Selma, Alabama

I traveled to Selma, Alabama, in October 1963 as an adviser to SNCC, to observe its voter registration campaign there, which had been accompanied by a number of acts of intimidation and violence. The town was the seat of Dallas County, whose population was 57-percent black, with 1 percent of those registered to vote. (Sixty-four percent of whites were registered.)

The 1 percent figure was understandable when you looked at the registration process. You didn’t register, you applied to register. There was a long questionnaire, then an oral examination, with different questions for blacks and whites. A typical question for blacks: “Summarize the Constitution of the United States.” (The county registrar was undoubtedly an expert on the Constitution.) Later, a postcard saying if you passed or failed.

Selma was a slave market before the Civil War, a lynching town at the turn of the century, and by the 1960s still a place where any young black person growing up there had to say to himself or herself, as a Selma-born black attorney living in Tennessee told me, “I must get out of this town.”

Not long before I arrived, thirty-two schoolteachers who had tried to register to vote had been fired, and John Lewis had been arrested for leading a picket line at the county courthouse. (Only one of his many arrests and brutal beatings. In the 1980s, he would be elected to the U.S. Congress from Georgia.) Worth Long, another SNCC man, was arrested and beaten by a deputy sheriff in the county jail. A nineteen-year-old girl was knocked off a stool in a store and prodded with an electric pole as she lay on the floor unconscious. Bernard Lafayette, a SNCC field organizer whose job was to try to register black voters, was clubbed as he stopped on the street to help a white man who said his car needed a push.

My experience in Albany had made me especially conscious of the federal role in keeping the institutions of racism going. A systematic failure to enforce civil rights law had marked every national administration since 1877, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Racism was not southern policy, it was national policy. Selma was an American city.

Still, there was something unreal about Selma. It was as if a Hollywood producer had reconstructed a pre–Civil War Southern town—decaying buildings, muddy streets, little cafes, and a mule drawing a wagonload of cotton down the street. In the midst of that, startlingly, the huge red brick Hotel Albert, modeled after a medieval Venetian palace.

In every such Southern town I visited there seemed to be one black family that was the rock-like center of any freedom movement. In Selma it was the family of Mrs. Amelia Boynton. In her home I spoke to three young local fellows. “Do you know any white man in Selma—just one even—who is sympathetic with your cause?” They thought there might be one Jewish storekeeper who was secretly sympathetic, but knew only one white man who openly helped the movement. This was a thirty-seven-year-old Catholic priest, Father Maurice Ouillet, in charge of the St. Edmonds Mission in Selma, who had received abusive phone calls and warnings he might be killed.

SNCC had declared October 7 as Freedom Day. The idea was to bring hundreds of people to register to vote, hoping that their numbers would decrease fear. And there was much to fear. John Lewis and seven others were still in jail. Sheriff Jim Clark, huge and bullying, had deputized a force that was armed and on the prowl. To build up courage, people gathered in churches night after night before Freedom Day. The churches were packed as people listened to speeches, prayed, sang.

Two nights before Freedom Day, I went to a crowded church meeting to hear Dick Gregory, who had just arrived in Selma; his wife Lillian had been arrested while demonstrating there. Armed deputies ringed the church outside. Three white police officers sat in the audience taking notes, and Gregory was determined to speak about them and to them in a manner unheard of in Selma—to show that it was possible to speak to white people insubordinately.

I traveled in those days with a cheap tape recorder. (I had written to my alma mater, Columbia University, which had an oral history project, suggesting that they take time off from interviewing ex–generals and ex–secretaries of state and send someone south to record the history being made every day by obscure people. One of the nation’s richest universities wrote back saying something like, “An excellent idea. We don’t really have the resources.”) I recorded Gregory’s performance with my little machine.

He spoke for two hours, lashing out at white Southern society with passion and with his extraordinary wit. Never in the history of this area had a black man stood like this on a public platform ridiculing and denouncing white officials to their faces. The crowd loved it and applauded wildly again and again. He spoke of the irony of whites’ maltreatment of black people, whose labor they depended on for their lives. He said he wished that the whole Negro race would disappear overnight—“They would go crazy looking for us!” The crowd roared and applauded.

Then Gregory lowered his voice, suddenly serious. “But it looks like we got to do it the hard way, and stay down here, and educate them.”

After him, Jim Forman spoke. He was the executive director of SNCC, working in the Atlanta office, but moving onto the firing line again and again with an awesome quiet bravery. He was Chicago born, but grew up in Mississippi, spent four years in the Air Force, was a college graduate. Now he set about organizing the people in the church for Freedom Day. “All right, let’s go through the phone book.… You take a baloney sandwich and a glass of cool water and go down there and stay all day.” He pointed to the big sign up on the platform: DO YOU WANT TO BE FREE? He paused. “Who’ll take the letter A?”

The evening ended with the Selma Freedom Chorus, including some small children, some teenagers, and a boy at the piano—the most beautiful singing I had heard since the mass meetings in Albany. (That is something impossible to convey in words—the singing, the ever-present singing—in churches, at staff meetings, everywhere, raising the emotional level, giving people courage, almost always ending with everyone, knowing one another or not, holding hands.)

Then everyone went home, through the doors out into the street, where two cars with white men had been sitting all evening in the darkness outside the church.

Some of us waited that night at Mrs. Boynton’s for James Baldwin to arrive. He was flying into Birmingham to be driven by SNCC people to Selma, coming to observe Freedom Day. While waiting, we sat around in the kitchen and talked. Jim Forman expertly scrambled eggs in a frying pan with one hand, gesturing with the other to make a point.

Baldwin arrived after midnight, his brother David with him. We all sat in the living room and waited for him to say something. He smiled broadly. “You fellows talk. I’m new here. I’m trying to find out what’s happening.”

I made notes on Freedom Day, almost minute by minute, starting at 9:30 in the morning, standing on the street near the Dallas County courthouse as the line of black people grew into the hundreds. The editor of the local newspaper told me that the application process was slow. I calculated that at the rate it was going it would take ten years for blacks to catch up to whites in percentage of registered voters.

By 11:00 A.M. there were two hundred and fifty people in the line, which extended the full length of the block, around the corner, and halfway down that street. Standing guard over these people—including elderly men and women, young mothers carrying babies in their arms—were helmeted men with clubs and guns, members of Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse. The sheriff was there, a six-footer with a big belly, on his green helmet the confederate flag and a gold medallion with an eagle, a gold star on his shirt, epaulets on his shoulders, gun at his hip.

Directly across the street from the county courthouse in Selma was the federal building. On the first floor of that building was the office of the FBI, its windows looking out at the county courthouse. Standing on the street, witnessing everything that happened that day, were four FBI agents and two lawyers from the Justice Department, one white, one black.

By 11:40 A.M. no one could find a black person who had come out of the courthouse who had actually gone through the registration procedure. I was standing with Jim Forman and another SNCC man when Sheriff Clark came over. “All right, clear out of here. You’re blocking the sidewalk.”

A man with sound equipment spoke to James Baldwin, whose eyes looked enormous, fiery. Baldwin waved toward the line of helmeted troopers. “The federal government is not doing what it is supposed to do.”

It was almost noon, the sun was beating down, and Forman was musing about the problem of getting water to the people on line, who had been standing there almost three hours. I looked across the street to the federal building. There on the steps were two SNCC fellows holding signs that faced the registration line. One of them, in overalls and fedora, had a sign saying, “REGISTER TO VOTE.”

I moved across the street to get a better look. As I did so, Sheriff Clark and three helmeted deputies came walking fast across the street. They went past the two Justice Department attorneys and two FBI men, up the steps of the building, and grabbed the two SNCC men. Clark called out, “You’re under arrest for unlawful assembly.” The deputies pulled the two down the steps and pushed them into a police car. A third man at the side entrance to the building, also holding a voter registration sign, was also arrested.

There could hardly be a more clear-cut violation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits interference with the right to vote—to say nothing of the First Amendment’s right to free speech. And this had taken place on the steps of the U.S. government’s building, before the eyes of government men. I turned to the Justice Department man near me. “Is that a federal building?” I asked with some anger. “Yes,” he said, and turned away. The police car with the three SNCC men sped off.

Jim Forman told me that the night before he had wired the Justice Department for federal marshals, sure there would be trouble. The Justice Department had not replied.

Word came that the registrars had stopped registering for the lunch period. People stayed on the line and Forman began planning how to get food to them. A caravan of state troopers had arrived at the courthouse. Their autos were lined up along the curb from one end of the street to the other, searchlights mounted on top. Forty troopers, with blue helmets, clubs, and guns, stationed themselves alongside the registration line. In charge of the troopers was Colonel Al Lingo, the veteran bully of Birmingham. Some of his men were holding electric cattle prods.

At 1:55 P.M. (people had now been on line five hours), Jim Forman and Mrs. Boynton walked over to talk to Sheriff Clark.

Forman said, “Sheriff, we’d like to give these people some food.”

Clark replied, “They will not be molested in any way.”

Forman said, “We don’t want to molest them. We want to give them food and to talk to them about registration.”

Now Clark began shouting. “If you do, you’ll be arrested! They will not be molested in any way and that includes talking to them.”

Forman and Mrs. Boynton went back across the street, to the alley alongside the federal building, where a shopping cart with sandwiches and a keg of water was set up. Newsmen were called over. Forman told them about his wire to the Justice Department and their silence. Mrs. Boynton said, “We’re determined to reach these people on line with food.”

At 2:00 P.M. I looked up at the windows of the county courthouse and saw the faces of county employees jammed up against the glass.

I spoke to the senior Justice Department attorney. “Is there any reason why a representative of the Justice Department can’t go over and talk to the state troopers and say these people are entitled to food and water?”

He seemed agitated by the question. There was a long pause. Then he said, “I won’t do it.” He paused again. “I believe they do have the right to receive food and water. But I won’t do it. It’s no use. Washington won’t stand by me.”

Two SNCC field secretaries stood before the shopping cart and filled their arms with food. One of them was Avery Williams, Alabama born; another was Chico Neblett from Carbondale, Illinois. Both had left college to work for SNCC.

Chico gave his wallet to Forman—a final small acceptance of going to jail. He said to Avery, “Let’s go, man.”

They walked down to the corner and crossed (SNCC people took care not to jaywalk in the South) with all eyes on the street focused on them. A group of us—photographers, newsmen, others—crossed the street at the same time. It was 2:20 P.M.

As Chico and Avery came close to the line, a bulky trooper with cigar and blue helmet (he had been identified to us as Major Smelley) barked at them (Am I being unfair? Is there a kinder verb?). “Move on!” They kept going toward the line of registrants.

The major called out, “Get ’em!” The next thing I saw was Chico Neblett on the ground, troopers all around him. I heard him cry out and saw his body jump convulsively again and again. They were jabbing him and Avery with their cattle prods. Then they lifted them by their arms and legs and threw them into the green arrest truck that stood at the curb.

Now the troopers and deputies turned on the group of us who had followed all this, pushing and shoving us to prevent pictures being taken. There was a young reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser with a camera. They smashed it with a billy club, pinned him against a parked truck, and ripped his shirt, and then a deputy backhanded him across the mouth. This was a military operation and national security demanded secrecy.

The green arrest truck pulled away. Chico and Avery waved. The Justice Department attorney took the name of the photographer who had been hit. James Baldwin and I went into the FBI office to talk to the chief. Baldwin was angry, upset. I asked, “Why didn’t you arrest Sheriff Clark and the others for violating federal law?” (After my Albany experience I could cite the law, Section 242, Title 18 of the U.S. Code: “Whoever, under color of any law … or custom, willfully subjects … any inhabitant … to the deprivation of any rights … secured or protected by the Constitution … shall be fined … or imprisoned.”)

The FBI chief looked at us. “We don’t have the right to make arrests in these circumstances.” It was an absurd statement. Section 3052, Title 18 of the U.S. Administrative Code gives FBI agents the power to make arrests without warrants “for any offense against the United States committed in their presence.” The FBI makes arrests in kidnappings, bank robberies, drug cases, espionage cases. But not in civil rights cases? Then not only were black people second-class citizens, but civil rights law was second-class law.

Four of us sat on the steps of the federal building and talked: James Baldwin, myself, the senior attorney from the Justice Department, and a young black attorney from Detroit who had come to observe Freedom Day. The Detroit attorney said, “Those cops could have massacred all those three hundred Negroes on line, and still nothing would have been done.” The Justice man was defensive. He asked Baldwin what he was working on now. Answer: a play. What was the title? “Blues for Mister Charlie,” Baldwin replied.

At 4:30 P.M. the county courthouse closed its doors. The line was breaking up. The Detroit attorney watched men and women walk slowly away. His voice trembled. “Those people should be given medals.” We made our way back to SNCC headquarters.

(Years later, I was in the House of Representatives office building in Washington. Near the elevator I ran into the lawyer from Detroit. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “The Vietnam War,” I answered. “What about you?” He smiled. “I’ve just been elected to Congress.” This was John Conyers, who in the years to come would be one of the stalwarts for justice and against war, as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.)

A mass meeting was called for 8:00 P.M. at a church. At five minutes of eight the church was packed, every seat taken, people standing along the walls. Father Ouillet and another Catholic priest sat in the audience. A chandelier hung way up in the domed ceiling, a circle of twenty-five bare light bulbs glowing. A seventy-three-year-old man, a veteran of World War I, told me, “Nothing like this ever happened to Selma. Nothing—until SNCC came here.”

Jim Forman told the crowd, “We ought to be happy today, because we did something great.” There was bitterness that unarmed black people of Dallas County had to defend the Constitution themselves, against Jim Clark and his posse, with no help from the United States government. But there was exultation that three hundred and fifty of them had stood on line from morning to evening, without food or water, in full view of the armed men who ruled Dallas County, and had not flinched.

The young people in the chorus were up front, singing. “Oh, that light of fre-ee-dom, I’m gonna let it shine!”

James Baldwin stood at the rostrum, his eyes burning into the crowd. “The sheriff and his deputies … were created by the good white people on the hill—and in Washington—and they’ve created a monster they can’t control.… It’s not an act of God. It is deliberately done, deliberately created by the American Republic.”

The meeting closed as always, with everyone linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome,” youngsters and old people and young women holding their babies, the SNCC people and the Catholic priests. Over on the other side of the church I saw the young black Justice Department attorney, his arms crossed like everyone else, singing.

I wrote up a short account of Freedom Day for the New Republic, which they headed, “Registration in Alabama: Negroes Are Dragged off Federal Property as the FBI Looks On.” The Justice Department was not happy with my piece. The chief of its Civil Rights Division, Burke Marshall, wrote a long letter to the New Republic, saying that “litigation” was the proper remedy for what happened in Selma and that the Justice Department had two voting rights suits pending in Selma. He said there could be “no summary action.” (Marshall chose to ignore, as the FBI chief had done, the arrest powers of FBI agents, which could be invoked “for any offense” committed in their presence.)

A year or so later, Marshall wrote a small book in which he elaborated his defense of federal inaction in such cases as Selma. He talked about the “federal system,” with its division of powers between nation and states. It was an astounding argument, as if the Fourteenth Amendment had not permanently altered that division, giving the federal government enormous power to act when local officials failed to protect constitutional rights. Section 333, Title 10 of the U.S. Code made this power clear.

I received in the mail one day a copy of the University of Chicago Law Review, and in it was a review of Marshall’s book. It was a devastating critique of his reasoning by a law professor named Richard Wasserstrom. I was startled—and pleased. Richard Wasserstrom was the Justice Department lawyer I had met in Selma that day. I learned that he had quit the department after the Selma events, become a dean at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and was now a professor of law and philosophy at the University of California. Around the same time, I heard that the black Justice Department attorney I had met in Selma and who joined in singing “We Shall Overcome” had also left the department.

That was not my last experience in Selma. In early 1965, Selma became a national scandal, and an international embarrassment for the Johnson administration. Demonstrations against racial segregation were met with mass arrests, the clubbing to death of a white Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb, the shooting of a black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and the bloody beating of blacks trying to march across a bridge out of Selma toward the state capital of Montgomery.

Finally, Johnson asked Congress to pass a strong voting rights act, and ordered a federalized Alabama National Guard to protect the planned civil rights walk from Selma to Montgomery. It would be a fifty-mile trek, a triumphant march after all the beatings, all the bloodshed.

I was writing an article for the hundredth-anniversary issue of The Nation, based on the idea of revisiting the South a century after the end of the Civil War, and so I traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, John’s Island, South Carolina, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Then I joined the Selma to Montgomery march for its final eighteen miles to the Alabama capital.

Arriving the night before, I found the marchers settling down just off the main highway. It had rained hard that day, and the field chosen to serve as our camp for the night was a bed of pure mud so deep your shoes went into it up to the ankles.

We were given plastic sheets and sleeping bags. I lay down in the darkness, listened to the hum of portable generators, and watched as people coming off the main highway were checked by two husky “security” men, young Episcopalian priests with turned-around collars who carried walkie-talkies.

The plastic sheet under me was soaked in mud and slime, but the inside of the sleeping bag was dry. Two hundred feet away, in a great arc around the field, were fires lit by soldiers on guard through the night. It was hard to believe—the movement was finally getting the federal protection it had asked for.

I awoke just before dawn, with a half-moon pushing through the clouds. The soldiers’ fires at the perimeter were low now, but still burning. Nearby, sleepers were beginning to awaken.

A line formed for hot oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, coffee. Then everyone gathered to resume the march. A black girl washed her bare feet, then her sneakers, in a stream alongside the road. Near her was a minister, his coat streaked with mud. A black woman without shoes had her feet wrapped in plastic. Andy Young was calling over the main transmitter to Montgomery. “Get us some shoes. We need forty pairs of shoes, all sizes, for women and kids. They’ve been walking barefoot the past twenty-four hours.”

At exactly 7:00 A.M., an Army helicopter fluttered overhead and the march began, down to the main highway and on to Montgomery, with Martin Luther King and Andy Young and some SNCC people in the lead. On both sides of the march, as far forward and back as you could see, there were soldiers.

I was walking next to Eric Weinberger, a legendary pacifist, a veteran of torture in Southern jails, of beatings and cattle prods, who once fasted thirty-one days in jail. As Eric and I walked along, he pointed to the soldiers guarding the march. “Do you agree with that?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m glad they’re there,” I said. I understood his point. He was holding steady to pacifist-anarchist principle: do not use the instruments of the state, even on your behalf; do not use coercion, even against violent racists. But I was not an absolutist on the use of the state if, under popular pressure, it became a force for good. We agreed to disagree.

With the sun shining beautifully overhead, the marchers sang. “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom’s coming and it won’t be long.” Of course it would be long, but did that matter if people were on the move, knowing they were shortening the distance however long it was?

It was seventeen miles to the edge of Montgomery, the original straggling line of three hundred thickening by the hour as thousands joined, whites and blacks who had come from all over the country. There was sunshine most of the way, then three or four bursts of drenching rain. On the porch of a cabin set way back from the road, eight tiny black children stood in a line and waved, an old hobby horse in the front yard.

A red-faced portly Irishman, newly arrived from Dublin, wearing a trench coat, held the hand of a little black boy who walked barefoot next to him. A Greyhound bus rode past with black kids on the way to school. They leaned out the window, shouting, “Freedom!” A one-legged young white man on crutches, a black skullcap over his red hair, marched along quickly with the rest.

A group of white workingmen along the road watched silently. As we reached the outskirts of Montgomery, students poured out of a black high school, lined the streets, and waved and sang as the marchers went by. A jet plane zoomed close overhead and everyone stretched arms to the sky, shouting, “FREEDOM! FREEDOM!”

Once in the city, I left the march. I knew there would be a wonderful gathering at the capitol and a huge crowd, which King and others would address, but I wanted to get home. I made my way to the airport, and ran into Whitney Young, my old Atlanta University colleague, now head of the National Urban League. He was coming off a plane to join the celebration.

Whitney and I went into the airport cafeteria and sat down at a table to have a cup of coffee. We weren’t sure if that would work. And we must have looked odd together, not just because of the difference in race, but because Whitney, tall and handsome as always, was in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie, and I was quite bedraggled, unshaven, my clothes still splattered with mud from the march.

The woman who came to wait on our table looked us over. She was not happy. I saw that on her apron she wore a huge button with the one word that had become the defiant slogan of the segregationists: NEVER! But something had changed in Alabama, because she brought us our coffee. Obviously, although the marchers’ song was not quite true (“Freedom’s coming and it won’t be long”), the claim on the button was now certainly false.

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