December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
In March 1965 my Columbia University colleague and longtime friend Dick Hofstadter invited me to join a group of U.S. historians on the final day of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama—to show national support for the voting-rights bill demanded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to express outrage at police brutality in Gov. George Wallace’s domain. The idea for a delegation of historians, I was told, had come from Walter Johnson, a professor of history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who believed that professors who had spent a lifetime teaching about constitutional liberties in the classroom should be prepared to make a public witness at this critical time.
On a sultry, sometimes showery morning in the final week of March, forty-three of us gathered in the mucky red clay field of the City of St. Jude, a Catholic institution on the fringes of Montgomery. When the march began, we found that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had deliberately moved the historians to near the front of the procession, and with John Higham of the University of Michigan bearing a black umbrella cane on which was mounted a cardboard placard with the rubric U.S. HISTORIANS, we were unmistakable. (Afterward one observer said that we reminded her of a medieval guild.) For a long while we walked past block after block of miserable shanties where hundreds of blacks stood in their front yards. Young girls were often dressed in their white go-to-church best, smiling beneath their ribbons; the older folks called out, “Oh, thank you, Jesus,” and, “At last, at last,” some of them weeping, and the marchers in turn burst into tears.
As we left the meaner black neighborhoods, the scene began to change. Now the faces on the sidewalks were white, and they were contorted with hatred. We swung onto Dexter Avenue, the capitol looming in the distance, and in front of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, a man with the wasted look of an alcoholic, his face bleached white, stepped out from the crowd and spat at me. He barely missed. As we neared the capitol, where little more than a century before Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office, we saw an unbelievable sight—the Confederate flag, as well as the Alabama ensign, flying, but with no sign anywhere of Old Glory. The year might as well have been 1861. We came to a halt in front of the capitol, where we could see a line of legislators peering at us from behind a phalanx of George Wallace’s green-helmeted guards barring our access. As we looked about us, we could see signs of a truly national demonstration—the multicolored standard of the state of Washington and the Bear Flag of California, among others. After the songs—“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Blowin’ in the Wind”—came the speeches, and for historians one special moment when, in his eloquent address, Martin Luther King quoted a passage from C. Vann Woodward, perhaps not knowing he was standing in the crowd below but a short distance away.
When the ceremony ended, we were warned not to drive back on the lonely, ill-lit roads alone, and most of us crowded onto a Free For All Baptist Church school bus for the long journey through the darkening Alabama countryside across the Chattahoochee River into the relative safety of Georgia and on to our destination in Atlanta. On the plane north the next morning, I knew that we had had only a brush with history—that the people who really counted were those, black and white, who came not for a couple of days but who, month in, month out, were risking so much. Still, we had made our witness, and there was the gratifying feeling that the event had come off without any loss of life. But when I got into Newark Airport, a headline in the New York Post revealed that the night before, on that dark highway over which we had been traveling, one of the civil rights workers, a Detroit woman, Violet Liuzzo, had been overtaken by white racists and had been murdered.