Selma 1965: the March that Changed the South
© 1974, 1985, 2015 Chuck Fager
257 pages (2nd edition),
Last weekend, my hometown suddenly became host to two presidents, a hundred members of Congress, and enough people to see it swell over ten times in size.The event was the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. In 1965 over half the population of my hometown couldn’t vote; its black populace. Though guaranteed suffrage by the US Constitution, local registrars threw up impediments in the form of extensive literacy tests and limited registration times to keep the vote restricted. Although these tests limited poor blacks and whites alike, the effects were especially manifest in the black community: less than 1% of the same were registered to vote. The greatest obstacle in the face of full citizenship, local voting-rights activists thought, was not the scheming of the elite or even the lack of concern of the city’s white population: it was the utter resignation of the city’s poor blacks, who seemed to have given up hope. With the aim of inspiring the same, local voting rights leaders, working with national organizations like the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to add his energy and talent to the campaign. That invitation put Selma at the center of a national crisis on Sunday, March 7th, when King’s strategy of provoking responses drew the wrath of the Alabama State Troopers onto a peaceful mob marching towards Montgomery. Weeks later, another far larger march crossed the bridge and trekked three days to the Capitol, and among its numbers was young Chuck Fager. His history of the Selma movement covers the road from despair to jubilation in a manner respectful of the fact that Selmians, black and white alike, had found their city as the site of the American nation’s final attempt to work out its salvation from a history of racial strife.
King, following the dictium of Gandhi that the function of a civil resister is to provoke a response, launched a series of actions designed to thwart being ignored. The status quo would be strained, the establishment would be pushed, and either it would give way or fight back in such a way that the sin within could not help but be exposed. A series of increasingly aggressive displays, including night marches on the courthouse, followed. City leaders fumbled for an appropriate response; they knew pushback was exactly what King wanted, but something had to be done. Nothing good would come of mobs wandering about at night. Under such stress, rationality proved a poor opponent for human nature; thoughtful indecision gave way to the unfortunate authority invested in Sheriff Jim Clark. Clark was a swaggering lawman whose bellicosity was such that the Council was attempting to divert away his power into a new public safety manager, but in that late winter of ’64-’65, he still had his teeth — and he knew how to respond to any challenge, with the baton.
On March 7th, the growing movement within Selma began what was to be a march to Montgomery to plead for the Governor to intercede. It didn’t matter that the registrar’s office and the city council were making timid attempts to appease the movement; this was a drive gaining power, and only sweeping changes would satisfy. Across the bridge, in Selmont, were waiting a formation of Alabama State Troopers, and a roughneck posse led by the the sheriff. What followed was war, pure and simple. While King had wanted to expose the violence inherent in the system, he awoke the violence inherent in the human animal at war. When the six hundred marchers were ordered to turn back and refused, horror was released. There were no peace officers subduing unruly subjects that day, only Mongols in police uniforms, striking into the mass with the ferocity of a warband and routing them. Not content to simply turn back the march, the State’s troopers chased the gas-stricken crowed across the bridge and into the city, block after block, hunting down and beating any man, woman, or child on the street around the movement’s epicenter within the projects, Brown Chapel.
The horror of that day is remembered as Bloody Sunday, but it is what followed afterward that makes it one of the pivotal movements in American history. The black people of Selma were beaten, but not broken, by the State’s retaliation. King and other leaders upped the ante, calling for ministers and volunteers throughout the nation to join them. And they came, by the hundreds. Fager places particular importance on the swelling numbers of white ‘outside agitators’ who joined Selma’s black community in fighting for full voting rights: taking their perspective, Fager writes that the black populace was astonished and moved by so much white support. Here at last was hope that racism need not forever exist. Eventually they marched again, though it took several weeks: an immediate attempt on March 9 (“Turnaround Tuesday”) was stopped by the State troopers again, but by March 26th the Federal government had moved. It couldn’t help but do so: scenes from March 7 had been broadcast throughout the country which was now demanding action. With National Guard troops present and the eyes of the nation upon them, King led a third march across the bridge, this time to Montgomery.
Selma 1965 succeeds wonderfully in bringing together two dramas; the struggle of the city’s poorer classes to claim the franchise that was their right, under the law, and the culmination of the national Civil Rights movement, being its last and best publicized campaign. Although it began as a local movement, and King aside was being maintained by Selma’s own black leaders, after Bloody Sunday it became the object of national attention. Crowds formed in other American cities to ‘march with Selma’, and three of the four people who lost their lives in connection with the Selma campaign were out-of-state visitors who answered King’s call. Some were accidents — While transporting protesters and supplies,Viola Liuzzo had the luck to encounter a carload of Kluckers from Birmingham, who seized the opportunity to shoot her down. Other casualties included Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who defended a young girl from an aggressive lawman in Haynvesville, and another young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion who shielded his grandmother from the constable’s bullets. Only James Reeb died in Selma those dark hours; another clergyman, he took a wrong turn and was beaten in the streets outside a roughneck bar. These deaths increased the tensity, and slowly control trickled out of the hands of local governance and into federal courts.
The original version of this work was a triumph, I think, an impassioned history of the Selma march which managed to be fair to its citizens, whose own failures were not extraordinary and who certainly did not ask to become the poster children for racial hatred. The city fathers were just as contemptuous of the Kluckers following King to stir up trouble their way as they were of him stirring up trouble his way. They were raised in a tradition that was wrong; the bridge forced them to own up to the injustices. Fager notes in his original version that the progress that followed the violence was extraordinary. The additional sections added for the 50th anniversary, however, are not not nearly as strong, dedicated as they are to the noisy fight between two lawyers and a special interest group over the placement of a Civil War bust in a cemetery that can only be seen if you go looking for it. It’s an ugly fight on the margins, one the city’s people are utterly sick of seeing publicized regardless of skin color. This was certainly a worthy read for me, connecting stories I’ve heard since childhood into a coheisve hole, and filling my home’s streets with historical actors.
A Power No Government Can Supress, The Zinn Reader; Howard Zinn