andrew Young pointed at an old church and called back to the others: “Look at that church with the shingles off the roof and the broken windows! Look at that! That’s why we’re marching!” Across from it was a dilapidated Negro school propped up on red bricks, a three-room shanty with asphalt shingles covering the holes in its sides. A group of old people and children were standing under the oak trees in front of the school, squinting at King in the sunlight. When he halted the procession, an old woman ran from under the trees, kissed him breathlessly, and ran back crying, “I done kissed him! I done kissed him!” “Who?” another asked. “The Martin Luther King!” she exclaimed. “I done kissed the Martin Luther King!”
On the third day out King left Alabama and flew off for an important speaking engagement in Cleveland; he would rejoin the marchers outside Montgomery. It rained most of the day, sometimes so hard that water spattered high off the pavement. The marchers toiled seventeen endless miles through desolate, rain-swept country, some dropping out in tears from exhaustion and blistered feet. When they staggered into a muddy campsite that evening, incredible news awaited them from Montgomery. The Alabama legislature had charged by a unanimous vote that the marchers were conducting wild interracial sex orgies at their camps. “All these segregationists can think of is fornication,” said one black marcher, “and that’s why there are so many shades of Negroes.” Said another, “Those white folks must think we’re supermen, to be able to march all day in that weather, eat a little pork and beans, make whoopee all night, and then get up the next morning and march all day again.”
On Wednesday, as the weary marchers neared the outskirts of Montgomery, the Kings, Abernathys, and hundreds of others joined them for a triumphal entry into the Alabama capital. “We have a new song to sing tomorrow,” King told them. “We have overcome.” James Letherer hobbled in the lead now, his underarms rubbed raw by his crutches and his face etched with pain. Flanking him were two flag bearers—one black and one white—and a young Negro man from New York who played “Yankee Doodle” on a fife. As the marchers swept past a service station, a crew-cut white man leaped from his car, raised his fist, and started to shout something, only to stand speechless as the procession of clapping, singing people seemed to go on forever.
And so they were in Montgomery at last. On Thursday the largest civil rights demonstration in Southern history made a climactic march through the city, first capital and “cradle” of the old Confederacy. Protected by eight hundred federal troops, twenty-five thousand people passed the Jefferson Davis Hotel, with a huge Rebel flag draped across its front, and Confederate Square, where Negroes had been auctioned in slavery days. There were the three hundred Freedom Marchers in front, now clad in orange vests to set them apart. There were hundreds of Negroes from the Montgomery area, one crying as she walked beside Harris Wofford, “This is the day! This is the day!” There was a plump, bespectacled white woman who carried a basket in one arm and a sign in the other: “Here is one native Selman for freedom and justice.” There were celebrities such as Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, the eminent American historians John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward. Like a conquering army, they surged up Dexter Avenue to the capital building, with Confederate and Alabama flags snapping over its dome. It was up Dexter Avenue that Jefferson Davis’s first inaugural parade had moved, and it was in the portico of the capital that Davis had taken his oath of office as President of the slave-based Confederacy. Now, more than a century later, Alabama Negroes—most of them descendants of slaves—stood massed at the same statehouse, singing “We Have Overcome” with state troopers and the statue of Davis himself looking on.
Wallace refused to come out of the capital and receive the Negroes’ petition. He peered out the blinds of his office, chuckling when an aide cracked, “An inauguration crowd may look like that in a few years if the voting rights bill passes. ” But a moment later Wallace said to nobody in particular, “That’s quite a crowd out there.”
Outside King mounted the flatbed of a trailer, television cameras focusing in on his round, intense face. “They told us we wouldn’t get here,” he cried over the loudspeaker. “And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’ ” For ten years now, he said, those forces had tried to nurture and defend evil, “but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. So I stand before you today with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.”
Not since his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial had an audience been so transfixed by his words rolling out over the loudspeaker in rhythmic, hypnotic cadences. “Let us march on to the realization of the American dream,” he cried. “Let us march on the ballot boxes, march on poverty, march on segregated schools and segregated housing, march on until racism is annihilated and America can live at peace with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Then King launched into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” crying out, “Our God is marching on! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!”
In August, Congress enacted the voting rights bill, and Johnson signed it into law in the same room in which Lincoln had endorsed the first confiscation act, which seized all slaves employed in the Confederate war effort. And for those who had participated, the movement of 1965 became the central event in their lives. They were surprised at themselves, proud of the strength they had displayed in confronting the state of Alabama, happy indeed, as one of the marchers put it, to be “a new Negro in a new South—a Negro who is no longer afraid. ”
During the summer of 1977 I visited Selma and interviewed some of the people who had been involved in the movement. Among them was Mrs. Richie Jean Jackson, an articulate, animated black teacher whose home had often served as King’s Selma headquarters. On a brilliant June afternoon she took me to all the sites of the movement, to the marble courthouse, Sylvan Street, and Brown Chapel, wheeling her Gran Torino through Selma with uninhibited gusto. The city’s police force and city council were both racially mixed now, she told me, the schools and public accommodations all integrated. She related how Wilson Baker had defeated Clark in a bitter election for sheriff in 1966, how Baker was dead now and Clark was gone (nobody knew where), and how she and her white team teacher could tease and talk to each other without worrying about a color barrier. “I would rather live here now than anywhere else,” she said. “Though we still need a few more funerals.”
Later that same day I called on Marie Foster, Mrs. Jackson’s sister-in-law. As we sipped coffee in her neat, wellfurnished home, she recounted those days in vivid detail, squinting her eyes and wrinkling her nose when she stressed a point. On the third day of the great march to Montgomery, she recalled, she became so tired that she could hardly lift her feet. “Andy Young saw how tired I was and walked a ways with me. ‘Come on, Mrs. Foster,’ he said. Tm gonna put you in one of the escort cars.’ But I shook my head and kept on somehow, and Andy Young just smiled and shook his head and went on down the line. In camp that night I rubbed alcohol on my feet—they were all swollen and sore—and I prayed. I asked God to please help me, please give me the strength to go on tomorrow. ” She paused. “Well, He mustVe been working on me, because the next morning I was refreshed and ready. It was a wonderful experience—the march into Montgomery. We all felt so close to each other. I’ll never forget it.” She brought out a box and showed me a pair of shoes. Across the top of the box she had written: “Shoes that carried me through 50 mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. 1965. We walked for freedom, that we might have the right to vote.”