I have read several books pertaining to the civil rights movement, including John Blake’s, “Children of the Movement”. However, Charles E. Fager’s book, “Selma 1965: The March That Changed The South” goes more in depth regarding the brutality African Americans specifically faced by members of the racist local population, the city police and state troopers, in Selma, Alabama than any other book I have read thus far. Sheriff Jim Clark’s resentment of African American and Caucasian civil rights activists is well documented in this book. Sheriff Clark regularly beat blacks at the Selma Courthouse who were simply trying to register to vote and had certain members of his posse drive school buses around black marchers to keep reporters from taking pictures and videos of his other officers beating the people hidden from plain view.
During one rally of white supremacists, who assembled to counter a black march in conjunction with caucasian ministers from various other states, yelled to the police nearby, “Get those god-damned niggers!” Sheriff Clark had yelled in response, “and those god-damned white niggers!”.
Martin Luther King, activist James Bevel and other Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders spoke at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church during the course of their campaign to end segregation and to obtain equal voting rights between all races of people, in the face of blantant racism amungst the locals, politicians and law enforcement in Alabama. The church acted as a central meeting location for various “mass meetings” used to inspire people to get involved and to prepare for the logistics of their many marches to get individuals registered at the Selma courthouse and at other locations.
In 1965, a band of marchers left from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church, to head to Montgomery, were brutalized by Sheriff Jim Clark, his officers and several Alabama State Troopers near Edmund Pettus Bridge, a structure named after a former Confederate General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Tear gas was used and many police beat up elderly blacks, who were unable to run away, during the march. Then the police chased some younger and older blacks who ran into nearby stores, and continued to beat them there. Some officers followed twenty six year old Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother Viola and his eighty two year old grandfather Cager Lee and smashed out all the lights in the store. When one trooper hit Viola so hard it made her scream, her son came in to defend her. In response,
“The trooper struck him across the face, and young Jackson went careening into the floor himself. Then a trooper picked him up and slammed him against a cigarette machine while another trooper, a man named Fowler, drew his pistol and calmly shot Jackson point blank in the stomach. Jackson didn’t realize he was shot until a few moments later, because the trooper continued beating him and the others unmercifully. Pulling himself up again from the floor, he ran blindly out the door of the cafe, clutching his stomach, headed back up the street past the church towards the bus station, where his car was parked. But more troopers were waiting outside, and he was struck again and again along the way, until he collapsed bleeding on the sidewalk”.
Eventually someone found the unconscious Jimmie and took him to Perry County Hospital. Even present day Congressman John Lewis, one of the original 13 Freedom bus riders, was present for the events of “Bloody Sunday” and had his skull fractured by policemen.
With all of the savagery committed by law enforcement in Selma, the marchers never made it to Montgomery that day, and the brutality was worse because MLK’s advisers told him not join the group that day. Their logic was for MLK to wait until a couple of attempts were made to make it to Montgomery, then for him join once it appeared a march to Montgomery would succeed. The cautionary nature of the advisers came at a price, as MLK’s presence would of attracted reporters, whose cameras would of compelled the police and state troopers to act tamer during that organized march.
As a result of the brutality from his absence on “Bloody Sunday”, MLK decided to join the marchers during their second and third attempts to Montgomery from Brown Chapel A.M.E. church. The marchers were blocked from marching to Montgomery, by Public Safety Officer Baker, who repeated an order from a judge that they were not permitted to march on Highway 80 towards Montgomery. It was not until Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and a federal judge Johnson issued an order permitting 300 individuals to march on highway 80, that the activists were able to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama.
Before the third attempted March to Montgomery, James Bevel was preaching to black attendees and to out of town white ministers in at the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church when he berated the white preachers, calling them:
“… completely ineffectual. They don’t have enough preachers who believe strongly enough in what they say to love it. You white ministers are all thinking of going home to preach on Sunday. Now you just stay here. It will do your congregations much more good for you to be absent. You just let them sit there and let them think about what’s happening here. You’ve been preaching to them all these years, and they go home, eat a great big dinner, watch TV and go to sleep. So you just stay here and listen, and leave them home alone thinking. … If we communicate, people will stay awake and start moving. It involves more than taking a stand. Everyone is taking a stand these days, and the result is there is a lot of standing around.”
Bevel was correct to assert that those choosing to “stand around” and be apathetic to the grave mistreatment of blacks in America, permitted the mistreatment by the establishment to last longer than it ever should have; while suppressing the weakened voice of the suppressed class of Americas. However, once caucasians joined the movement en masse, it allowed the civil rights movement to finally get the ear of Lyndon B. Johnson, whom MLK spent years trying to persuade, to get federal involvement in Alabama.