The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race in the United States, but while legally black people were allowed the vote, some southern state officials obstructed their efforts to register. Local groups in Selma had already been agitating for change, but when Dr Martin Luther King chose it as the testing ground for his black voter registration campaign in early 1965, it drew national attention to the Alabama town.
The pivotal moment came on Sunday 7 March, as demonstrators began a march from Selma to the state capitol, Montgomery. As the marchers crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge on their route out of Selma, they were met by a posse of state troopers armed with nightsticks and wearing gas masks. A warning was given to disband; Rev Hosea Williams, leading the march, tried to speak but was told there was nothing to discuss. Then the troopers moved in. The marchers were chased, beaten, tear gas was thrown and officers on horseback charged the crowd.
The footage that played on televisions around the world and the front pages bearing witness to vicious beatings galvanised support. The Guardian described the ‘dangerous situation’ that had developed in Selma, and ran a powerful image by cartoonist Bill Papas.
An editorial called the violence perpetrated against passive protesters ‘a major blemish on the face of American society’ and ‘marvelled at the courage of Luther King and his non-violent cohorts’.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, King himself led a symbolic march across the bridge once again. While demonstrators were more determined than ever to proceed, federal protection was needed if they were to make it to Montgomery safely. Stopped by police, the marchers kneeled and prayed, then turned around and retreated back into Selma.
Belated support from President Johnson came on 13 March, when he announced in a televised statement that a new bill for voter rights would be pushed through Congress. Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele filed a report from Selma, ‘a community that is on fire.’ Four days later, Judge Frank Johnson overruled Alabama governor George Wallace and ordered him to allow the march.
When the freedom march finally set off, on 21 March, thousands had joined the ranks (spurred on by the murder of white minister James Reeb, a civil rights activist who had come to Selma after Bloody Sunday). Martin Luther King led alongside religious leaders from all faiths and denominations: priests and reverends, nuns and rabbis, black and white marched together.
By the time they reached the capitol four days later the numbers had swelled to over 30,000. Hella Pick wrote a powerful opinion piece about her own experiences as a reporter travelling with the marchers:
There were, above all, those clusters of Negroes, waiting in the muddy unpaved streets of the Negro quarters of Montgomery to watch the march come by. At first they were impassive; then they grew incredulous as they saw the long, long crocodile of people; they would burst out into applause when they saw Martin Luther King; laugh when they recognised friends, hesitate, overcome their fear, and join the marchers themselves... and the marchers grew and grew until they reached that broad avenue and marched right up to the Capitol under the nose of Governor Wallace.
The Guardian’s editorial on 26 March 1965 declared that, while there was much still to be done, ‘the message from the march to Montgomery reads full of hope.’
In early winter 1963, SNCC field secretary Bernard Lafayette was beaten and jailed in Selma, where he and his wife, Colia, had been working alone. Immediately afterward Forman came to Southwest Georgia and said, “Come on Prathia, we need you in Selma.” The members of the Dallas County Voters’ Leaguehad been working there for ages; they were part of that longtime movement struggle. They had done some voting rights work, and small numbers of schoolteachers and other middle-class black people had been registered. League members also had filed some related lawsuits.
When Colia and Bernard Lafayette arrived in the early 1960s, they began work with high school students in the projects. I lived in the projects with a family as Bernard and Colia had been doing. The 1965 Selma Movement could never have happened if SNCC hadn’t been there opening up Selma in 1962 and 1963. The later, nationally known movement was the product of more than two years of very careful, very slow work.
Alabama was extremely dangerous. For instance, in Gadsen the police chased a group of young protesters barefoot over a field, knocking them down and beating them. Here the police used cattle prods on the children’s torn feet and stuck the prods into the groins of the boys. In Alabama there was a sadistic kind of joy in inflicting pain that I had never seen in Georgia.
Selma was just brutal. The threat of violence was constant. Civil rights workers came into town under the cover of darkness. We were blessed with the support and visits of people like Dick Gregory and James Baldwin. During one mass meeting, the church was surrounded by Sheriff Jim Clark and his men on horseback, displaying their instruments of brutality—batons, cattle prods, and guns. It was an extremely threatening atmosphere. The sheriff and police came into the church. Dick Gregory made some of his outrageously bold statements, addressing them directly, calling them names even though they had their guns drawn. His actions inspired courage, because Gregory made those kinds of statements and lived.
Bloody Sunday and Its Aftermath
On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, I was at the Atlanta SNCC office when a call came from the church in Selma. Over the phone we could hear screams of people who were being attacked. SNCC immediately chartered a plane so that people could go to Selma right away. As the group was ready to leave, Judy Richardson said, “Wait a minute, there are no women in this group. Where’s Prathia?” And so I went.
It was a very traumatic time for me. When we got there we saw what had happened. It was a bloody mess; people’s heads had been beaten; they’d been gassed. Of course we held a rally. At the meeting people were angry; they, too, had been traumatized. One man stood up and said, “I was out on the bridge today because I thought it was right. But while I was on the bridge, Jim Clark came to my house and tear-gassed my eighty-year-old mother, and next time he comes to my house, I’m going to be ready.” Everybody understood what that meant. People had lived their lives basically sleeping with guns beside their beds—that was just a part of the culture. These were people who were struggling to be nonviolent, who in their hearts and spirits were not a violent people, but they also had notions of self-defense.
The SCLC staff members were also a part of the meeting, and they were afraid that the anger would turn to violence. They began leading songs like “I Love Everybody.” At one point, I remember one of the SCLC staff saying, “If you can’t sing this song, you can’t see Jesus when you die.” As a person who came to the Movement embracing nonviolence as a way of life, I was horrified: this view, I felt, was heresy.
I understood the anxiety that led to that statement, but to me it was like spiritual extortion. If a person has spent all of his or her life living and suffering in the expectation of seeing Jesus at the end, it is troubling to be told if you cannot sing this song right now, you will not be saved. In that particular moment the words did not ring true. Most people in the church were not feeling love for Jim Clark or any of the white Alabama authorities usually mentioned in that song. Folks were not feeling very loving, and they were not singing.
This was a theological crisis for me. I went into a period of very deep silence after that. I withdrew. I was deeply traumatized. I soon left the South. To me the March to Montgomery was a parade. I was not sure that I would ever return to the South. I did, however, go back that summer and worked in Mississippi with families who were desegregating the schools. When I finally did leave the South, I took with me the memory of the tremendous courage I had witnessed in the communities where I had worked, a courage beyond reason.
“Bloody Selma” © 2010 by Betty Hall