This February 1st, 1965 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post leads with the bold (all-caps) headline “DR. KING, 270 MARCHERS ARRESTED.” The sub-headline states “Negro Leader Later Freed; Re-Arrested.” This newspaper tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest and re-arrest in Selma, Alabama after leading a large protest march for the right to vote….
The Selma Voting Rights Campaign officially started on January 2, 1965, when King addressed a mass meeting in Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in defiance of the anti-meeting injunction. The date had been chosen because Sheriff Clark was out of town, and Chief Baker had stated he would not enforce the injunction. Over the following weeks, SCLC and SNCC activists expanded voter registration drives and protests in Selma and the adjacent Black Belt counties.
Preparations for mass registration commenced in early January, and with King out of town fundraising, were largely under the leadership of Diane Nash. On January 15, King called President Johnson and the two agreed to begin a major push for voting rights legislation which would assist in advancing the passage of more anti-poverty legislation. After King returned to Selma, the first big “Freedom Day” of the new campaign occurred on January 18.
According to their respective strategies, Chief Baker’s police were cordial toward demonstrators, but Sheriff Clark refused to let black registrants enter the county courthouse. Clark made no arrests or assaults at this time. However, in an incident that drew national attention, Dr. King was knocked down and kicked by a leader of the National States Rights Party, who was quickly arrested by Chief Baker. Baker also arrested the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, who said he’d come to Selma to “run King out of town”.
Over the next week, blacks persisted in their attempts to register. Sheriff Clark responded by arresting organizers, including Amelia Boynton and Hosea Williams. Eventually 225 registrants were arrested as well at the county courthouse. Their cases were handled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. On January 20, President Johnson gave his inaugural address, but did not mention voting rights.
Up to this point, the overwhelming majority of registrants and marchers were sharecroppers, blue-collar workers and students. On January 22, Frederick Reese, a black schoolteacher who was also DCVL President, finally convinced his colleagues to join the campaign and register en masse. When they refused Sheriff Clark’s orders to disperse at the courthouse, an ugly scene commenced. Clark’s posse beat the teachers away from the door, but they rushed back only to be beaten again. The teachers retreated after three attempts, and marched to a mass meeting where they were celebrated as heroes by the black community.
On January 25, U.S. District Judge Daniel Thomas issued rules requiring that at least 100 people must be permitted to wait at the courthouse without being arrested. After Dr. King led marchers to the courthouse that morning, Jim Clark began to arrest all registrants in excess of 100, and corral the rest. Annie Lee Cooper, a fifty-three-year-old practical nurse who had been part of the Selma movement since 1963, struck Clark after he twisted her arm, and she knocked him to his knees. Four deputies seized Cooper, and photographers captured images of Clark beating her repeatedly with his club. The crowd was inflamed and some wanted to intervene against Clark, but King ordered them back as Cooper was taken away. Although Cooper had violated nonviolent discipline, the movement rallied around her.
James Bevel, speaking at a mass meeting, deplored her actions because “then [the press] don’t talk about the registration.” But when asked about the incident by Jet magazine, Bevel said, “Not everybody who registers is nonviolent; not everybody who registers is supposed to be nonviolent.” The incident between Clark and Cooper was a media sensation, putting the campaign on the front page of The New York Times. When asked if she would do it again, Cooper told Jet, “I try to be nonviolent, but I just can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing all over again if they treat me brutish like they did this time.”
Dr. King decided to make a conscious effort to get arrested, for the benefit of publicity. On February 1, King and Ralph Abernathy refused to cooperate with Chief Baker’s traffic directions on the way to the courthouse, calculating that Baker would arrest them, putting them in the Selma city jail run by Baker’s police, rather than the county jail run by Clark’s deputies. Once processed, King and Abernathy refused to post bond. On the same day, SCLC and SNCC organizers took the campaign outside of Dallas County for the first time; in nearby Perry County 700 students and adults, including James Orange, were arrested.
On the same day, students from Tuskegee Institute, working in cooperation with SNCC, were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in solidarity with the Selma campaign. In New York and Chicago, Friends of SNCC chapters staged sit-ins at federal buildings in support of Selma blacks, and CORE chapters in the North and West also mounted protests. Solidarity pickets began circling in front of the White House late into the night.
After the assault on Dr. King by the white supremacist in January, black nationalist leader Malcolm X had sent an open telegram to George Lincoln Rockwell, stating: “if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm … you and your KKK friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who … believe in asserting our right to self-defense by any means necessary.” Fay Bellamy and Silas Norman attended a talk by Malcolm X to 3,000 students at the Tuskegee Institute, and invited him to address a mass meeting at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to kick off the protests on the morning of February 4.
When Malcolm X arrived, SCLC staff initially wanted to block his talk, but he assured them that he did not intend to undermine their work. During his address, Malcolm X warned the protesters about “house negroes” who, he said, were a hindrance to black liberation. Dr. King later said that he thought this was an attack on him. But Malcolm told Coretta Scott King that he thought to aid the campaign by warning white people what “the alternative” would be if Dr. King failed in Alabama. Bellamy recalled that Malcolm told her he would begin recruiting in Alabama for his Organization of Afro-American Unity later that month (Malcolm was assassinated two weeks later).
That February 4, President Lyndon Johnson made his first public statement in support of the Selma campaign. At midday, Judge Thomas, at the Justice Department’s urging, issued an injunction that suspended Alabama’s current literacy test, ordered Selma to take at least 100 applications per registration day, and guaranteed that all applications received by June 1 would be processed before July. In response to Thomas’ favorable ruling, and in alarm at Malcolm X’s visit, Andrew Young, who was not in charge of the Selma movement, said he would suspend demonstrations. James Bevel, however, continued to ask people to line up at the voter’s registration office as they had been doing, and Dr. King called Young from jail, telling him the demonstrations would continue. They did so the next day, and more than 500 protesters were arrested. On February 5, King bailed himself and Abernathy out of jail. On February 6, the White House announced that it would urge Congress to enact a voting rights bill during the current session, and that the Vice-President and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach would meet with King in the following week. On February 9, King met with Attorney General Katzenbach, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and White House aides before having a brief, seven-minute session with President Johnson. Following the Oval Office visit, King reported that Johnson planned to deliver his message “very soon”.
Throughout that February, King, SCLC staff, and members of Congress met for strategy sessions at the Selma, Alabama home of Richie Jean Jackson. In addition to actions in Selma, marches and other protests in support of voting rights were held in neighboring Perry, Wilcox, Marengo, Greene, and Hale counties. Attempts were made to organize in Lowndes County, but fear of the Klan there was so intense from previous violence and murders that blacks would not support a nonviolent campaign in great number, even after Dr. King made a personal appearance on March 1.
Overall more than 3,000 people were arrested in protests between January 1 and February 7, but blacks achieved fewer than 100 new registered voters. In addition, hundreds of people were injured or blacklisted by employers due to their participation in the campaign. DCLV activists became increasingly wary of SCLC’s protests, preferring to wait and see if Judge Thomas’ ruling of February 4 would make a long-term difference. SCLC was less concerned with Dallas County’s immediate registration figures, and primarily focused on creating a public crisis that would make a voting rights bill the White House’s number one priority. James Bevel and C. T. Vivian both led dramatic nonviolent confrontations at the courthouse in the second week of February. Selma students organized themselves after the SCLC leaders were arrested. King told his staff on February 10 that “to get the bill passed, we need to make a dramatic appeal through Lowndes and other counties because the people of Selma are tired.”
By the end of the month, 300 blacks were registered in Selma, compared to 9500 whites.
On February 18, 1965, C. T. Vivian led a march to the courthouse in Marion, the county seat of neighboring Perry County, to protest the arrest of James Orange. State officials had received orders to target Vivian, and a line of Alabama state troopers waited for the marchers at the Perry County courthouse. Officials had turned off all of the nearby street lights, and state troopers rushed at the protesters, attacking them. Protesters Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother fled the scene to hide in a nearby café. Alabama State Trooper corporal James Bonard Fowler followed Jackson into the café and shot him, saying he thought the protester was trying to get his gun as they grappled. Jackson died eight days later at Selma’s Good Samaritan Hospital, of an infection resulting from the gunshot wound. Jackson was the only male wage-earner of his household, which lived in extreme poverty. Jackson’s father, mother, wife, and children were left with no source of income.
During a public meeting at Zion United Methodist Church in Marion on February 28 after Jackson’s death, emotions were running high. James Bevel, as director of the Selma voting rights movement for SCLC, called for a march from Selma to Montgomery to talk to Governor George Wallace directly about Jackson’s death, and to ask him if he had ordered the State Troopers to turn off the lights and attack the marchers. Bevel strategized that this would focus the anger and pain of the people of Marion and Selma toward a nonviolent goal, as many were so outraged they wanted to retaliate with violence.
The marchers also hoped to bring attention to the continued violations of their Constitutional rights by marching to Montgomery. Dr. King agreed with Bevel’s plan of the march, which they both intended to symbolize a march for full voting rights. They were to ask Governor Wallace to protect black registrants.
SNCC had severe reservations about the march, especially when they heard that King would not be present. They permitted John Lewis to participate, and SNCC provided logistical support, such as the use of its Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines and the services of the Medical Committee on Human Rights, organized by SNCC during the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.
Governor Wallace denounced the march as a threat to public safety; he said that he would take all measures necessary to prevent it from happening. “There will be no march between Selma and Montgomery,” Wallace said on March 6, 1965, citing concern over traffic violations. He ordered Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march”.
On March 7, 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed southeast out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. The march was led by John Lewis of SNCC and the Reverend Hosea Williams of SCLC, followed by Bob Mants of SNCC and Albert Turner of SCLC. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and county posse waiting for them on the other side.
County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.
Televised images of the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries; the day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday” within the black community.
After the march, President Johnson issued an immediate statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated”. He also promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress that week, although it took him until March 15.
SNCC officially joined the Selma campaign, putting aside their qualms about SCLC’s tactics in order to rally for “the fundamental right of protest”. SNCC members independently organized sit-ins in Washington, DC, the following day, occupying the office of Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach until they were dragged away.
The Executive Board of the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution the day after “Bloody Sunday”, warning,
Bevel, King, Nash, and others began organizing a second march to be held on Tuesday, March 9, 1965. They issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join them. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights Movement activities, and shocked by the television images of “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of people responded to SCLC’s call.
To prevent another outbreak of violence, SCLC attempted to gain a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering. Instead of issuing the court order, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson issued a restraining order, prohibiting the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.
Based on past experience, some in SCLC were confident that Judge Johnson would eventually lift the restraining order. They did not want to alienate one of the few southern judges who had displayed sympathy to their cause by violating his injunction. In addition, they did not yet have sufficient infrastructure in place to support the long march, one for which the marchers were ill-equipped. They knew that violating a court order could result in punishment for contempt, even if the order is later reversed. But some movement activists, both local and from around the country, were determined to march on Tuesday to protest both the “Bloody Sunday” violence and the systematic denial of black voting rights in Alabama. Both Hosea Williams and James Forman argued that the march must proceed and by the early morning of the march date, and after much debate, Dr. King had decided to lead people to Montgomery.
Assistant Attorney General John Doar and former Florida governor LeRoy Collins, representing President Lyndon Johnson, went to Selma to meet with King and others at Richie Jean Jackson’s house and privately urged King to postpone the march. The SCLC president told them that his conscience demanded that he proceed, and that many movement supporters, especially in SNCC, would go ahead with the march even if he told them it should be called off. Collins suggested to King that he make a symbolic witness at the bridge, then turn around and lead the marchers back to Selma. King told them that he would try to enact the plan provided that Collins could ensure that law enforcement would not attack them. Collins obtained this guarantee from Sheriff Clark and Al Lingo in exchange for a guarantee that King would follow a precise route drawn up by Clark.
On the morning of March 9, a day that would become known as “Turnaround Tuesday”, Collins handed Dr. King the secretly agreed route. King led about 2,500 marchers out on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and held a short prayer session before turning them around, thereby obeying the court order preventing them from making the full march, and following the agreement made by Collins, Lingo, and Clark. He did not venture across the border into the unincorporated area of the county, even though the police unexpectedly stood aside to let them enter.
As only SCLC leaders had been told in advance of the plan, many marchers felt confusion and consternation, including those who had traveled long distances to participate and oppose police brutality. King asked them to remain in Selma for another march to take place after the injunction was lifted.
That evening, three white Unitarian Universalist ministers in Selma for the march were attacked on the street and beaten with clubs by four KKK members. The worst injured was Reverend James Reebfrom Boston. Fearing that Selma’s public hospital would refuse to treat Reeb, activists took him to Birmingham’s University Hospital, two hours away. Reeb died on Thursday, March 11 at University Hospital, with his wife by his side.
James Reeb’s death provoked mourning throughout the country, and tens of thousands held vigils in his honor. President Johnson called Reeb’s widow and father to express his condolences (he would later invoke Reeb’s memory when he delivered a draft of the Voting Rights Act to Congress).
Blacks in Dallas County and the Black Belt mourned the death of Reeb, as they had earlier mourned the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. But many activists were bitter that the media and national political leaders expressed great concern over the murder of Reeb, a northern white in Selma, but had paid scant attention to that of Jackson, a local African American. SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael argued that “the movement itself is playing into the hands of racism, because what you want as a nation is to be upset when anybody is killed [but] for it to be recognized, a white person must be killed. Well, what are you saying?”
Dr. King’s credibility in the movement was shaken by the secret turnaround agreement. David Garrow notes that King publicly “waffled and dissembled” on how his final decision had been made. On some occasions King would inaccurately claim that “no pre-arranged agreement existed”, but under oath before Judge Johnson, he acknowledged that there had been a “tacit agreement”. Criticism of King by radicals in the movement became increasingly pronounced, with James Forman calling Turnaround Tuesday, “a classic example of trickery against the people”.
James Forman in Montgomery, March 1965
With the second march turned and its organizers awaiting a judicial order to safely proceed, Tuskegee Institute students, led by Gwen Patton and Sammy Younge Jr., decided to open a “Second Front” by marching to the Alabama State Capitol and delivering a petition to Governor Wallace. They were quickly joined by James Forman and much of the SNCC staff from Selma. The SNCC members distrusted King more than ever after the “turnaround”, and were eager to take a separate course. On March 11, SNCC began a series of demonstrations in Montgomery, and put out a national call for others to join them. James Bevel, SCLC’s Selma leader, followed them and discouraged their activities, bringing him and SCLC into conflict with Forman and SNCC. Bevel accused Forman of trying to divert people from the Selma campaign and of abandoning nonviolent discipline. Forman accused Bevel of driving a wedge between the student movement and the local black churches. The argument was resolved only when both were arrested.
On March 15 and 16, SNCC led several hundred demonstrators, including Alabama students, Northern students, and local adults, in protests near the capitol complex. The Montgomery County sheriff’s posse met them on horseback and drove them back, whipping them. Against the objections of James Bevel, some protesters threw bricks and bottles at police. At a mass meeting on the night of the 16th, Forman “whipped the crowd into a frenzy” demanding that the President act to protect demonstrators, and warned, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off.”
The New York Times featured the Montgomery confrontations on the front page the next day. Although Dr. King was concerned by Forman’s violent rhetoric, he joined him in leading a march of 2000 people in Montgomery to the Montgomery County courthouse.
SNCC protesters in Montgomery, March 17, 1965
According to historian Gary May, “City officials, also worried by the violent turn of events … apologized for the assault on SNCC protesters and invited King and Forman to discuss how to handle future protests in the city.” In the negotiations, Montgomery officials agreed to stop using the county posse against protesters, and to issue march permits to blacks for the first time.
Governor Wallace did not negotiate, however. He continued to have state police arrest any demonstrators who ventured onto Alabama State property of the capitol complex.
On March 11, seven Selma solidarity activists sat-in at the East Wing of the White House until arrested. Dozens of other protesters also tried to occupy the White House that weekend but were stopped by guards; they blocked Pennsylvania Avenue instead. On March 12, President Johnson had an unusually belligerent meeting with a group of civil rights advocates including Bishop Paul Moore, Reverend Robert Spike, and SNCC representative H. Rap Brown. Johnson complained that the White House protests were disturbing his family. The activists were unsympathetic and demanded to know why he hadn’t delivered the voting rights bill to Congress yet, or sent federal troops to Alabama to protect the protesters. In this same period, SNCC, CORE, and other groups continued to organize protests in more than eighty cities, actions that included 400 people blocking the entrances and exits of the Los Angeles Federal Building.
President Johnson told the press that he refused to be “blackjacked” into action by unruly “pressure groups”. The next day he arranged a personal meeting with Governor Wallace, urging him to use the Alabama National Guard to protect marchers. He also began preparing the final draft of his voting rights bill.
On March 11, Attorney General Katzenbach announced that the federal government was intending to prosecute local and state officials who were responsible for the attacks on the marchers on March 7. He would use an 1870 civil rights law as the basis for charges.
On March 15, the president convened a joint session of Congress, outlined his new voting rights bill, and demanded that they pass it. In a historic presentation carried nationally on live television, making use of the largest media network, Johnson praised the courage of African-American activists. He called Selma “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom” on a par with the Battle of Appomattox in the American Civil War. Johnson added that his entire Great Society program, not only the voting rights bill, was part of the Civil Rights Movement. He adopted language associated with Dr. King, declaring that “it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” Afterward, King sent a telegram to Johnson congratulating him for his speech, calling it “the most moving eloquent unequivocal and passionate plea for human rights ever made by any president of this nation”. Johnson’s voting rights bill was formally introduced in Congress two days later.
[Background information from Wikipedia]