Chude Pam Parker Allen
Willie B. Wazir Peacock
Additional comments from:
SCLC's "Alabama Project"
SNCC in Selma, 1963-64
SNCC and the Fathers of St. Edmund Mission
SNCC and SCLC in Selma
From Mississippi to Alabama
Demanding the Right to Vote
Malcolm X in Selma
Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson
19 Days in March
Judge Frank Johnson
Tuskegee Students Call For "2nd Front"
SNCC vs SCLC Meeting
Murder of Rev. Reeb
The "Berlin Wall"
The Spirit of the People
Acknowledging the Hard Times
TIAL & SNCC Arrive in Montgomery
Students March to the Capitol
Confrontation At Dexter Church
Treasure on the Table
Students Attacked in Montgomery
The Selma Pickets
The March to Montgomery
Going Back to Mississippi
King and SCLC
(See Selma, Lord, Selma and
March to Montgomery for photos.)
|If you participated in the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call you can add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. If you are not listed, please add your name and information to the Roll Call.|
Bruce: At the end of the Mississippi & MFDP discussion, I said that I believe SCLC's Selma voting-rights campaign grew out of the betrayal of the MFDP in Atlantic City by the Democratic Party and the liberal establishment.
And that as a result of that betrayal, the kind of non-violent tactics used by the [Southern] Movement up to that point changed significantly. Up until Atlantic City, non-violent tactics had been predominantly what I would call a "moral witness" kind of non-violence, an appeal-to-the-conscience-of-the-nation type of non-violence. This type of non-violence was designed to make people aware of what was really going on, and [the assumption was] they would say "We can't have this, this has got to be stopped," and they would put pressure on the politicians, and the politicians would take action.
In a sense, that's what was done during the MFDP challenge to the white-only Mississippi delegation to the party convention in Atlantic City. We did everything that we were supposed to do [according to the Party rules], went through the whole process, risked everything to gather information, try to register, endured the hardships and reprisals, testified before the convention, and ended up stabbed in the back by Johnson, Humphrey, Mondale, & other liberals.
I think that for those of us who were still committed to non-violent tactics that betrayal had a profound effect. (And for a lot of people it ended their commitment to non-violence period, I think.) But for those who were still committed to non-violence as a tactic, it shifted the non-violence from "moral witness" tactics to "create-such-disruption-that-they-are-be-forced-to-do-something" tactics. To what I would call "coercive" non-violence.
To see how this [change in non-violent tactics] connects to Selma, we need to go back to the Birmingham church bombing. Diane Nash and [James] Bevel were very deeply involved in Birmingham. And after the bombing, Diane came up with what she called the "Alabama Project," and she got Bevel to support it. And the project was to have mass disruptive non-violent demonstrations blocking streets, blocking the airport, blocking the railroad stations in Montgomery around issues of voting rights and segregation.
Don: Montgomery or Birmingham?
Bruce: Montgomery. Go to Montgomery and tell Wallace and the [Alabama] legislature, "You're not going to be able to do business in Montgomery until you deal with these issues."
Diane and Bevel brought the plan to King, and as I heard it told I heard all of this, I wasn't there King never said "No," but he never said "Yes" either. As I understand it, the reason he didn't agree to do the Alabama Project was that first of all he was very uncomfortable with this whole concept of disruptive, coercive non-violence as opposed to the moral witness kind that had been used up to then.
Second of all, he knew everybody knew that to do that kind of provocative non-violent direct action in Alabama was going to be hideously dangerous and that people were gonna get killed. And there would be mass arrests for which there might not be any bail, with heavy charges and serious prison terms.
And third, he was the CEO so to speak; of SCLC, and since the NAACP had effectively been banned as an organization in Alabama for the crime of supporting Authrine Lucy's unsuccessful effort to integrate the University of Alabama, Lord knew what would happen to SCLC as an organization if the [mass civil-disobedience] campaign did not succeed. So he did not say "Yes."
But, as I heard it, Diane and Bevel kept pushing it all through late '63, they came back in the Spring of '64, they pushed it again during Freedom Summer, and he kept not saying "Yes." It was never his way to just directly say "No," he said "No" by not saying "Yes."
Until the betrayal of the MFDP challenge, at which point as soon as the election was over and Johnson was re-elected he turned 180 degrees and not only said "Yes we're going to do it," but that pretty much every staff member in SCLC was going to be sent in. All of SCLC's financial resources were going to be committed to it. I don't think people today realize that SCLC bet the farm on Selma. That if it had failed, the organization could have been banned in Alabama, certainly would have been broke, certainly would have been in a world of hurt.
Anyway, by this time the original plan had evolved to concentrate totally on voting rights because the 1964 Civil Rights Act had already passed. So the plan that was put into effect in December of '64 adapted the idea of the MFDP Congressional challenge remember SNCC & MFDP after the challenge in Atlantic City, went to Congress and said, "The Mississippi delegation to Congress was elected fraudulently and should be unseated." So the plan for Selma was to build up the demonstrations first in Selma, expand out to the Blackbelt counties, build a huge non-violent, direct-action force, and then in April, bring that force into Montgomery and shut down Montgomery on the demand that the Alabama legislature had been elected fraudulently and should not be allowed to take office. And there would be a Freedom Vote and Freedom Registration similar to what the MFDP had done in Mississippi. Of course, as it happened, the March to Montgomery intervened and the campaign took that route rather than challenging the legislature in April.
So what I'm saying is that what happened in Selma starting in December of 64, was a direct outgrowth of what happened in Atlantic City in August of 64, just a few months earlier.
Jean: Why Selma?
Bruce: Jim Clark.
Jean: Well he wasn't unusual. I mean, [other] crazies were running around
Don: Yeah, he was [unusual]. He was seen as about the most pathological sheriff in the deep South, and the one that
Jean: More than Bull Conner?
Don: Oh yes, the one that couldn't be controlled by the White Citizen's Council or anybody. He was just, borderline psychotic.
Bruce: Over the border line. Did I ever tell you the story about his kids? One time I was in jail, and he threw me in with this guy who had been a member of Clark's posse before being arrested himself. So after a while, this kid, this little pudgy 12 year old, comes walking down the aisle between the cells and starts to throw stuff at the prisoners. Cigarette butts and wadded up toilet paper. And then he's joined by a little girl who's also corpulent, maybe 10 or 9.
I asked the posse guy, "Who are these kids?"
He told me they were Jim Clark's kids. At night we could hear them, they were living in a cell down the hall, and we could hear them playing and watching television and so on. I asked what's going on? He said "Well, Jim Clark knows that the n*****s, are out to kill his kids and so he keeps them he's raising the kids in the jail and he will not let them out of the jail unless they're escorted by one of his armed deputies at all times." Clark was raising his children in the jail. He was crazy.
Jean: I guess I find your [Bruce's] analysis interesting but strangely I don't find it persuasive in terms of what I saw when I was there. But I'm a firm believe that things move, lead into other things, as you know their basic connections. But that was hard to see while you were down there. The connection between the MFDP challenges, both of them, and the SCLC moving into Selma were hard to see.
Mike: I think what we're hearing is an insider's SCLC account. I mean it's a particular to SCLC account. Because a) SNCC was always interested in power, in political power, going back to '61 and '62. And I don't remember SNCC people talking about moral witness. A handful did, but that was not the dominant [attitude], even for people who were not just tactically non-violent. Maybe John Lewis, Charles Sherrod, a few people like that, but that was not the dominant discourse that we're making a moral witness to appeal to the conscience of the nation, which will get translated into congressional action.
Bruce: I don't disagree that SNCC and for that matter SCLC were interested in power. I know that SNCC went into Mississippi and other places to build political power by organizing the communities. What I'm comparing is two types of non-violent tactics. The focus of the challenge in Atlantic City was to educate people about what was going on in Mississippi in the expectation that when the truth was known they would do the right thing. As contrasted to tactics of non-violent disruption blocking the entrance, moving the vigil inside the convention, and so on. The original "Alabama Project" plan was based on disruptive non-violent tactics, blocking roads and airports, and filling the jails.
[BACKGROUND: In February of 1963 when SNCC workers Bernard and Colia LaFayette first come to Selma, Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark's vicious racism and violent suppression of any effort on the part of Blacks to improve their lives is already legendary. Poor and rural, Selma and Dallas County can not afford large police forces, so Clark recruits a posse of white volunteers many of them members or supporters of racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to repress and destroy the fledgling Movement. The Alabama KKK is strong in the surrounding counties, terrorizing Blacks with cross-burnings, beatings, fire-bombs, and shootings. The local White Citizens Councils is organized to ensure that Black who attempt to register to vote will be fired, evicted, or economically destroyed.
In June of '63, Bernard is brutally beaten by the Klan as part of a simultaneous attempt to assassinate Movement leaders in 3 states. That same night, Medger Evers who Colia Lidell LaFayette had once worked with is murdered in Mississippi.
Against this massive resistance, it is slow going for the LaFayettes and the small number of SNCC workers who come to Selma after them. The few mass meetings and Freedom Days they are able to organize are brutally repressed, and the severe retaliation that follows maintains the climate of terror and fear that pervades the Alabama "Black Belt" counties.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is enacted, Selma judge James Hare issues an illegal injunction prohibiting more than 3 Blacks from gathering together at any one place or time for civil rights activity. His buddy Sheriff Clark eagerly enforces it against any and all who dare to march, hold meetings, or otherwise challenge the established order.
In December of 1964 when SCLC begins sending organizers into Selma, Montgomery, and adjacent counties, no more than 2% of Dallas County's 15,000 eligible Blacks have managed to register. In some of the nearby rural counties such as Lowndes and Wilcox, Blacks far outnumbered whites, but no Blacks at all are registered, while white registration is 110% or higher. More whites can be registered than actually live in the county because when whites die or move away their names are kept on the voter rolls, and every election day they somehow manage to vote for the candidates favored by the entrenched power structure.]
Jean: My understanding is that SNCC was in Selma before SCLC, trying to and I don't know how successfully trying to do some pretty heavy organizing and using Selma as sort of the locus of organizing in the surrounding counties. Although they did not try Lowndes County early on. So I always assumed that SCLC chose Selma because there was some heavy organizing going on anyhow, and had been for I guess a considerable time.
Bruce: Bernard and Colia LaFayette went in there in February of '63 [for SNCC]. Later Bernard went back to school, and then joined the SCLC staff. Prathia Hall came [for SNCC] after the LaFayettes left, and John Love too.
Mike: Silas Norman [of SNCC] was there too.
Jean: Silas was there when I got there.
Wazir: John Love was there, and then Silas Norman came. And then some other SNCC people came.
Don: Before "Bloody Sunday" takes place, you have SNCC functioning in Selma, but not accomplishing a great deal. It's not working. It's a very difficult city. You have enormous resources [against you] and you got Clark, who is just terribly dangerous. And things aren't functioning that well.
Don: Background point, there was another reason for Selma. And I don't really know, I think your points are fascinating Bruce. I don't know the connections between the MFDP and SNCC and SCLC in Selma. But the one other advantage that Selma had, was a very militant white group, the Fathers of St. Edmund Mission.
Bruce: That was Father Ouelett's church?
Don: That's right. It was then banished as a result of the March [to Montgomery] by the Archbishop. But that church had been the mainstay of SNCC when SNCC first arrived. It was the one place that truly was a sanctuary, the one place they could go, they could eat, sleep, and when I was there it was a source of mimeograph machines and telephones and every resource imaginable. And the priests themselves were extremely militant. This was a religious organization that was banished from France [a 100 years earlier] for sedition, and moved to Vermont.
In the 1930s, Pope Pius asked Catholic religious to come down to the South and now I'm going to paraphrase it, "To help the poor coloreds have a better life within segregation." though he didn't say it that way. [The Pope] certainly had no desire to integrate. And I think the Fathers of St. Edmunds were the only ones who agreed to go. So Archbishop Toolen [Archbishop of Alabama] allowed them in by sufferance. They had no right to be there but he allowed them in and they built up their school, built up a hospital
Bruce: That was the St. Jude's hospital?
Don: that's right. And they also came with the sisters of St. Elizabeth. And it was one big, like a U-shaped rectory and nunnery. And little by little, first they were really interested in saving souls and more than that, providing the external care that was needed, no other hospital was available, no real school was available. But then, strange things happened. One brother in the group, went for a haircut into a Black barbershop. And he got arrested, pulled right out of the chair. And he was put in jail.
Bruce: Because he was white?
Don: Well, because he violated the segregation laws. No whites allowed, you know. And so they threw him in jail and of course they quickly bailed him out and there was a multitude of phone calls with the Archbishop and that was the moment they told me, where they started to tilt. It takes the personal experience to see what segregation is like and they didn't do an awful lot about it until SNCC arrived. And SNCC had the need and they had the desire and they then meshed. So, when SCLC came in, not only was there a religious group to meet with, but all the other [white] churches were segregated and hostile. And so it was a perfect blend, and of course the priests and nuns that you see on the bridge were from that parish.
Archbishop Toolen just to jump ahead of it he ordered Father Ouelett, who was the pastor, to not allow any of the religious to participate in the march [to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday] that was seemingly coming. [Ouelett] didn't tell Toolen, but he [disobeyed].
Meanwhile SNCC tried to arrange for the priests and nuns to march in the first rank. And Ouelett refused that also. He said, "I'm not sending them out to be your sacrificial lambs just in to participate." Of course, when the horses came, it didn't matter what rank you were in. (laughter)
And as soon as the [March to Montgomery] was over, Toolen announced that Father Ouelett was banished. He had to leave Alabama immediately. The other fathers and sisters met to leave with him in protest, but he convinced them that their work was so important they should remain. And they did, and kept on what they were doing. But they were a little-known, yet major force in everything that went on in civil rights in Selma. In fact, I heard from SNCC people that if not for the church, it's not likely they would have stayed in Selma [in earlier years]. Because they couldn't make any contacts at all. Ironically the link to the Black community was through the white [Fathers of St. Edmund Mission]. And resources as well. And then of course for SCLC as well.
Mike: So in this period there are no Black Baptists or AME or CME churches or AME Zion churches involved at all in this period that Don's talking about?
Jean: I think so. SNCC people who were there early have always said how difficult Selma was, and how unwelcoming most of the Black churches were. So I had heard about this church [St. Edmunds]. But thanks for the detail, I had no idea.
Bruce: I think that when Bernard first came to Selma in '63 what Don and Jean are saying sounds right. I do know that by the late fall of '64, when SCLC started to move into Selma to do the Alabama Project the big voting rights campaign there were at least three Black churches involved. There was Tabernacle Baptist, which was the first church to hold a Movement meeting and Sheriff Clark surrounded it with deputies and tried to intimidate everyone. Then by the time I came to Selma, both Brown Chapel and 1st Baptist Church farther on down Sylvan Street were also deeply involved. Both were big churches and because of their location they became Movement centers. Those three were the only churches I ever attended any meetings at, but there may have been others supporting the Movement that I didn't know about.
Don: Now I can't make the connection why Dr. King wanted to come here, except Clark and a few other things. But once Dr. King came in, there was tremendous resentment on the part of SNCC, and part of the statement was that King is going to do what he always does, he's going to come in, get everybody involved, get everybody injured, killed, out of work, and then get the publicity and then he'll leave. Leaving SNCC
Hardy: That was the argument, yeah.
Don: On the other hand, King was aware, and I don't think anybody knows this for a fact, but seemingly, Lyndon Johnson had told him that his ability to pass a voting rights act would require something very dramatic.
Bruce: That's not the way I heard it. As the only SCLC person here my understanding is a bit different. My understanding is that after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, President Johnson told King that there had been enough civil rights legislation. No more civil rights legislation could be passed for a couple of years, things had to be quieted down, particularly because it would affect the campaign against Goldwater. Remember the phrase "Cooling off period?" So Johnson told King that he was not going to do any more civil rights acts for the foreseeable future. And the reason King decided to do the Selma campaign was to force Johnson to create such a public pressure and turmoil that Johnson would be forced to act. It was not that Johnson asked him to do it it was in opposition to Johnson.
And I think that this issue of SNCC saying King will do what King always does, which is come in, get the publicity and then leave, is partly true but it is also the fundamental difference between SCLC, King's outlook and SNCC's outlook.
Bruce: SNCC had the community organizing outlook. King's and SCLC's outlook was to get national legislation passed. We needed a national Civil Rights Act, and that was their goal in Birmingham. We needed a national Voting Rights Act, and that was their goal in Selma. Not to organize a permanent community organization in Selma. So King was doing what King normally did. And he was right we did need national legislation and the mass actions in Birmingham and Selma was the only way it was going to happen.
Don: On this part we're not differing.
Bruce: What I'm saying is that I don't think SNCC's antagonism to King coming in to create something that would force through national legislation I don't think that SNCC's fury at that is entirely justified. I think King had a point. I think that without the voting rights act
Jean: But he didn't sit down and say, "look you guys in SNCC, you've been working here for years, and we've got this plan." He didn't do that. To my knowledge, he didn't do that to anybody. One. That's the first thing.
Bruce: My understanding is that Bevel did meet with SNCC people John Love, I was told about the Alabama Project plan in November or December of 1964, but SNCC opposed the plan. They were focusing on the MFDP's Congressional challenge and wanted all efforts put into that. But SCLC did talk to them about it beforehand.
Jean: The second thing is, it's a stretch of my imagination. It would be out of character, wouldn't it, for King to have decided that whether Johnson liked it or not, he was going to push this. I mean, it wouldn't have been out of character for Bevel or Diane. But wouldn't it have been out of character for King?
Bruce: No, I don't agree. I don't think it was out of character for King [to force something on Johnson]. But let me make one caveat. You guys can all talk about SNCC because you were SNCC. But there were two different SCLCs. There was the SCLC of the field workers, people like James Orange, Annelle Ponder, Andrew Marrisett, people like that. And then there was the King, Andy Young, Bevel, Hosea, Blackwell, level. And unlike SNCC, those of us down on the field level, never really knew exactly what was going on in that upper level. I can't really speak about what they did. I can only guess about that level...
Don: There's a famous line of Franklin Roosevelt where he said to some pressure group that came, he said: "Okay, you've convinced me, now make me do it."
Mike: He said it to John L. Lewis.
Don: And that's the implication of what I've been led to believe. That Johnson was saying certainly not until after the election, but after the election, you know he wanted a voting rights act.
Bruce: All I'm saying is that the SCLC field staff were told that this [the Selma campaign] was to force Johnson to do something he did not want to do. That [the Selma campaign] was to force Johnson to pass voting rights legislation that he did not want to do after the Civil Rights Act of '64.
Hardy: Look, there's nothing wrong with presenting a triad, three prong or four prong argument in this debate. Because I think it's exactly what was going on. There's no way I could have known what was going on inside of SCLC, very little I could know what was going on with TIAL, you couldn't know what we were talking about in Mississippi.
Don: As Bruce was saying, he couldn't know what was going on in SCLC [either]. (laughter)
Wazir: MFDP ended up in Atlantic City that was the big climax. After that we rode the buses and whatever mode of transportation back from Atlantic City to Mississippi. And it became a question of, "What now?"
What to do with all these organizers? These organizers had expended their wad, you know. Of getting all of that together from beginning in the Spring of '63 up until this [the challenge at the Democratic convention] was pulled off.
Mike: As to why SNCC had such a big presence in Alabama, it was in part because the people who were from Mississippi felt that it was very hard to have space to do anything in Mississippi [after Freedom Summer] because on the one hand you had this huge number of whites who were remaining, and on the other hand you had Guyot and Aaron Henry coming back even after the defeat [of the MFDP challenge in Atlantic City] saying now we've got to mobilize the vote for Lyndon Johnson. And so there was a push factor, pushing people out, and there was a pull factor, pulling people in to Alabama.
Wazir: Whatever I was doing in the 2nd Congressional District of Mississippi, after the summer project of '64, I just didn't see any place where I could plug in and begin to pull that work back together. Mississippi wasn't exactly happening any more and the only active, really new frontier where people could get back to doing what they had been accustomed to doing that's organizing would be Alabama. Alabama became the most obvious place to go. And the place to first get your footing in Alabama would be Selma because we already had people who had done some ground work there.
[For myself] I thought about what I could do. I went to graduate school at Tuskegee, because they had a strong science base and had the veterinary medicine school and I could take some courses there and get myself back up to speed to perhaps go on and finish medical school.
And lo and behold, the Movement found me. By the time I got there, Jean and all these people were there, she was [faculty] advisor to TIAL (Tuskegee Institute Advancement League) and the next thing I know I was back in the mix. At first I wasn't, but SNCC people kept coming to the campus. And the TIAL group, some of them [would] wise ass, "So you were one of them?" You know I kind of got pulled in. I wasn't going to Alabama to do any organizing, that's what I'm trying to say, but it just ended up happening.
Tuskegee was on the road going to Atlanta. People in Mississippi like [Laurence] Guyot and all of them people, they knew I was at Tuskegee so they would stop by the campus and see me. So the next thing I know I was spending weekends in Selma. And I began to take a few students down there, Sammy Younge, George Parish, Wendell Parish, Simuel Schutz, and all of those other people and I was back in it.
Mike: From what I knew of Mississippi people, when Guyot was in charge of MFDP he was really still moving as the Lyndon Johnson Democratic Party. And the people who didn't want to do that either had to dig deep into very local stuff in their own county, or go to Alabama. Because there wasn't all that much you could do then in Mississippi.
Wazir: Yeah, I'd like to speak to that just a little bit. The truth was out by then that Aaron Henry had been down on LBJ's ranch a week or two before the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Because he immediately come up with this position, that in so many ways kind of denigrated and belittled the party [MFDP] that he had been a part of for not being so political astute, you know. So, the ones who left Mississippi was highly pissed off and felt sold out. If they were going to stay [in Mississippi] then there was going to be a split working against what Guyot and Aaron Henry and so forth had accepted and were going to sell the rest of the leadership of MFDP. That's an important piece to add to this.
Bruce: This was after the election on Johnson in November? So after that, Guyot continued to move the MFDP in the direction of the regular Democratic Party?
Mike: I think all the way into '65, it was my recollection.
Jean: It's pretty much what I've heard.
Wazir: After school was out at Tuskegee [summer of '65, after the Selma to Montgomery March], I went back to Mississippi. And Guyot, Miss Devine, Victoria Gray, and Hazel Palmer and all of them people were still moving with the MFDP. And they had representations with, they had key places back in Southern Mississippi, McComb, the Delta, Greenwood, Greenville, Clarksdale. I didn't know what was happening at the time but there was a plan to bring this thing about, [merging with the regular Democratic Party]
But what I did, I came back in Mississippi, I organized what is called the Community Cultural Revival Program, because what I noticed in the Movement was Black people, churches and all that, had alienated people from their own culture, blues and jazz, everything. And so I found that there was a lot of those people of the era of John Lee Hooker and those kind of people were still around. We knew them guys, we played with them, and before he passed away I thought he should be showcased. That's basically how the Delta Blues Festival got started.
[BACKGROUND: In the first days of January, 1965, SCLC and SNCC workers begin going door-to-door along the unpaved streets of Selma's Black neighborhoods, and the muddy red-dirt lanes of the outlying counties, organizing ward meetings and committees, and encouraging folk to attend the mass meetings at First Baptist and Brown Chapel where Betty Mae Fikes and the other students lead the adults in songs of hope, courage, and defiance.
The Voter Registrar office is only open two days per month. On registration day in mid-January more than 400 Blacks march to the courthouse to try to register. Sheriff Clark forces them into an alley where they are held behind barriers and not allowed to reach the registrar. The next day many return to the courthouse, this time lining up at the front entrance. Clark arrests them. Day after day, increasing numbers of Blacks march to the courthouse to register and Clark jails and harasses them. Even the Black teachers in the segregated school system risk their jobs and careers by marching to the courthouse to register behind Rev. Frederick Reese, the President of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and himself a teacher at Hudson High School.
By the later part of January the daily marches to the courthouse have become too large for Clark and his posse to control, and Governor Wallace sends in an army of state troopers to reinforce Clark's defense of segregation.
On the first day of February the next "official" registration day Dr. King leads 250 men & women towards the courthouse to register. All are arrested. Shouting "Freedom," Black students pour out of the schools to protest, and hundreds of them are arrested along with the adults. With the Selma jails full, the students are taken to "Camp Selma" a state prison farm. Day after day, mass arrests continue as students and adults march and picket. More than 3000 are arrested in the first week of February. And voter-registration marches and mass arrests now begin to occur in the outlying rural counties. Across Alabama, the jails are filling up as prisoners are shunted from place to place to make room for ever more arrestees.]
Wazir: In Selma we were having mass meetings and all that at the churches there, and Dr. King helped us. SCLC was there. Began, from what I can remember, in the late fall of 64 and then right on through. Malcolm X came to the [Tuskegee] Lyceum program to speak
Jean: That was early '65.
Wazir: Then somebody in SNCC wanted him to come on down to Selma. And he was met there, Malcolm was met by [SCLC's] Andrew Young and a few other of Martin's lieutenants, who just said, "Look, we're trying to do a certain thing here and whatever you're going to say your presence even is going to kind of mess up whatever we're doing." They didn't say "mess up," but you know, it's going to interfere. And I wasn't in Selma that weekend, I don't know how they did that, but somehow, Malcolm agreed not to speak there.
Bruce: No, he did speak. He addressed the mass meeting at Brown Chapel. King was still in jail, but he met with Correta King.
Wazir: Malcolm didn't come to be disagreeable. He'd come to cooperate, he'd come to be of any service that helped. That's the gist I got from whoever told me this. And so, he went on and spoke.
[In his book Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South, Charles Fager quotes Malcolm as saying to Mrs. King:"
Mrs. King, will you tell Dr. King ... I want Dr. King to know that I didn't come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King."]
Hardy: I was driving through Birmingham [a couple of weeks later] going somewhere, maybe I was going to Selma, but that's when I heard on the car radio that Malcolm had been killed. It was a Sunday afternoon I believe.
Wazir: Whenever they had the meeting at the Audubon. It's on a Sunday, that's right. On a Sunday.
[BACKGROUND: On the night of February 18, 400 people in Marion, the county seat of rural Perry County, march out of Zion Methodist church to protest the continued denial of voting rights and to demand their constitutional right of free speech. Suddenly all of the street lights go dark and a swarm of state troopers and possemen attack the marchers, beating both demonstrators and reporters with clubs, and shocking them with electric cattle-prods.
The marchers try to retreat back to church but many are cut off and surrounded. When they take shelter in a cafe, the troopers and badge-wearing posse thugs follow them inside, smashing the lights out, and continuing to savagely whip heads. When 27 year old Jimmy Lee Jackson tries to shield his mother and grandfather, a trooper guns him down.
Jimmy Lee is a deacon in his church, and along with his mother and grandfather had been one of the first to try to register to vote. He dies 8 days later, though not before Colonel Al Lingo commander of the Alabama State Troopers serves him with an arrest warrant for "assault" on a police officer.
In 2007 — 42 years later — former Trooper James Fowler is indicted for Jackson's murder. In 2010 he pleads guilty to manslaughter and is sentenced to six months in jail.]
Hardy: In and around that time was when Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed, right?
Wazir: Jimmie was killed shortly after, and I know from that point, there was no going back. Things got hot. In Selma, and in outlying collateral areas of Alabama. Because there was enough organizing to start reaching out into what Bevel and them had talked about, [Selma] became a hub. I don't know whether they was trying to follow a script or not, but it was just natural for it to become the hub.
[In Selma, SNCC] had contact with previous organizers being there from Prathia Hall on up through John Love and then Silas Norman and so on. There were places people could stay. Lots of places, and [we] had a big old house, there was a big house, that would hold a whole lot of people. And that's where we would stay when we came down from Tuskegee on the weekends.
One thing that comes to mind, I don't know what the time frame was between the time that Malcolm came and Jackson got killed. Because we'd be cramming so much activity into each day or week during that time, but I do know things just got to rolling and just one thing after the other, one thing after the other, and we went down to Montgomery, in early Spring.
The next thing you know, SCLC and all were talking about marching to Montgomery already. It seems that the concentration of the organizers in Alabama was not negative, you know. It some how or other, we all worked together.
Don: And at that point SCLC called for something other than organizing the community, but the big marches, demonstrations that would attract the cameras and would bring about that kind of attention that would make up for some of the lag that had been going on. At that point, the question of SNCC joining with SCLC in march #1 ["Bloody Sunday"] was a big topic.
And the whole thing with the priests and all of that is going on at the same time. And then the decision is made to do the 1st march [to Montgomery]. Nobody seriously expected to get past the bridge. That surely Clark would block it, but nobody really believing that he would attack. Especially with all the cameras there. Even Clark. Nobody believed it.
Bruce: Right, everyone expected the marchers would be arrested as had been the case on the previous marches to the Courthouse.
Don: Okay, This is going to be one of [our] great discussions like MFDP was that goes on for months. But you're going to have a lot of trouble writing this one up because you have to break it down into the four units without which nothing makes sense. There's the pre-March 1. There's March 1 [Bloody Sunday]. March 2 [Turn-Around Tuesday]. And March 3 [March to Montgomery]. Unless you talk within each category you can't figure out what happened.
"Bloody Sunday" march in Selma
SNCC's Mississippi staff comes to Selma
3/8 Monday. Injunction against marching to Montgomery
"Turn-Around Tuesday" march in Selma
Tuskegee students call for "2nd Front"
SNCC vs SCLC Meeting
Ministers beaten, Rev. Reeb hospitalized
"Berlin Wall" stops marches in Selma
Tuskegee students & SNCC arrive in Montgomery
Students march on Montgomery Capitol building
Rev. Reeb dies from the beating on Tuesday
"Berlin Wall" vigil continues in Selma
Confrontation At Dexter Church
3/12 Friday. "Berlin Wall" vigil continues in Selma
Boycott pickets in Selma
"Berlin Wall" vigil continues in Selma
"Berlin Wall" vigil continues in Selma
LBJ's "We Shall Overcome" speech calls for Voting Rights bill
Court overturns "Berlin Wall,"
Reeb memorial mass march in Selma
Student march in Montgomery
Student march attacked in Montgomery
Forman's angry speech to mass meeting in Montgomery
Mass march to Montgomery courthouse
Student pickets arrested in Montgomery
Injunction against March to Montgomery lifted.
March to Montgomery organization & preparation
Demonstrations continue in Selma and Montgomery
March to Montgomery organization & preparation
Demonstrations continue in Selma and Montgomery
March to Montgomery organization & preparation
Demonstrations continue in Selma and Montgomery
3/21-3/24 Sunday-Wednesday. The March to Montgomery
March and rally at the Alabama Capitol building
Murder of Viola Liuzzo
[BACKGROUND: At a memorial service for Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, SCLC leader James Bevel calls for a march to Montgomery to bring their protests to the seat of state power. The call is taken up and the decision made.
Governor Wallace declares the march illegal and orders that it be stopped. On Sunday, March 7th, 1965 "Bloody Sunday," the marchers gathering in Brown Chapel know that Wallace will halt the march before they get far, and they prepare as best they can to face the worst arrests or attack. A Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) doctor gives instructions on protecting eyes and lungs against tear gas and MCHR's volunteer medics pack the first-aid kits they will carry on the march.
On a cold, gray Sunday 600 marchers follow Rev. Hosea Williams of SCLC and Chairman John Lewis of SNCC out of Brown Chapel. Immediately behind them march Al Turner, SCLC's Alabama director, and Bob Mants of SNCC. Formed in a disciplined column of twos on the sidewalk, the protesters head towards the Edmund Pettus bridge that spans the Alabama River on the road to Montgomery.
On the other side of the bridge a horde of State Troopers wearing gas masks block the highway, while Sheriffs deputies, and Clark's possemen many on horseback lurk in ambush along Selma's side streets.
As the front of the march comes down off the bridge, the troopers halt the line. John and Hosea kneel to pray, and the troopers attack, charging into the peaceful line of marchers with flailing clubs and drenching them with clouds of choking tear gas.
Local Movement leader Amelia Boynton is viciously clubbed to the ground and knocked unconscious. As the protesters try to retreat, the mounted possemen ride down on them, lashing out with bullwhips and rubber hoses wrapped in barbed-wire. Meanwhile, Selma police block the MCHR ambulances, preventing them from coming to the aid of the injured.
Carrying their wounded with them, the marchers retreat back over the bridge, back to the church with the troopers and posse attacking them all the way; clubbing, whipping, and gassing not just the protesters but Black bystanders as well. John Lewis and more than 50 other wounded are rushed to hospital, many lying bleeding on the corridor floors because the beds are occupied by those who were hurt the worst.]
Wazir: Because of [President] Johnson and [Attorney General] Robert Kennedy talking to [King] that day, that's why he wasn't there in the first place to lead the march. The people had packed their things and had their little bedrolls and everything, ready to march to Montgomery, the first time. And Martin didn't come. John Lewis was in Atlanta. And he says: "Martin will come." John flew over so he could get there and be in solidarity with the Selma people, so that they wouldn't get discouraged.
Chude: I have a question? Suppose I'm a local person. You're organizing me to go on this march [Bloody Sunday]. Do I know that I'm risking my life and my body for a national thing?
Bruce: Yes. Look, Bevel and them talked about creating a national crisis that would bring about a voting, a voting rights act with teeth in it. And they said that in the mass meetings. The MCHR doctor gave the marchers instructions on what to do if they were tear-gassed. And you could not live in Selma without knowing that you were putting your body on the line, your life on the line, to march out against Jim Clark after Wallace had publicly pronounced the march "illegal" and ordered that the cops halt it.
[BACKGROUND: That night, after the Bloody Sunday attack, SCLC calls for another march to Montgomery on Tuesday the 9th, and decides to seek an injunction in Federal court to force Alabama to permit the march. From offices in Selma and Atlanta, the word goes out across the nation, calling on supporters to come to Selma and march on Tuesday across the Edmund Pettus bridge on the road to Montgomery.
The same evening, national and international TV news reports broadcast film of the brutal police assault against peaceful marchers in Selma, and on Monday it is the front-page story around the world. Response is visceral and immediate. Washington SNCC supporters occupy the Attorney General's office demanding that the federal government enforce the constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and the right to vote. After being dragged out of the building by federal police, they stage an around-the-clock mass picket line in front of the White House that day after day grows larger and angrier.
Tens of thousands protest and many are arrested at Federal buildings in Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and hundreds of other cities across America. Similar angry protests occur at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.
And thousands answer Dr. King's call, flooding in to Selma that Sunday night, all day Monday, and throughout Monday night. Movement activists, supporters, ministers, rabbis, nuns, labor leaders, community organizers, entertainers, and ordinary citizens come to Selma to take their stand alongside the Black folk of Alabama. They come to Selma to march on Tuesday, to face the deputies and their whips and clubs and baseball bats, to face the troopers and their tear gas, to face the possemen on their horses. Said a white Methodist Bishop, "We heard the Macedonian call. We heard the call of God from Selma and we came."]
Don: You see, all of this is based upon nobody dreaming what Jim Clark was going to do in front of the television cameras which changed the entire dynamic of civil rights. Once that footage...
Bruce: Well, I think that they [SCLC] went into Selma because they did expect that Clark would do something like that.
Don: Not like that.
Hardy: I think you're right, but we got to place this thing in the social context of what happened. Because I didn't know until the day later they kept showing it [Bloody Sunday] on the news. Because we [SNCC staff in Mississippi] didn't know, we didn't see it. We just heard they'd been beat up. But you got to understand what happened. This was placed on the American people's dinner table on that Sunday afternoon news. And it looked horrendous. Horses and shit riding over people...
Don: Cops on horseback with clubs knocking down priests and nuns.
Hardy: And beating John Lewis in the head and all that kind of stuff.
Don: Nobody cared about John Lewis at that point. (laughter) It was the priests and nuns.
Hardy: But what I'm saying is that created you're right in the sense that that created a kind of national thing around this. That forced people to say, "This is out of control." This would probably be analogous to the firehoses in Birmingham in '63. That's what it would be analogous to. I mean, you just cannot believe this shit.
Jean: From what I experienced well I always thought Selma was an accident to tell you the truth. Not the early organizing, but I just thought the whole Selma events, and then the Selma march, was an accident. I mean nobody knew what would happen if they were allowed to cross the bridge. It was weird from my viewpoint, and I can get into that later. But SNCC did not seem prepared at all to me, and actually really seemed resistant.
And the hard-core field organizers were not happy with James Forman when Forman put out that call to all field staff to come into Alabama. [Later] when the students at Tuskegee got jammed and had to face the horses, and the mob police, and then somebody sends out the call. Now I assumed it was Forman just because when they got there, when the Mississippi staff got to Montgomery, they were truly pissed. They were outraged! Outraged at Forman for pulling them out [of Mississippi] when John [Lewis] had never had any authority to be in the [Bloody Sunday] march in the first place. So he got beat up and now everybody's got to They were not pleased with that.
Hardy: I was a part of that. Here's what happened. We were having a statewide meeting of SNCC field organizers in Jackson [MS]. And it was on the weekend. And oh, about 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, somebody came into the meeting and said, "They've been beat up in Selma."
And then there was a whole discussion about should we go or not. And I would say by 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon, we were heading for Alabama and we wind up not even going back to our projects. We wind up going to Selma. That's how I got to Selma. And it must have been at least 3 or 4 carloads of us or more. And we went to Alabama and we pulled in that night, it took maybe a four-hour drive.
So as a consequence for SNCC I don't know about SCLC, I don't know nothing about it but for SNCC it also begins to create the split. Because Carmichael was pissed. We who drove over to Mississippi [were all pissed]. This is the beginning of the split between the Carmichael faction and John Lewis. Because as I remember, John was not at the meeting of SNCC in Jackson.
Bruce: No he'd been on the march. He was in the hospital.
Hardy: He was in the march, he was in the hospital. And part of that whole discussion [in Jackson] was, "Oh they're doing that shit again, why are we over there, why are we going over there? They're marching, they're going to do the kind of thing of TV coverage, and then they're going to leave." That was the discussion. And then we went anyway. I don't know if we voted or what, but everybody went.
Bruce: Well, that's what Movement people do.
Hardy: And we were just kind of laying around there. We were hanging around Brown Chapel, and our argument was that we were going to go across that bridge again. And there was a big debate, and we led two little marches [from Brown Chapel], we would start off and march, marched about four or five blocks and then they'd call us back, and it was all being negotiated behind the scene, and we were kind of pissed.
We were having marches around the neighborhood. We were marching, we were later marching around Brown Chapel, because the projects are right across the street, and we went through the projects and grabbed some people, we just didn't go to the bridge.
Bruce: Well, you tried and were blocked. There were several times when we tried to march out of the projects, ...
Hardy: You're right...
Bruce: ... and a whole caravan of State Trooper cars, 20 or 30 of them, each filled with Troopers, would come screaming with their sirens to block us off, and they would jump out, and then we'd try to march a different direction.
Hardy: That was the first and only time I think I've seen Martin Luther King in the South when he actually came to Brown Chapel that night.
[BACKGROUND: On Monday morning after Bloody Sunday, SCLC lawyers petition federal judge Frank Johnson for an immediate court order forcing Alabama authorities to permit the march to Montgomery the next day that SCLC has publicly announced. But the Judge refuses to grant immediate relief, instead he orders a hearing for Wednesday the 10th, and issues an injunction against holding the march scheduled for Tuesday the 9th.]
Hardy: Here's what I remember. We have to understand who [Judge] Frank Johnson was. He was a southern liberal.
Don: They bombed his father's home.
Hardy: Yeah, he was the son of a liberal. And he had been supported by groups like the Alabama Democratic Conference, and all those groups. Which was the base, interestingly enough, of E.D. Nixon [in Montgomery] and people like that. So Johnson was the person that all the earlier Black people before King got there went through.
Don: He was the best federal Judge in the entire South on integration. Then he switched over to be the most anti-Black-militant judge in the entire zone, and he's the one that caused Dr. King the enormous crisis of the 2nd march [Turn-Around Tuesday] when he issued an injunction against them which was outrageous even among the racist judges. So the fact that somebody would be good on the segregation line does not mean they have the same feelings when it came to Black militancy. And those are the battles that went on all the way through.
Hardy: There's a whole other set of people that's also playing a role in this thing that we at least ought to mention was there, that we don't know about. I bet you Virginia Durr was involved in that, I bet you Clifford Durr was involved in that, all those people.
Mike: [Judge Johnson] was an Eisenhower appointee wasn't he?
Don: That's where Johnson's power came from, because he had this integrationist label, that everybody trusted him. But as soon as Black militancy came in he just turned around 180 degrees. I'd be happy to tell what he did to Jim Forman, and what he did to me, and a bunch of other people.
Bruce: What was his relationship to [Governor] Wallace?
Don: He was Wallace's greatest enemy. He grew up in Winston County, almost at the tip of North Alabama. Which was a place where there was infertile soil and therefore no use to have slaves. And it refused to secede [from the Union] and they actually fought for the union [in the Civil War].
Judge Johnson's father was elected to the state legislature as the only Republican remember the Republicans were the good guys at that point the only Republican in the state legislature. Johnson worked for the Eisenhower campaign, and then Eisenhower eventually appointed him the federal district judge in Montgomery three weeks before the Montgomery bus boycott began.
So all these things are coming together at the same time. He became the most prominent de-segregationist judge in the United States. He was on the three-judge panel that declared the Montgomery Bus segregation unconstitutional, bringing an end to that. He de-segregated 107 school systems, buses, bus terminals, parks, museums, mental institutions, jails, prisons, airports, libraries, I mean he was the ultimate integration judge. He was on the cover of Time Magazine, he was the great white hope...
Jean: Yeah, he was a liberal.
Don: He was the absolute dream judge in the South. And he paid a price for it. His mother's home was bombed. He and his wife were socially ostracized, they never would invite them to community gatherings. He used to teach Sunday school but nobody would come. He stopped going to church when people would move to a different pew the minute he sat down. His son committed suicide around the enormous harassment that he went through in the school systems. And after his son died, he was quoted, "How would you like to grow up with a father as controversial as Frank Johnson?"
So he had a lot going for him. But he was adamant. He believed in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund approach. He believed you do it lawfully, you do it in stages through the courts. And he was obsessed against anybody that dealt with civil disobedience. Dr. King was really his greatest enemy until SNCC surpassed King in [Johnson]'s mind.
Bruce: By civil disobedience you mean any kind of direct action, not necessarily...
Don: Any breaking of the law. If you broke the law to accomplish an end, it didn't matter to him that the law was illegal, unconstitutional, ...
Bruce: But picketing was against the law. Any kind of direct action was against the law.
Don: And he slapped down anybody who was convicted of it when the various appeals went into the federal system. In fact I reversed him on a number of occasions where he was just blinded to the facts violating the law, that's all that mattered [to Johnson]. And to reverse Johnson was quite a thing, given his reputation. But the Fifth Circuit was far more sophisticated than he was and they knew the difference.
He was totally he thought that Dr. King was a menace to the future of the South becoming an integrated place. That [King] would bring back the torrent of bad feelings, by instead of going slow and very NAACP-style legally through the courts. Remember, Thurgood [Marshall], one of the most courageous people I think I can't imagine going down [to the South] in the 30s and 40s and doing what he did. I just can't imagine it. But he never did anything illegal. And this was the credo [of Judge Johnson].
And so Johnson I know when SNCC came along, and Black Power Johnson was just livid. And that set the framework for all that happened on the Selma march [because it] occurred within his jurisdiction. And all the federal relief has to come from him.
When the Forman cases came on a year and a half later, he still Forman had made a statement attacking Johnson. I asked Johnson to recuse himself. He refused. He said, "There's nothing personal about me, this is about a federal court order." And then he just ignored what we pled and we ended up reversing it. And finally, remember [NAME WITHHELD]?
Jimmy: Do I!
Don: By this time I was barred from the Alabama state courts, but I still had the federal courts. And Attorney [NAME WITHHELD] introduced me the first time I was before Johnson, which you have to do.
Jimmy: [NAME WITHHELD] was the most horrible lawyer I've ever seen.
Don: Most horrible. So we go before Johnson, and [NAME WITHHELD] introduces me and says he's a lawyer and he's admitted in the Fifth Circuit and here's the whole list. And Johnson says happy to have you, welcome you to participate in my court, all over with, perfunctory.
About three weeks later, I get an order to show cause why I should not be cited for contempt or prosecuted or barred from the federal system because of having committed fraud in my representations to Judge Johnson. Of course, I had no idea what they were talking about, nothing had been said as far as I could see, it was just a "hello." (laughing)
I called [NAME WITHHELD] and I say, "Do you know anything about this?" And he wasn't going to tell me. He said, "I've been told not to discuss this."
So we get before Judge Johnson and he says, "I have here a record that I got from Washington DC that says you are not admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court." Now, if I wanted to be admitted, I just send them $5 and I'd be admitted. That's all it takes. (laughing)
But he now claims that I represented to him that I am authorized to practice before the Supreme Court and [NAME WITHHELD] says, "Yeah, that's what I heard, that's what I heard." And on the strength of that, they hold me in contempt, charge me with fraud on a federal court and start potential criminal proceedings against me in Alabama, and where I'm licensed in New York. So I mean they throw the whole bucket and it was Johnson's attempt to get me out of the federal system as well as the state system.
Bruce: Because you were representing SNCC?
Don: That's right. That was a big thing. Kuntsler and Kinoy and Tony Amsterdam, they all wrote this great stuff [for me], and finally we got passed that. But [Johnson] did nothing short of framing me overtly. For him to make a mistake like that, it's too dramatic. The words "U.S. Supreme Court," don't come loosely from your lips. And like I said, anytime I've gone to argue a case at the Supreme Court I send them the $5 and get my certificate. But there was no reason to have one if wasn't arguing a case there. That was Johnson. (laughing)
[BACKGROUND — Judge Johnson's injunction creates a crises for Dr. King. The Black communities of Selma and the surrounding counties are ready to march on Tuesday, and thousands of supporters have come to join them. But Dr. King has never violated a Federal court order, and he fears risking federal support for the national voting rights legislation that is the ultimate goal of the Selma campaign.
Dr. King decides to hold the march. But under pressure from President Johnson and Attorney General Katzenbach, he agrees that when police order the march to halt in compliance with the judge's order, he will obey.
Few of the 3,000 thousand or so marchers who fill the street as they march over the bridge know what to expect. The day before 150 carloads of additional State Troopers practically the entire Alabama force had arrived to reinforce the horde that had attacked the march on Bloody Sunday. Again they block the highway, this time lining both sides of the road to surround the protesters on 3 sides. They order the marchers to halt and return to Brown Chapel. Dr. King leads the protesters in a brief prayer service, and then leads them back to the church. Many of those on the march are angry at King's decision to turn around, others are relieved that there has been no police attack and no one injured.]
Bruce: People call this march, "Turn-Around Tuesday." To distinguish it from "Bloody Sunday."
Don: There's already been a temporary injunction, then there's the hearing, Johnson makes the so-called preliminary injunction no marching allowed in the name of peace and tranquility and King apparently had conversations with one of the federal marshals, which is quoted in a number of places, where he said something about that he would stop at the other side of the bridge and not attempt to go past Clark's troops.
Hardy: And that's where [the marches] were stopped. It didn't stop on the top of the bridge it stopped near the step off of the bridge.
Don: But [King] didn't communicate to anyone [that the march was going to turn around].
Hardy: We didn't know
Jean: That was devastating.
Don: And as a result, all the people marched across the bridge, gearing up for this violent maybe you were going to die situation, but we're willing to sacrifice our lives to do it, not knowing that it was already prearranged...
Hardy: Right. But it wasn't a complete march all the way across that bridge. I was on that one. We marched to about I don't know, within a few feet from the end [of the bridge], but we didn't [completely] cross the bridge.
Bruce: The reason the march stopped where it did, and the reason the Bloody Sunday march was attacked where it was, is that Selma City had police jurisdiction up to the other side of the Alabama River. And as soon as you were one step over the Alabama River you were in Dallas County, which is Jim Clark's territory. And the injunction had something to do with you could march in the city, but you couldn't march on the county highway, and the moment you crossed over the Alabama River you were out of the city, onto the highway, and into Clark's jurisdiction.
Hardy: When we walked over that bridge on that day we were getting ready to go, everybody was getting ready for the fight. We were waiting for the shit to get on. We were ready for the rumble. Somebody walks up to King, they kneel down at the front of the march on the down- slope of the bridge. They kneel down and somebody must have whispered in Martin Luther King's ear and they turned around and said we're going to go back to the church.
Going into a confrontation the second day wouldn't have being nothing new for us in SNCC in Mississippi. It wouldn't have been a big thing. I mean, because we had gone through that shit all along. We would go and get beat, and then we would go back. I mean, I got arrested, drug out, a lot of people got arrested and drug out, and got beat. None of us, including myself, had experience working with King. SCLC wasn't big in Mississippi, as compared to COFO, and they weren't a big part of COFO, but we knew who they were.
The [people were saying], "Let's go, let's go," and [the leadership] were saying, "No." And then we heard about that we weren't going [to continue towards Montgomery]. And people were like just standing around. We were mad, we were all ready to get our ass kicked that afternoon. And we marched back to Brown Chapel. It was not only SNCC people. There were ministers, some Catholic priests, they were mad because they thought they were going to be martyrs for the cause that morning.
Don: And they were facing banishment, all of them.
Jean: Did they know that that march wasn't going to happen?
Wazir: We didn't know
Bruce: People didn't know. And everybody was furious, and the criticism of King and the top SCLC people for not telling people why this decision had been made in advance is valid criticism that I completely agree with. But, later on, after talking with SCLC people I understood why they had made the decision [to turn around]. And I agreed with them, even though at the time I thought it was wrong. Yes, they should have told the people we were going to do that march and turn around and they should have told them why. But the decision itself to turn around was right.
Chude: Tell the people before hand.
Bruce: Yes, before hand. In the church. The reason as it was explained to me and I think it's credible is that from SCLC's point of view, from King's point of view, the whole point of Selma was to get a voting rights act passed and to get it enforced. And they had counted up the votes in the Senate and without Republican support, they could not pass it. And the key to Republican support was Senator Dirksen I forget what state he's from, the Republican senator Dirksen...
Hardy: Illinois, I think.
Bruce: Right, without Dirksen from Illinois and other Republican Senators, the bill could not pass.
[BACKGROUND: The rules of the U.S. Senate allow a senator or a group of senators to talk as long as they want, about anything they want, at any time they want. So long as a senator holds the floor (talks), no votes can be taken. So senators can block any piece of legislation from coming to a vote by simply talking forever. This is known as a "filibuster." Only a "cloture" vote can stop a filibuster. In 1965, it took a two-thirds vote (66) to pass a cloture vote. (In 1975 that number was reduced to 60 votes.)
So at the time of the Selma voting rights campaign, a minority of 35 of the 100 senators can forever block any civil rights legislation simply by voting against cloture of the inevitable Southern filibuster against civil rights for Blacks. This means that a senator does not have to go on record as voting against civil rights to oppose the bill, he can spin his vote against cloture as a vote for "free-speech" and "open debate."
As a practical matter, the math is daunting. There are 16 Southern states that actively discourage or prevent Blacks from registering to vote. With Black voters suppressed in those states, it is political suicide for Southern senators to support civil rights legislation even if they want to and few want to because most have been elected on segregationist platforms. So this "Southern Bloc" has a sure 32 votes against cloture. All they have to do is find THREE additional votes to oppose cloture, and no civil rights bill can pass. Put another way, those in favor of the Voting Rights Bill have to win the support of 66 out of the 68 senators who are not part of the Southern Bloc.
Just nine months before the Selma march, the cloture vote to end the southern filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been so close that California Senator Clair Engle who was dying of a brain tumor had to be carried into the Senate chamber on a stretcher. Unable to speak, he slowly lifted his crippled hand to touch his eye signifying an "aye" vote for cloture. He died shortly thereafter.]
Bruce: SCLC knew they had a majority, in the Senate, but they had to get two-thirds to end the filibuster. And they knew that to get those 66 votes they had to have Republican support particularly Dirksen, a staunch "law & order" Republican which they could not get if they were in a position of violating a federal injunction and being federal law breakers. It was hard enough to get Dirksen to stomach the fact that they had violated local Alabama segregation laws, but they [the Republicans] would balk [if King] violated a federal judge's order.
Don: Particularly this federal judge.
Bruce: Particularly this federal judge. And they knew they could not get a cloture vote to end the filibuster if the southern white Democrats could portray them as lawless violating not just Alabama law, but federal law.
Don: A bona fide law.
Bruce: Second, passing the voting rights act was just the first step because you then had to get it enforced, and the people who would have to enforce the federal voting rights act were the federal judges. And if you piss off the federal judges by slapping them in the face by violating their sacred [injunction] and they're a bunch of arrogant sons of bitches then SCLC was afraid that the voting rights act would just languish like a lot of other laws that were never enforced.
And third, they knew that that injunction [against marching to Montgomery] was going to be lifted that it was a temporary injunction and that they would [eventually] get the permission to march.
Don: Bruce, I have a question for you. What if Johnson had issued a final injunction that [any march to Montgomery] is against public safety and there will be no march, period. What would have happened then?
Bruce: Well, a final order saying you can not march or petition for redress of grievances, [King] might have been willing to violate that, having first gone through and exhausted the process. I don't know, I don't think anyone can know. But I think they would have made the decision from the perspective of what they thought was the best strategy to get the bill passed.
Don: So do you think it is possible that [on Turn-Around-Tuesday] they thought it was better not to defy [the injunction] because they expect [the march] will happen in a week or two, but if it was absolutely not going to happen, it would politically be difficult not to do it?
Bruce: I think so. I think if that Judge Johnson had said there will never, ever be a march to Montgomery, I think the pressure on SCLC leadership to defy that federal injunction would have been unbearable.
Jean: And that pressure would have been in Selma? Where would it have been from?
Bruce: From the people in Selma, and from all the people who had come to Selma. But from everything I've read, SCLC had been assured that there was no chance that Judge Johnson would make that kind of ruling. My understanding is that they had been assured by everybody including representatives speaking on behalf of Judge Johnson that there was no chance that he would flat-out rule against any kind of march. That's where this whole idea of the "done deal" came in, they knew Johnson was going to eventually allow a march. Or they were convinced of it. And that's what they say in the books.
So those were SCLC's reasons for doing turning around the march that Tuesday. But they didn't tell anyone.
Wazir: And that was their mistake
Bruce: Not telling people, that was the mistake.
Don: Another thing that's rather significant is Dr. King then had to face contempt charges before Judge Johnson. The reason there was an injunction against the second march [Turn-Around Tuesday], was that SCLC had asked for an injunction protecting the marchers [and forcing the police to allow the march to Montgomery]. Johnson who would always do anything he could to hurt a civil disobedient or militant movement, turned it around and stopped all activity.
[Because of that] when Dr. King did march [on Tuesday], there was an agreement between him and Justice Dept people that he would march only up to [the end of the bridge] where he stopped. Nonetheless, the next day [Wednesday], Judge Johnson cited him for contempt and ordered him to come to a hearing. The reason Johnson did that is he wanted Dr. King to be forced to go on the record and talk about the arrangement that had been made with the Justice Dept so as to put a real break between [King] and the other movements. And then once King told Johnson what he already knew [about the agreement], then Johnson dismissed the charges and declared him not in contempt.
Jean: This was trying to discredit [King].
Don: Yes, discredit him, and also separate him from SNCC and the other groups, knowing the reaction that did occur would occur because Johnson was politically sophisticated. So Judge Johnson was really the puppeteer who was calling a great deal of the shots while all this was going on.
King & SNCC [had to face Judge Johnson's] enormous reputation. You talked, Bruce, about the problems of violating a federal injunction at a time when you're asking the Congress to pass the voting rights act. Dr. King would have had to violate an injunction a federal injunction of Frank Johnson and that was a bigger problem because then you're really dead if you're going against this guy who is the ultimate "good guy."
And so [Johnson] set this trap for Dr. King by kind of nudging him into "There's a way of getting around this, untill we have some time," and then the moment it happened, citing him for contempt so he'd be forced to go public with the very information that would cause this great split between the movements.
Bruce: Sort of a liberal CoIntelPro.
Don: That's right. That's right. Very well said.
[Email addition from Steven McNichols, August 19, 2007]
As Civil Rights Director for the National Student Association, I accompanied a contingent of staffers from the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches to Selma immediately after Bloody Sunday. We spent the night at a motel in Atlanta before flying to Montgomery and driving to Selma the next day. Part of this group was a Wall Street lawyer who served as legal counsel to the NCC contingent. To our astonishment, he explained that NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. attorney Jack Greenberg had already filed a petition in federal court for an injunction authorizing Dr. King and others to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and that Judge Frank Johnson had restrained all such marches until a hearing could be conducted. (Johnson was known for taking such a deliberate approach.) The attorney observed sadly that he would have filed the petition just before marching onto the bridge instead of the day before so Johnson wouldn't have had time to restrain the march. His analysis depressed everyone in the room.
The next day, in Selma, I waited outside Brown Chapel with hundreds of other volunteers for a decision on whether we would march. Suddenly, Dr. King appeared accompanied by Bob Spike, Director of the Commission on Religion and Race, Jim Farmer, and a few other heavyweights. They had just finished meeting in a private home to decide what to do. Spike told me that King had been under tremendous pressure from the White House to postpone the march, but refused. I happened to be standing right behind King when LeRoy Collins, former Florida governor and head of the Community Reconciliation Service, elbowed his way through the crowd and handed King a piece of paper with a map drawn on it. "If you follow this," Collins said. "I think you'll be all right."
SCLC put all of the celebrities present mostly high ranking church officials in front and we marched through the posse and onto the bridge where a phalanx of Alabama Highway Patrol cars and uniformed officers greeted us. An AHP official announced that we were violating Judge Johnson's order and told us to leave, but he granted us a few minutes to conduct a prayer service, so we all knelt while King prayed aloud. One AHP officer pointed his billy club at a church official and said, "That one's mine." Then, to our complete surprise, King turned us around and led us back to Brown Chapel. I walked off the bridge in a state of shock and disappointment like many others with Jim Forman, Maria Varela, and Casey Hayden who were wryly amused and disappointed, but not really surprised. SCLC staff quickly started spinning this retreat at Brown Chapel because so many marchers including those who had never demonstrated before were upset. (I would say that about half of those present returned home the next day.) We ate dinner at a local Holiday Inn side-by-side with a large number of AHP officers who were also eating there a surreal experience if ever there was one. Jim Farmer said, "I would have marched" while discussing that day's events.
I don't believe there was any kind of understanding between King and the White House. King was between a rock and a hard place. He couldn't kill the march before it even started because of the tremendous pressure that SNCC and those present were focusing on him. (And the whole world was watching them.) But he didn't want to violate Judge Johnson's restraining order especially since Johnson was perhaps the most progressive federal judge in the south. I suspect that King finally resolved this conflict and his own ambivilance by turning the march around at the last possible moment when we were all on the bridge. His great failure in this regard was not making a decision earlier and announcing it at Brown Chapel before we left. Any back-channel communication and agreement may have been conducted by Attorney General Katzenbach and Jack Greenberg, which would explain why Greenberg filed his petition so early. But not between King and the White House.
[BACKGROUND: In February, as the Selma crises grows ever more tense, Tuskegee students organize themselves into the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL), with Jean Wiley as the faculty advisor.]
Bruce: Gwen Patton, who was ...
Wazir: She was President of the Tuskegee student body.
Bruce: She wrote a history of that time (Insurgent Memories), which she sent us recently and it's now posted on the website. And as I recall, what she wrote was that Tuesday night after Turn-Around Tuesday," there was a TIAL meeting and they decided then to go into Montgomery the next day, Wednesday. That there had been earlier TIAL meetings planning to go meet the march when it arrived in Montgomery. But when the Tuesday march turned around is when they decided to go into Montgomery regardless of whether the Selma march had arrived or not. People should read her article, it's a really good.
[Email addition from Gwen Patton:]
Jean: It is, I read it. The first idea [before Bloody Sunday], was to meet the marchers. To meet them, buoy them up and meet them halfway coming in to the city it was all worked out. But we knew on Bloody Sunday, by six o'clock, that we were going to Montgomery [whatever happened in Selma] we did know that.
Wazir: At that time [after Turn-Around Tuesday], the students and us at Tuskegee couldn't take no damn more. There in Tuskegee the general feeling was that [the Selma] people are going to get totally discouraged. The leadership like Martin and all has deserted them and they even got beat up bad on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for nothing. And [King] is sitting in Atlanta contemplating as to whether or not he should march. So we were kind of, kind of pissed.
My feeling as an organizer was knowing how it is after a while you get the momentum of the people in the community built up. But if you keep doing stuff like that [turning the march around], it's going to fizzle out and you will have a hard time SNCC and SCLC combined a hard time getting the people in Selma involved [again]. You got them now, and you got to hold them. That's what I'm saying, that the ante is up. And so I was able to convince Jean and the other people that we needed to march. We needed to get students ready to go, we need to go down there otherwise King wasn't going to ever...
I said [to the TIAL meeting] the night that we were making a final decision that we must go to Montgomery because the way things had fizzled out in Selma, "They're [SCLC] going to get those people hurt up there [in Selma], they drop to their knees and say a prayer and go back..." And it seemed for a minute that there was not going to be a march [to Montgomery], that's what it seemed. And the townspeople [of Selma] they were up in arms, and this cannot be, you can't leave those people hanging like that because they had put everything on the line in Selma.
"We need to do something what should we do?" And I suggested that we need to force this march [to Montgomery from Selma]. Somebody's got to do some marching to Montgomery. That's the way we was feeling about it.
Somebody said: "Well, we should wait to see what Dr. King is going to do. My argument was, "With all due respect for Dr. King," I said, "we got to help him with some pressure, because somebody else is talking to him." And I named LBJ and Robert Kennedy. I said, "We need to go and pressure to make this march happen we need to go [now]." In other words, we and the other students were really highly peeved about that kneel-down. We [had been planning on] going there anyway [to meet the march from Selma], but now we [had] an added reason to go to Montgomery even before they started marching [from Selma], because it looked like it wasn't going to happen.
[Email addition from Gwen Patton:]
Bruce: I think opening up a second front in Montgomery made brilliant strategic sense for all but one of the reasons you said. And for a reason you didn't say which is it forced [Governor] Wallace and Colonel Lingo to split the state troopers who had been totally concentrated every state trooper in Alabama had been concentrated in Selma and now they had to split them between Montgomery and Selma. Which meant that their forces were halved. And it also meant that the jails which had been filling up all over Alabama from Selma and Marion and Wilcox County, now had more people flooding into them from Tuskegee and Alabama State.
The one place where I disagree and I've said this before King always intended to march. I think what the TIAL students did was great, and I know you felt that you needed to do that because he was vacillating, but I don't think that's true. I think that SCLC always intended to march to Montgomery after Bloody Sunday. But King felt he had to wait until the federal injunction against marching was lifted.
Hardy: The key here, I think, is what happened in that Tuesday night meeting between SCLC and SNCC [after the march turned around], over at the funeral home, up there above the funeral home. There was a knock down, drag out fight, and it had to do with strategy. The big [SNCC] muckety-mucks Carmichael, Jim Forman, John's in the hospital all of them were upstairs having this meeting on the 2nd floor with Bevel and Andy Young [of SCLC]. Now I don't know what they were sharing, because I wasn't privileged to being in the room [but] there was a tremendous argument.
Hardy: They met for hours above this funeral home. Part of the argument, I think, might have been the difference between SCLC and SNCC about should we organize the city or should we march? The rest of us were looking for liquor. Most of us was hanging out, we just wind up in Selma, and the shit was going on, and we weren't invited to the meeting upstairs, and we didn't go, and we were hanging out outside. But it was a raucous meeting.
Mike: So do you know whether Bevel was up in that meeting?
Hardy: I don't know for sure.
Mike: I think that's an important piece of information because I think if Bevel had been up there he would have been for doing whatever. I mean he was kind of a crazy man in terms of direct action and stuff. (laughter)
Hardy. I think there's another important point here, there was a different strategy of how we sell things. A key part of SNCC's strategy coming out of Mississippi was that local people had to have the right to march whenever they wanted, to march or do whatever they wanted to do. And a [part of] the discussion around that week was waiting for all those people who were going to come from all over, the TV cameras and all that shit.
But we didn't like it, because our position was we [would be] out there leading a march into Holly Springs [MS] or something, we didn't have no TV, we didn't have nothing. We just had straight-out local folk confronting the power structure. When we marched down the street, we never had a TV camera. The best thing we hoped for was one reporter coming from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Otherwise we got our ass kicked. All right? And we were being asked, we had been drug into something that we didn't want to do in the first place, nobody asked us to come, we went, and somebody called us and told us to go over there. We had been drug into something, so our whole mind set was "Okay, let's get it on." And we marched to the bridge and we didn't go.
So what I'm saying is that if there's something missing in this conversation, we need to know more about what was discussed at the meeting between Andy and Jim Forman and those people the night that the young man was killed. Because there was a shouting match, it was a argument we could hear from downstairs.
And then about 10:00pm somebody got hurt [Rev. Reeb], somebody had been out in the street and I think somebody got beat up or killed or something. That beating gotta be the one thing that I think brought that meeting to an end that particular night. Because people were at each others throats they weren't coming out of the room. We was all sitting around waiting, somebody says, "Hey man, they beat the shit out of some minister." And we went up and told them that this guy had been killed out here. And Jim [Forman] came and said, "We got to go to Montgomery." But I don't think Forman would have just jumped up and said, "Let's go to Montgomery," unless he knew that something else was going on.
The SNCC field organizers out of Mississippi, we were just kind of waiting for "We're here now, what the hell do we do?" We had a set of people who in fact were sitting around to a certain extent grumping and growling and talking to Jim "Hey, man, what the hell is going on. Why the hell are we over here, we're not doing to do this shit." And nobody ever told us anything. And we were just like soldiers that were told get ready to go to Montgomery. And we're going to open up a new front. By Forman. So the idea of what the strategy was, was never shared.
And so I think what happened was that Forman all of a sudden found himself with ...
Jean: An opportunity!
Hardy: An opportunity to use. Forman found himself with an opportunity. If he knew about the TIAL students coming to Montgomery, he had these veterans of a whole summer of fights and wars and conflicts from all over [Mississippi] pissed off because we [had been ordered to Selma] in the first place and then we get there and we were so damned arrogant we said that, "There they go again, they're getting in trouble, they're calling for us to help." That was the big thing we were saying, you know? And we didn't want to go. But between eight cars we all drove to Alabama.
I'm going to tell you something that confuses all of this. [This was] the beginning of the fracture in SNCC between the Carmichael faction and the John Lewis faction. John Lewis had gotten beaten up, and he had been our leader, and he had been beaten up and as I remember, he was still in the hospital, right? [Agreement]
And so the argument was, here you got these people from the field who had been going up against the cops all the time. And we had by this time ingrained in us this whole notion, "That the people have to be able to the march."
And when we get there, there is a high-level political debate going on somewhere, saying they're compromising about the voting right bill. I had never even heard us discuss the voting right bill. There hadn't been any discussion I had been in Mississippi, about this voting right bill. Now it might be true, but it wasn't being discussed.
Wazir: No it wasn't.
Hardy: So when we came in there, that might have been, that argument that night had to have been around the strategy that you [Bruce] were talking about. And I can just see Jim [Forman] screaming and hollering and shit. And I can easily see Jim saying, "Okay, we're going to out-flank them," and he found an opportunity with the students coming to [Montgomery], and he grabbed about ten of us or whoever it was, and said, "Let's go to Montgomery."
Mike: Plus if SNCC went to Montgomery [from Selma], you then would have no fight with the SCLC people, because they're all preoccupied with the march in Selma. So it makes a great deal of sense that you avoid being in a public internal fight with King and the SCLC entourage, and you go to where your natural constituency is, students and young people in Montgomery. Plus you can use it to leverage the people over in Selma that they better do something, or the credit and the leadership is all going to shift over to SNCC.
Betita: I just want to ask, why do you think Jim Forman thought it was time to build a second front? Because it seemed like there was a whole lot of stuff going against that. Do you think he was wrong?
Wazir: I don't know, like Jean said, we didn't even know they [SNCC] were coming. We had no idea that SNCC was going to be connected any kind of way, it was a TIAL decision. We made to go, 1500 strong, to force King, to give him leverage to break with Robert Kennedy and LBJ and say, "I have to march," and he finally did say we have to march.
Bruce: I think the strategic conflict actually started back in the previous October and November, because after the Atlantic City challenge in August, SNCC then developed a strategy of the Congressional Challenge.
Hardy: Right, that's what we worked on.
Bruce: Right, and that was SNCC's focus. SCLC developed the strategy of the Voting Rights Bill, and that was SCLC's focus. And there were arguments between SCLC leaders and SNCC leaders all that November, December, January, because Forman wanted to have SCLC support the Congressional Challenge and I'm sure that SCLC wanted SNCC to support the Voting Rights Bill there were two rival strategies, both focused on Washington in the sense of doing something on the national government, and both with a different strategy. So I'm sure that fed into the fight above the funeral parlor on Turn Around Tuesday.
Hardy: You may be right, because Frank Sirocco was to represent he came to California to talk to Congressman John Maltz, who was the Democratic whip in the United States Congress at the time, and we had all these liberals who were going to support the Congressional Challenge, because that whole fall and that winter all we did in Mississippi was work on the challenges.
Bruce: The testimony ....
Hardy: The testimony, and the witnesses....
Bruce: Maybe that's why you didn't hear anything about the Voting Rights Bill, because you were doing this other strategy.
Wazir: In this negotiation with LBJ, [SCLC] didn't want to share a space at the table with COFO that we still were a part of, and bring them to the Goddamn table when they're making this deal. And that's the cause of this problem.
Bruce: Why do you think they felt that? Why did they not want to have COFO and SNCC at the table when they made the deal?
Wazir: The deal that nobody knew about, that's the Voter Rights [bill], that's what I'm talking about. There were reputable people from SNCC that could have been brought to that table. There was Bob Moses, and there's the Chairman, John Lewis, and Forman, that should have been at the table when that deal was being cut.
That they were going to work on passing a civil rights bill, [President] Johnson that's what I'm talking about. The one that they're [SCLC] is trying to protect so they say the one you said they trying to protect. I think they just didn't want nobody else to have that credit for making that deal with LBJ behind the scenes. The way preachers operate.
And another element is that class thing coming in, the class of preachers, they didn't think enough of anybody that should be... We're talking about a movement, a civil rights movement with other civil rights organizations. They didn't even have the right to go there by themselves and talk to LBJ about a Voting Rights Act without talking to...
Bruce: My understanding is that they did not have a deal on the table with LBJ until after Bloody Sunday.
Bruce: And that in October and November and December, they did meet with SNCC about the voting rights bill strategy, which they saw was in opposition to President Johnson, because LBJ, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had told SCLC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, everybody, that that was enough civil rights bills for a while, that we needed a "cooling off" period and that there would be no civil rights legislation in 1965. So SCLC designed the Selma campaign to put pressure on LBJ. And they met with SNCC, and SNCC said our strategy is the Congressional Challenge. And they fought about it. So SNCC did know about this [the Selma campaign].
Wazir: Well I didn't know about this, all of SNCC didn't know about it.
Bruce: I have read in the books that they say that SCLC met with Worth Long, they met with John Lewis, they met with Forman, and they had arguments over should we do the Congressional strategy or should we do the Voting Rights Bill strategy.
Wazir: But they don't say anything to us about it. You sure don't get much kudos from the SNCC staff if you don't... See, one of the things you have to understand about Jim [Forman], what frustrated Jim all of his life to be working [within SNCC]. You couldn't make a decision for SNCC like that, you couldn't do that, and be successful. You could get some stuff thrown back in your face.
Bruce: Did Forman tell SNCC when they were talking about the Congressional Challenge, did he say that there's this other strategy that's being proposed, and we're disagreeing with it?
Wazir: No, because he couldn't say that because there was a culture of support for the MFDP if MFDP, which was the local people of Mississippi, wanted a Congressional Challenge, that's what had to be, that's SNCC with them, that's what had to be.
Bruce: So was that from Guyot or from Forman to have that Congressional Challenge?
Wazir: It probably wasn't either of them. It probably was from the people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, Miss Andy Devine and Miss Palmer. And a whole host of other women who was strong up in MFDP.
Don: It's a logical extension of the whole...
Jean: Yes, it is. But also this is the first I've ever heard anybody, anybody in those days, thought that they were in competition with each other. They don't look to be in competition to me.
Jean: The Voting Rights Act and the Congressional Challenge.
Bruce: They were in competition for resources and energy and media coverage.
Hardy: What I mean is what you get around Selma, is you get all these points of view coming together, and it gets nasty, it gets confusing, and only the historians can figure out and write it up. But I think it's interesting because what I remember, and what Bruce remembers, and what you remember, which I didn't know nothing about at all, that this all came together which makes me think that that must have been a very long heated argument upstairs, (lots of laughter). I don't know if anything's been written about that meeting.
Wazir: Of course, this is going to bring it out.
[BACKGROUND: On Tuesday evening after the march turned around, Rev. James Reeb and two other white Unitarian ministers who had come to Selma to support the voting-rights campaign are attacked and savagely beaten by a gang of white racists while they are walking towards the SCLC and SNCC offices above the funeral parlor.
Rev. Reeb dies of his injuries a day and a half later.
President Lyndon Johnson sends a message of condolence to Rev. Reeb's wife and provids a jet to bring her to the Birmingham hospital where he is dying. Later the widow and Rev. Reeb's body are flown on Air Force One back to Boston for burial. The media provids extensive coverage of Reeb's death and his memorial services which are attended by dignitaries and thousands of mourners. All of this is in stark contrast to the public and official silence in response to the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson a Black man just a few days earlier.]
Don: And it [the attack on Rev. Reeb] also triggers, eventually the national surge to Selma.
Bruce: Well Bloody Sunday did that. And it was accelerated by the killing of Rev. Reeb.
[BACKGROUND: On Wednesday, Rev. Anderson of Tabernacle Baptist Church the first Black church in Selma to open its doors to the Movement leads hundreds of protesters out of Brown Chapel towards the Courthouse to protest the continued denial of voting rights and the attack on Rev. Reeb who is slowly dying in a Birmingham hospital bed. Police halt the march on Sylvan Street only a few yards from the church, ordering that no more marches of any kind are to be permitted.
When first march is blocked, a second group leaves First Baptist, trying to reach the courthouse by another route, but troopers race to block them in a column of cars with sirens screaming. Soon the area around Brown Chapel and First Baptist is surrounded by patrolling police cruisers making sure that no protesters reach the Courthouse or the downtown shopping district. The geographic heart of the Selma Movement is now surrounded around the clock by armed police.
The cops stretch a rope across Sylvan Street today it's Martin Luther King Street and say that no marchers are permitted beyond that barrier on pain of arrest, beating, or worse. The marchers dub it the "Berlin Wall" and press up against it as a living show of their determination to register to vote and exercise their rights of free speech. Around the clock, 24/7, for six days and six nights, in freezing rain and blazing sun they stand vigil at the "Berlin Wall." Finally, on March 15, a federal judge orders the Selma police to permit them to march to the Courthouse and hold a memorial service for Rev. Reeb.]
Bruce: What I remember happening immediately after Turn-Around Tuesday was the mass meeting in Brown Chapel the next day. And then we went out to march again, but the cops blocked the march and stretched a rope across Sylvan Avenue that people called that the "Berlin Wall." And that starting 24-hour round-the-clock, people pressing up against that rope for days and days and days. Sometimes it was raining remember this is early March, and the rain was cold and we had these sheets of plastic that were really good at keeping the rain off you, except that at random moments it would dump a waterfall down your back as the water had pooled up on the plastic.
But people really were there around the clock 24 hours just, any kind of weather, there was always a crowd pushing up against the cops, like a vigil but not silent. Singing, constantly singing, except when someone felt like making a speech at the cops. And that's the main activity that a lot of the folks flooding into Selma participated in after the Turn-Around Tuesday march.
During this time, between Turn-Around Tuesday and the march that actually went to Montgomery, the state troopers there would be four or five of them in a car and there would be like 15 or 20 cars in a caravan. Several times the SNCC people did this a lot they would say, "Okay we got people lined up against the rope, let's get another group of people to go out in a different direction" [to try to reach downtown with a march]. They would start to march out of the projects and this whole caravan of state trooper cars with sirens going would scream up and down the streets to try and block them. It was like a guerrilla war kind of a thing.
Meanwhile, what SCLC was doing at that time was moving the marches out of Selma to the surrounding counties. They'd already done it in Marion, which was Perry County. I went on one in Wilcox County, the county seat is Camden. And Camden made Selma look like a big city. (laughing)
We had this march there, and Dorothy Cotton was leading it. Who as I said before in another context was really denied her place in history because SCLC tended to put her leadership in a shadow. But she led this march up against the cops, the horses, the tear gas. Then we had to retreat to this little church, sort of down in a swampy area, and people were injured. She led this singing that was just unbelievable. I'll never forget that.
But that kind of action was going on in all of the surrounding counties. Demopolis, which was the big city of Marengo County, they had marches brutally, violently attacked marches. And of course, the Tuskegee students, and Alabama State students, and SNCC folk, were marching in Montgomery at that time. So that everywhere you looked this was just a whole time of ferment and boiling and bubbling up all over the Black Belt of Alabama.
Bruce: Wherever you went [within the Black community in Selma] at that time, people would give you rides. If they saw you were there for the Movement, people with cars would say, "You need a ride anywhere?" The only other place I ever saw spirit like that was in Grenada during the Grenada Movement.
Jean: I was there for some of [the Berlin Wall vigil]. I can't remember very well, though. I just remember the mass meetings in Selma. And since I hadn't been to Mississippi, I was really struck by how frequent they were, how well attended they were, how high the energy was, how much singing there was.
It was really my first time to see any of that in the rural South, so it gave me a sense of what Mississippi must have been like. And it was both thrilling on the one hand, but very foreign to me. I mean it was new. I just remember feeling, this, it was just foreign. Everything from the style of singing, for example. I remember that well, that I hadn't heard this style of singing before ever. But that's a rural southern style, and so if I hadn't been there, I hadn't been there. So it was exciting, and a lot of Tuskegee students went to those mass meetings at the various churches.
Bruce: When you say [the singing] was unique, yeah, it was absolutely unique but I'm not sure it was because it was rural southern. Yes, it was rural southern, but it was rural southern in the midst of a mass uprising in a way that maybe Birmingham and St. Augustine was like that. Maybe Albany, Jackson, a few cities that really had more than just civil rights workers and Movement activists doing stuff. When you really had the whole community involved. What I'm saying is that the singing in Selma and Grenada was different even from the singing in other less embattled rural southern counties.
The excitement, and the understanding, and awareness of the Movement was so high at that period that when organizers wanted to call a special, short-notice, mass meeting, there was always kids I mean down to Cheyenne Webb and Rachel West in age who were like 8 and 9 and older. They were hanging around [Brown Chapel] and the organizers would say, "All right we need to have a mass meeting in an hour," and they would start marching around through the [George Washington Carver] projects singing freedom songs. And people know that was the signal that a special mass meeting was called.
Jean: I remember Brown Chapel but wasn't there another church?
Jimmy: First Baptist [which] was a good-sized church too.
Bruce: And Brown Chapel was a big church too and had this balcony, it was packed, it was always packed.
Jimmy: Standing room only.
Bruce: Standing room only, yeah. It was incredible.
Jean: The other thing that struck me was the sense that in the midst of all of this danger and the terrorism all around us that people I mean local people were having fun. It wasn't that they were unaware that there were nuts in white robes running around with shotguns, but that it was fun. It was the place to be. Why would you be anywhere else? (laughing) And that was all ages, I thought. Which I hadn't expected to see.
Wazir: That was very much the case in the South, especially in Greenwood [MS]. When Sam Block and I arrived there before any of the action started , people were partying hardy, you know. And after things got moving, they never stopped. They would do what they had to do during the day with the Civil Rights Movement and stuff, and then those who wasn't in jail, they partied. They never stopped having a good time. They never were intimidated by night riders and all that kind of stuff to go and do what we what they wanted to do. Neither were Sam and I. We walked where we wanted to go.
But Greenwood was so organized there was not one block that we couldn't have it was like guerrilla war, we could stop anywhere and duck out of sight, go into somebody's house. At every block in the Black neighborhood. So that's one thing that kept us alive 'cause they would see us at night and the cops would think it was an opportunity to get us, speed up and try to turn around. When they turned around we'd be watching out a window somewhere, see them come back to try to find us.
Jimmy: Yeah, but what about people like Greene, George Greene and Freddy Greene? Their house getting blown up all the time.
Wazir: Oh, yeah, that happened, that really kicked off a big when they went directly at, in the open, after a local person, a local person who had standing in the community, like Mr. Greene and his house. He had leadership. He was part of the Elks, the Shriners, and all that kind of stuff. When they did that it was in February of '63 that's when things just started blowing apart, things just crescendoed, and never did stop. And I think something like that happened in Selma too, you know. They went after, they went after somebody trying to stop things, and they went after the wrong person at the wrong time, and things just bloomed.
Chude: I have a question. Which is that you mentioned a couple of you about people being brutalized, people having their homes bombed. Violence from Klansmen, or the white citizens council, or the police, or the sheriffs. People being brutalized. And you say this in one sentence, and then the next sentence or even in the same sentence you're talking about how much energy there is and how high everybody is. Explain that. Explain why it is that there are certain moments in history where repression does not push people down; but somehow sparks even more movement and there is this feeling of hope, and this feeling of this energy surge. Why is it that people being brutalized, doesn't make people give up?
Wazir: One thing I would say, the oppressors, they forget about the human spirit. We as human beings we're trying, we're in desperation, and you compromise some things for it to just go away. But after so many compromises if the one who's oppressing, or repressing down, don't go away, then the human spirit rises to the occasion to throw 'em off their back.
And that's what's happening around the world right now. People, you can't threaten them with any kind of it doesn't matter what kind of destruction, disruptive power you have. We definitely in Mississippi, Greenwood, and all, we were definitely outgunned, outmanned, out-whatever you know. We had one little raggedy vehicle, they had all kinds of vehicles, plus they had the Sovereignty Commission, and the state tax budget that was pouring in. But when it came to time that people had had enough
[Movement leaders] talked about whether or not to do the Freedom Summer project, because people were going to start getting killed. Well, that didn't fly with me and a lot of the SNCC staff who were Mississippians, because people were being killed like mad before it was hitting the press, before the Movement started. So we said, "No, Bob [Moses], less people are getting killed now than before. Much less people are getting killed and thrown in the river."
And so, that's my input here that it was like some of the older people throughout Mississippi would say, "There's nothing left for them to do now but killing, there's nothing left for them to do now but start eating us. And they can't eat us."
Bruce: I want to follow up on that. I think that when people read about the Civil Rights Movement and about the brutality, and people were shot, or were beaten up, or thrown in jail, there's a tendency to forget that in that area, that was not unusual whether you were in the Movement or not.
Jimmy: Yeah, that's true.
Bruce: I remember, probably I had been in Selma like four days or something like that. Brown Chapel was sort of the Movement headquarters. And First Baptist was the place where the Medical Committee for Human Rights had set up their emergency health aid station in the basement. And the food was distributed out of there and so forth. And we went down in the basement one morning and a woman was there with an infant, probably 2 or 3 weeks old. And the baby was deadly sick. And she had been living on a plantation not far from Selma. Ten miles, something like that. She had wanted to take the baby to the doctor because it was dying. But the plantation owner had told her she could not leave the bounds because she would get contaminated with the Movement, and that if she tried to do it he would kill her, and kill the baby.
And so she had had to sneak [off the plantation] carrying the baby. Make it to Selma on foot in the night. Like an escaping slave. She'd gotten there early in the morning. We got the baby to the St. Jude's in Montgomery, and we had to hide her because she knew that this guy would she felt that this guy would probably try and kill her. Now, I mean obviously that wasn't going to happen in the middle of thousands of people in Selma, but that was the norm, you know, of before the Movement came.
I think what happened with what you're asking Chude is that kind of repression could keep people down as long as they had no hope of anything ever changing. But when the Movement came to Greenwood, or when it came to Selma, and people said "Okay, yeah they may beat me, they may kill me, but there is hope of change so I will DARE.." Suddenly that hope kind of it didn't end the fear but it ended the, "I won't do anything because of the fear." You see what I'm saying?
And I think what everybody in Selma was feeling was this enormous upwelling of spirit that came with the hope. And even though the violence was heavy, because of the media, because people were coming from all over the country, because there was this mass activity, because they weren't alone there was hope.
And by not being alone, I mean not alone also in terms of the other [Black folk] in Selma and Dallas County. You know, the first couple of people who went down to register were alone. But when you had 100 or 200 or 300 every day daring the beatings and the arrests just to try and register to vote, they weren't alone any more. So it was the hope I think that countered the violence.
Jean: I'd like to add to what you're both saying. It seems to me there's probably something about defiance that is exhilarating. It's liberating and it's standing up and saying, "This is me, this is where I'm standing now." It's exhilarating to people.
I have always been a people watcher and faces in those mass meetings and in those mass demonstrations were very different, were very animated, were very spirited, were they were almost unrecognizable from a face that you might see on a country road, you know the next day, plowing the field. There was something real energetic about it, and I really do believe it's the hope and it's also the feeling of finding, "I can do this. I can do this."
And it's another aspect of that person that they probably haven't seen before. And of course it helped to have people coming from all parts of the country to help establish that hope, and show people that they weren't alone, and to speed things up. I mean I have no doubt that it would have happened anyway, but it would have taken 40 or 50 more years maybe for Jim Crow and desegregation and all of that to end, I believe.
But so there's the defiance. There's also you reminded me of a phrase that used to amuse me because I never quite understood it until I left the South. But each place you went, whether it was a campus or church, or somebody's house, in Mississippi or Alabama, the phraseology that people always used was, "When the Movement came" to Greenwood. "When the Movement came" to Selma.
"When the Movement came to," Albany, wherever. People were talking about it. And I used to find that very striking. What's behind that? I still don't have it entirely figured it out, but there's a sense that when you ventured off to Mississippi, people were waiting for something. And all they needed was that spark, of that something. And they could not have defined it because it wasn't really known. They didn't know that Thurgood Marshall would have liked to have broken every law in the book, because he didn't break them. But there was a readiness in people that had been considered to be which is why I hate the word "apathetic," the most apathetic and downtrodden people on the planet, you know. And that wasn't the case at all.
But it did need the spark. I think it did need it from the outside. And I think it did need young people. I don't think it could have happened without young people, or it would have happened very, very, very differently, and more slowly. It needed all of that coming together.
Jimmy: I agree with Jean completely there, because the young people made up of a whole segment of the population that was not going to be intimidated. In fact, if things would have gone on, I think they would have become the intimidators. Because they were just as capable of doing to the people that were oppressing, as they were doing. And I know in Lowndes County, in that one demonstration that I participated in down in Fort Deposit, I don't think any of the local people were 30 years old, or maybe even 25 years old, they were all under 25 years old. And they were willing to do anything to get what they wanted.
Jean: Not that they always knew what they wanted, but what they definitely wanted was to stand defiant.
Jimmy: That's right.
Jean: And they would ask you, you know, "Okay, all of this stuff about voter registration, but when are we going to march?" (lots of laughter) "When are we going downtown?"
Don: The Movement is coming, what does the word mean, "moving?" Moving. You know, a wonderful question Chude, and you really put your finger on the issue. I would add I agree with everything that's been said I would add that it was a willingness to die..
Jimmy: That's right.
Don: which I think was a major factor. Who would want to die just to continue the oppression that you've lived under and have your family off the plantation, and having people injured and brutalized, unless there's something there for you, there's something at the end of the rainbow that you can believe in. Once the Movement said there is this possibility in fact the likelihood is that we are going to succeed as unlikely as it seems to look at it, people and I've heard this people have told me this, that they said, "I don't want my children to have the life that I had. I don't want my grandchildren to have the life that I had. I'm ready to die so that they can have a good life." Once you're ready to die, you're invincible.
Bruce: As we are seeing in Iraq.
Don: That's right. Of course people have fear. I know every time I was in anything that resembled a shooting or a beating, I always had a mantra, "I'm getting on a plane tomorrow and going back to New York." (lots of laughter). But then by the next morning, I had overcome it.
Chude: I want to go back to my original question. I came into the southern Movement late. And in terms of the Mississippi Summer Project with a lot of people. And so when I look at the question, what I see also is that when a movement has started, there is a spirit, to use Wazir's word, and an energy that is so captivating and exhilarating.
I used to use the term, and would still use the term, that I felt more "human" than I have ever felt. That the people around me were this is the kind of human beings we should all be. That somehow we had risen to a new level of humanity and that was worth dying for.
You know, if you only got to live 'till you were 23 instead of 70, but you got to live in this kind of environment with people who were so selfless, and were so courageous, and were so expansive, if you could live just even for a small amount in that kind of environment, it was worth it.
And I think that's an aspect of it too that when a movement starts, and Jean it's what I think what you were talking about in people's faces and stuff. People become alive in a different way. And then death isn't the question. Being alive is the question.
And what's important to me about it in terms of my future work as a political person, is that when that's missing, when whatever that is about being part of a movement in the moment is missing, and it's only the goal, that's when people start to fall away, if the wins aren't easy. Because even if you talk about hope, nobody had the sense [back then] that it was gonna be easy. [They knew] they might not even be the ones that reap the benefits. When we were in the middle of it, we didn't expect rewards as it were. I mean it in the sense that we didn't expect that necessarily our lives would be better, because the fact is most of us didn't think we would live. At least at certain points, we didn't think we would live. But it was okay, because we were so alive.
It just seems to me something about movement takes you to a different place. And I've always remembered Wazir I mentioned this before seeing that one film about the song "We Shall Overcome," where they were interviewing you about singing; and you saying about the singing in the South that it made you bigger, and it made you large enough that the fear was there but you were no longer your fear, and you were something bigger and you were doing it with others. That sense of collectivity that we weren't doing it just as individuals, we were doing it as part of this thing that we called the Movement.
Wazir: The Movement is like we had each other. We had within a short period of time tried and tested friendships, because you were going to be tried and tested by the situation. And you knew that you had somebody there at our back. You weren't alone any more. We sang a song, "We were not alone, we were not alone," we had that deep feeling of not being alone.
Don: And something else. We weren't part of "a" movement, we were part of THE Movement.
Wazir: THE Movement.
Don: So everything was us, and so it was the largest it was long before the other movements took off. So that incredible euphoria of knowing that everything was what we were part of. Every accomplishment was something we did, every tragedy was something that we felt. Very strong feeling.
Phil: I want to quibble with a part of that. And also the language you use. I think that is totally right, pretty much to explain us. I mean, that's how I felt. Kind of how you said that.
But I guess I don't feel that's how everybody felt who we organized. I mean there was a broader people who were on the periphery, who were in and out, and I think what they felt and somebody used the language a few minutes ago that this was the place to be. And for a lot of reasons. It was exciting, you could be defiant, you could be your better self, all of those things in combination or some of them individually depending on who the people were, what their circumstances were.
I think the people who were like us were looking for what we called the "New Jerusalem," or what was that slogan in SNCC a little sexist I thought "A Band of Brothers in a Circle of Trust." I felt that, and I agree with that. But I don't think that everybody who was part of our broader movement felt that same way.
But there was the attraction. And because when we're changing things, we were setting up all new constellations of things to think about, to do. I mean the Freedom Schools were the perfect example of that. The people [were] hearing things, reading about things, hearing about history that they'd never heard about before. And so in some ways, we were great people to be around, we were exciting, what we were doing was bringing all kinds of new things into their lives. And so, it was THE place to be, it was where things were happening. But it's not quite exactly the definition which I think we had which is not to say it was wrong I'm just saying there was a difference to it, that's what I'm saying.
Wazir: I can explain the action things that we would do. For example, I might be in Greenwood, and a bunch of us get together and say: "Let's go over and see Jimmy and Sammy and see what those Parish boys are doing." Let's go. And it could be in the middle of the night. We go over and see about each other. It was that kind of thing, and if you can put that into words, that's what you're talking about.
Don: You take a long drive, you don't tell anybody you're coming, you stop off wherever it is, you know you're welcome. It's your family.
Wazir: That's right. Exactly.
Bruce: I think it's true that there were differences between the emotions and the feelings and the attitudes of those of us who were "Movement people," full-time Movement people as opposed to local people in the community who were active in the Movement in their area. And there were some differences.
But I know that when a community began to move, in the way that Selma moved, that Grenada moved, that I imagine Birmingham, Jackson, St. Augustine, Albany, etc. moved, then I think that for the people in the community it was very much what Chude was saying. That, it wasn't just that it was exciting and it was the place to be. There was a pride. I know that in Selma and in Grenada, which were the two big movements I was part of, there was enormous self-pride. "Look at what we have done. We have stood up. We have defied Jim Clark. We have defied Sugs Ingram ..."
Jimmy: Al Lingo.
Bruce: Al Lingo, Bull Connor. Hoss Munce. But we have not only defied those individuals, we have defied this entire system that has held us down for our entire life. And I believe that the non-violent tactics of the Movement really contributed to that feeling, because we had defied and confronted the system and defeated it in a way that did not destroy our sense of humanity and feeling human, which I think violence would have. Having been in Asia and seeing what war does to people and having worked with Vietnam vets it was very different from what war does to people. Yet there was some of the same exhilaration of courage and danger and excitement that war brings.
And I want to bring it around to the songs. Because I think what was so unique about the Civil Rights Movement particularly in the South was the role of the songs. People today ask: "How could you sing 'we love everybody.' How could you sing 'we love state troopers.' What, were you crazy?" (laughter). And they don't realize that even that song, "I love George Wallace," was sung at the utmost of defiance, the utmost of anger and rage. And yet at the same time, the songs not only expressed anger and rage and defiance, but they were in a way a pledge of solidarity and unity between us.
When Wazir says we would sing "We are not alone, hand in hand together, we are not afraid, we'll never turn back, before I be a slave I'll be buried in my grave." If you sing your ideology, it is so much more powerful than if you write it in position papers. (laughter)
And we shared that ideology and that solidarity through the songs. As civil rights workers, but also the community was part of it. And I think that had an enormous effect on why the Civil Rights Movement in the South had a quality that I have never seen before you know I was involved in the student movement, I was thinking as we were driving here through the rain, through the Berkeley streets, I was saying, gee we used to have some great riots in these streets. This is where the People's Park riot we had some good ones. (laughter) But it never had that feeling that we had in the South. And Don and Jimmy are pointing at each other, they were there too.
Don: Shot. [Both Don and Jimmy were wounded during the People's Park uprising.]
Bruce: And it was exciting, but it was not like Selma or Grenada. It just wasn't. And I think the songs had a lot to do with it.
Chude: Miriam you haven't spoken.
Miriam: I wasn't in Alabama. Well, I'll talk a little bit. Everybody is very positive. I remember my experience in SNCC as being painful and hard. And when Doug McAdam wrote his book (Freedom Summer), he put his thumb right on a lot of issues. I never had a sense that we were going to win. I left Columbus, Mississippi in February of '65 totally despondent that after all we'd done I couldn't see that we'd gotten anywhere. And so for me personally, most of it was very discouraging. And I didn't know, the memory's not so good ...
Phil: My sense is that probably early '65 was a tough situation.
Bruce: Because of the betrayal in Atlantic City?
Phil: Atlantic City, and also the failure of the challenge in January in Congress. And so, it was like what to do?
Jean: And within two months SNCC had decided what to do. They had gone into Alabama.
Phil: Right, they left. (laughter)
Wazir: I would agree with Miriam how that would have been a very, very depressing time for you or any SNCC person working in the state [of Mississippi]. Because a lot of work had been done to bring it to the point it had brought to for the challenge in 1964, and then for the challenge in Congress, and all of these slap-downs. And other information being leaked out about some of the people who were involved in our leadership who had made deals for us that we didn't even know about. It was a very depressing time.
[After Selma and the March to Montgomery] I was still in school at Tuskegee. And I think 700 or some people had been ordered on the [voter registration] books by the federal courts in Sunflower County [MS]. And [in March or April, during spring break] we went over, we came to Mississippi to help Ms. Hamer to get all those people over to the county seat in Indianola, to get 'em registered because they'd been ordered on the books.
We came over and we did that. And from that point I was encouraged to come after school was out, to come back to Mississippi that summer and that's when I really got a taste of what the feeling among the SNCC people was kind of just people just going through the motion of doing things. Just going through the motion. That was a hard time.
Jimmy: But see Alabama was different.
Wazir: Yeah, I know. And it's like Jean said, SNCC peoples going over to Alabama.
Don: In response to Miriam, I was getting not an ulcer, I guess an ulcer syndrome, or I was getting pre-ulcer feelings and so I went to our MD, Dr. Pouissant going to a psychiatrist for a stomach ache. He had given me antacids and whatever. And he said, "You know, this isn't what the problem is." He says, "You do work as a lawyer. Do you ever win?" I says, "Not often." He says, "How about as a SNCC worker, ever win?" I says, "Not often." He says, "You don't suppose that might have some effect?" (lots of loud laughter).
Bruce: Miriam, I'd like to ask you, you were in Albany right, and Americus and around there?
Miriam: Yes. I didn't go to Americus, but I talked to people who went up there during the day.
Bruce: Did you also find that to be ...
Miriam: I'm sorry to admit that yes, because I was in Albany after. Albany wasn't successful.
Jimmy: And then King left and went to Alabama.
Miriam: I think King had come and gone. I always think of Albany as a baptism by fire for me and the other civil rights workers who came down that summer (1963). We came well-fed, well-educated, middle-class and joined a movement of very burned-out people. I think the Movement leaders made sure they got their point across about what we were facing by deliberately setting up a demonstration. They knew that meant we would all go to jail. It was designed to be a baptism by fire. It was awful. Two weeks into the summer I was in jail and on a hunger strike for a week. I was then found guilty of vagrancy and told by the judge to leave town or I would be be jailed for two months. It was not pleasant.
Chude: Well now that's a situation where when you went to jail, the white workers were separated from the Black civil rights workers. So those of you from the North who were white were all of a sudden in jail but not with any experienced people, pretty much?
Miriam: Well, Joanie Rabinowitz and Faith Holsaert were around for a while. And that's why we did the hunger strike, because we thought we'd get out faster. And it worked for us, but it didn't work for the white guys. They were on a hunger strike for three weeks, and nobody was paying any attention to them.
Phil: These are interesting questions. I agree with parts of what everybody said. And I'm glad Bruce said what he did earlier [about today in Iraq], because I think there are times when violence and fear can stop action. The other question the flip side is why do things start at certain times, and why are long periods of time when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. There's always little things happening, going on, but there's certain times when things erupt. The defiance stands out, but the fear is constant, the threat of death particularly if you're moving against something oppressive is pretty much always there.
And so as a person who's been an organizer and sometimes in my better moments, I still try to do that is what creates the hope? What creates the spark? And I think youth are a very important part of it, which is why I agree with what Jean said, and we see that all over the world. We saw that in South Africa, with the young people after Soweto [uprising], and so on. We see it in Palestine, with the Intifada.
So young people will definitely move sometimes not always in the greatest ways. I mean, we've also seen that. In Kampuchea [Cambodia], it was the young people who committed a lot of the genocide. And it's like young people without getting real training with guns are very, very dangerous. We've seen that constantly around the world.
I mean there's a lot of defiant people. I think the question is, "What is defiance?" I remember growing up in Cleveland and all these bad niggers who were in jail, or dead. They said, "Oh, yeah, John John he's a bad nigger, he got shot and killed, stabbed last Saturday night." And so he wasn't a model for anybody. But sometimes there's a defiance, that people will even if they do get killed they become a martyr, or become a model, or a mobilizing event like Emmet Till, or something like that.
So to me it's a lot of complicated things trying to figure out what is the thing that starts the spark. I guess the part of it that I constantly have problems with try to figure out, I mean is that the spark has to come from outside. And I think my history is that usually it does come without, but I try to think, are there some examples of where that's not true, wanting it to be true that the spark can come from inside also.
Jean: Well, in the sit-ins, maybe from inside.
Chude: Right, because historically it's made out that [the first sit-in students] had studied Gandhi. But the [Greensboro Four] hadn't studied Gandhi. They didn't do it because of Gandhi, they did it from the inside. So it can be from the inside.
Phil: But I mean this could be a long debate here but I think that the folks who started the sit-ins in North Carolina, they were external to the actual situation of North Carolina in terms of the being college students. New ideas, that's what I mean.
Bruce: The Montgomery, Tallahassee, and Baton Rouge bus boycotts were all internal.
Don: But Rosa Parks got hers from outside.
Chude: The Highlander Institute.
Bruce: Well, then we have to define what we mean by "outside."
Jean: Since there was all that motion in Montgomery long before her case went on. They were looking for somebody to challenge that bus situation.
Wazir: The person who did the first sit-down was a young lady [Claudette Colvin]. But she had an illegitimate child, so Mr. Kennedy and the other locals didn't want to use her because the southern whites always liked to talk about Blacks in the South with all of these illegitimate babies. So they didn't want to use her [as the test case to challenge bus segregation].
Jimmy: It was a question of "character."
Wazir: Yeah, a question of "character." Yeah. So they had to find somebody else.
Chude: Actually, "question of character" is a very value judgment thing.
Don: It's the public relations aspect of a political movement.
Chude: Okay, you have to say it that way because we're not saying there's anything wrong with a woman having a child...
Everyone: "No, nobody was ..." (laughter)
Chude: But there were people in the community that would have said that.
Jean: They called it "impeccable character." Somebody of quote "impeccable character," whose case they could take to the supreme court if they had to. And there were several other people that had had the problem, and they decided just wait, wait a little longer.
[Email addition from Gwen Patton:]
Moreover, here in Montgomery at this present time students, Black and white, at Claudette's Booker T. Washington H.S. have met Claudette and have written essays about her and other grassroots s/heroes. We are working very closely with young people. They are not only continuing the legacy in their own way, but they are taking up the challenge. I think Katrina has moved them to another level of militancy to see such raw racism slapping them in their faces.
Bruce: Just as an aside, on this thing about "respectability." If you look at the pictures, in the early years of the sit-ins, '60, '61, '62, you see the people sitting in or picketing are all wearing suits, and dresses & stockings. But in later years in line with the SNCC ethos of organizing and being part of the most oppressed, the sharecroppers and maids you see people dressed in jeans and overalls.
Bruce: But to get back to the point, there were I think movements that started without an organizer, without a SNCC or an SCLC or a CORE organizer coming into town. St. Augustine, for example. But of course, that was influenced by "outside" because they'd been watching television and reading the newspapers. So I don't think it's possible to ever have a situation where there was absolutely no outside influence because we're all part of a connected society. But I think there were movements that did spontaneously just blow up in that period without a outside organizer.
[BACKGROUND — TIAL mobilizes 1500 Tuskegee students and a few faculty to go to Montgomery to demonstrate in support of the embattled people of Selma.]
Wazir: After we [Tuskegee students] got to Montgomery, Jim [Forman] and several other SNCC field secretaries showed up.
Hardy: I was one of those people Jim brought to Montgomery whenever you guys came from Tuskegee. Jim was walking around talking about how we were going to open up a new front, we were going to go Montgomery and we were going to open up a new front, we're [going to do] all these demonstrations in Montgomery. I didn't know that Tuskegee students were going to come down, but they came, they were coming to Montgomery [while] the major part of the contingent of the King movement at that time was still over in Selma and they [SCLC leadership] really had not organized themselves over there in Selma yet, they hadn't worked on how they're gonna march [to Montgomery].
Forman got me and a bunch of us and we went to Montgomery. [He] took about 5 or 6 of us who had come over from Mississippi not Selma people, we all had been in Mississippi and we didn't know shit [about the situation in Alabama] we were going into Montgomery and had no idea of the terrain I mean I had grown up around there but we had no idea. We were just following Jim Forman.
Jean: For me, it was my first time to see SNCC en masse. I'd seen individuals in SNCC and talked to individuals. I had never expected to see SNCC people meet the Tuskegee people in Montgomery. I knew of no call to SNCC for help I certainly didn't make the call but suddenly they were there. Now years later, it had to be you Wazir, right?
Wazir: No, it wasn't me.
Jean: Well somebody had to have alerted SNCC to get your asses to Montgomery because those crazy people don't know what they're doing.
Wazir: You were adviser to TIAL, and that's the only way I would relate to you and your friends. [Maybe it] was one guy on the faculty there. I don't know now, maybe somebody between George [Ware], Sammy Younge, and Pinky LeBlanc, between those three. Sammy was close to Jim, he would even take off weekends and go over to Atlanta to see Jim. Between those three, somebody made the call.
Jean: Somebody made the call, and SNCC was there en masse. It's still something that stands out in my mind. We're there, there must be 1500 of us, and we realized as soon as we get out of the cars and buses, it was way over our head. I remember being in a building that I think was a church basement. And I remember being told that we were not going to be able to use the churches in Montgomery. So I have a real thing about SCLC, I can really tell shit about SCLC.
Bruce: I think another element that really needs to be included in this is that it wasn't just SCLC leaders like Andy and Bevel, but you also had the ministers of the Montgomery churches. Because if SCLC had said, "Close your doors, don't give sanctuary to the students," they could have said, "Of course we're going to..."
Jean: There were no Black ministers in Montgomery who were going to do that. This is King's and Abernathy's home base. Not a single one was going to one did, I've forgotten which one but I don't think it was a Baptist church.
Bruce: What I'm saying is I think that there was a class thing on the part of the ministers too, not just SCLC. You're shaking your head, you think they just did it simply because of SCLC? They didn't have the same class attitudes?
Jean: Several of you have raised the class thing. The interesting thing about the class thing is that at this point where we're talking, the Alabama State students [have not yet] joined they haven't joined yet, because nothing's happening yet. In terms of class, Tuskegee is the Black middle class in every way. Tuskegee, it's like Spellman, it's like Morehouse, it's probably more extreme than you ever saw in Atlanta.
Wazir: That's right.
Jean: Bert Phillips he was the Dean of Students [at Tuskegee] and a really, really wonderful guy but he knew that this group of students I mean, don't put them in jeopardy, because there will be hell to pay. It's like Spellman, where [Howard] Zinn gets expelled for teaching there because he's leading students in the streets of Atlanta. Don't fuck with these students, you know? These are SCLC students.
Bruce: I don't think the SCLC leadership or the local ministers saw what they were doing as relating to Tuskegee students, I think what they were seeing was SNCC. And SNCC, with their overalls and their ideology of organizing the lowest economic class in opposition to the existing leadership in some ways that's where I'm saying the class thing comes in. I don't think [SCLC & the Montgomery ministers] were upset so much about Tuskegee students, I think they were upset about these scruffy SNCC workers coming in, and SNCC stealing SCLC's PR and political thunder.
And I think there was a class element in that, because by this time SNCC was very deep into asking, "Who are we going to organize? Who is going to have political power? We want to build new organizations in Mississippi that represent the maids & sharecroppers rather than the ministers & teachers & business owners." And that's where I think some of that class antagonism comes in.
I think the Tuskegee students were beneath their notice, not because of their class background, but because they were students. Because they were young. And there was this assumption that the role of the young is to obey their elders without question.
Jean: I think that you may be right, but what I really think is that SCLC was scared shitless. And SCLC didn't want any of its thunder taken away by anybody else SNCC or whoever. I mean, they would have done the same thing. They didn't close those churches just because they saw a single SNCC car pull up. They had decided that before anybody got there.
Wazir: That was already decided.
Jean: I think they didn't want the thunder of what they were trying to do in Alabama diffused. They wanted credit for whatever this is, but they hadn't told everybody the full story of what this was supposed to be.
Don: To put a positive spin on it, it would be that SCLC believed as was said earlier, that SNCC is militant and will be violent, and that anybody marching with them, or attached to them is somehow the same, without making any distinction, and that this will screw the deal with [Judge] Johnson, it will screw the deal with LBJ, and there will be bigger losses and therefore you want to shut this down as soon as you can.
Jean: Thank you, but I don't think Andy was thinking that.
Anyway we're like stranded, you know. So we leave there and go back outside with most of the others. And we see these people pulling up, and they all have on overalls, and the brogan boots these folks are ready. Now when you look at the difference between us and them and I don't see anybody I'm recognizing and then I realize then we all realize this has to be SNCC.
And they are moving, I mean, they are moving. They are real veterans, now. And there are men as well as women, because one of the first women that I tried to talk to is Annie Pearl [Avery]. And she ain't having it, she's too busy, she's too busy. They're directing people, they're forming the perimeter. They're doing this and that, and they're trying to train in nonviolent action even as we're moving [towards the Capitol], it was extraordinary, it was a wonderful picture.
I don't think I've ever said this before It was such a comfort to see the SNCC people, clearly ready to , because we could see the troopers amassing and the cops, they were quite visible and they were not in small numbers. So to have all these people out there, probably monitors except we already had monitors, but they didn't know any more than the rest of us knew.
So SNCC people are talking with authority. This is what you do, this is how you secure the perimeter, this is how you do this, this is how you move as opposed to just straggling along up to the Capitol and things.
So we got all this instruction 1), and 2) we know they're going with us very important somebody's going to be with us here, an organization that knows what to do that we may not know as a student group. And 3) we you can imagine what would have happened had we gotten there, no presence from SNCC that we knew about and they tell us the churches are closed. Which was the original plan it had to be, you know? The churches are closed, what can you do, you got to get back on the buses and in the cars and go back.
Don: How many SNCC people?
Jean: There were a lot of them.
[BACKGROUND — Led by TIAL and SNCC, the Tuskegee students march to the Alabama state capitol building. A mass of state troopers confront them. When the cops arrest student leader George Ware, everyone sits down, blocking the sidewalks in front of the capitol for the rest of the day. The troopers surround them, allowing individuals to leave but not to rejoin the demonstration. This leads to what SNCC-lore remembers as the "Toilet Revolution," or the "Great Pee-in."]
Chude: We got three people in this room that were part of the students landing in Montgomery, right? Wazir and Jimmy and Jean are all in Montgomery. So what interests me is you come into Montgomery, you said when you started, Jean, that you didn't totally know what you were doing there, and it was the SNCC people coming in that provided the leadership. Can you talk a bit more about what that means, I mean, as somebody reading this and wanting to understand the movement, what we have is 1500 people landing in a city that don't know exactly what they're doing, but they're there because they know that's where they need to be.
Wazir: It's not that we didn't absolutely know what we were doing. We had [been meeting] for a month, okay? So I just wanted to clear that up. The next thing is that we knew at some point we were going to end up at the Capitol, at Montgomery, at Dexter Street Church.
Chude: You were going to sit in or demonstrate.
Wazir: We knew we were going to end up somewhere, yeah.
Jean: We were going to present a petition to the Governor of the state...
Jimmy: George Wallace.
Jean: ...a set of demands. And we were going to be there that's how we ended up in that, whatever that's called, we were going to stay until he accepted the petition from us Black people. We weren't budging. So that was the idea. So it wasn't just to be in the streets, there was a petition, which I wish I had a copy of.
Don: What was the SNCC role? Where did you end up with SNCC?
Jean: We ended up in the plaza, which is a hill that leads down from the steps of the State Capitol, right? And that's why people are being arrested, because there are no facilities, there's no water, there's no nothing. Some people have to leave to find something because we do know that they're houses all around the Capitol is a Black community for those who know Montgomery. So we knew we could use people's houses. The point was you couldn't get back.
[Anyone who left the left the demonstration to go to the toilet, for example is blocked by the cops from rejoining the demonstration, and arrested if they try to get through.]
Wazir: We took all those kids [college students] down to the Capitol [in Montgomery] and we stayed all night and they wouldn't let us out of the God damn thing, and some of us were sneaking in and out. They had us surrounded...
Hardy: The Capitol sits up on the hill, and we were up there and we had all these people there and we had been going all through the community that day and then the police say: "You're in but you can't go out.."
Jean: We said "No, we didn't come for this. Just tell the Governor to come out," he didn't come out. But there were a lot of other things going on. I mean, I think to SNCC's credit, SNCC never took credit for that. I mean, they were as surprised as anybody else about how things would develop. Nobody knew there was going to have to be a pee-in, nobody had planned it, you know? But one of the things that got to me most is that we are now in front of the Capitol, like a plaza.
Hardy: Yeah, and Dexter Church is right at the end of the Capitol, [at the bottom of the hill].
Jean: Right, and they come down the hill. And the [posse] are now mounted on their horses, there's a large contingent of mounted police. And I'd never seen that kind of formation that they make when they're about to attack, but as soon as you see it you know "Oh, yeah, that's that's the attack formation. Okay." And the SNCC people tell people to go down and cover their heads.
Hardy: "Sit down," we said.
Jean: Sit down or whatever, but cover your heads, be sure your heads are covered. And then SNCC people tell the guys who are along the perimeter, they're to stand, because SNCC is the first barrier, then they're the next before the horses can get to the people because, I mean, the horses are snorting and, you know...
And I get up, and because these are my students that they're telling to stand, and we're about to be attacked and I'm the adult here, and "Oh my God, what's happening here?" And this is my responsibility. So I stand up to tell whoever is yelling at me I mean, they're really on my case that I'm not [a student], I can't [ignore my responsibility], these are my students...,
I'm trying to explain that I can't get down and protect myself when they have these male students stand up. I can't do that. So I get up. And I'm shouting to the SNCC people around me, they must thought I was..., And somebody says: "Get your Black ass down! I don't care who you are!" And then somebody looks as though they're about to show me how to get down, and so I get down.
But that's the conflict personal, professional I am really conflicted at this point. I am really scared that I have helped to lead, you know, young people into this situation...
Hardy: To get slaughtered.
Jean: It looked liked that's what would happen at that point. And of course, with the death of a student later Sammy Young it's like, it's too much. I would have felt differently had I not been their teacher, had I been in the freedom schools with you guys in Mississippi, I too would have been a veteran, and I too would have known like Annie Pearl said, "Get your ass down!" But that was hell. That was hell for me.
Hardy: I think what I find interesting is that I didn't think nothing about that. I don't know why. There was some of us going in and out because there was something over a few blocks that let us in somewhere they let us in to get some water, as I remember. And so we tried to sneak out and sneak back in. But then it looked like they were going to charge. It had not been anything different [from Mississippi] except for the fact they had horses. Because I had never had horses and I had never seen horses in Mississippi.
Jean: That's a frightening spectacle.
Hardy: That they were going to charge us.
Don: And it had just happened a couple days before [in Selma on Bloody Sunday].
Hardy: Yeah, but it was safe to tell people to go down, to tell people to lay down, to tell people to cover their head.
Chude: [To Jean] I understand, your situation is that you're the teacher many of these students it's the very, very first [Movement] thing that they've ever done and it's possible they're going to die, and you're not even out there on the front lines [with them].
Jean: Right, right. I can't stand up to at least pretend that I can protect them.
Chude: Or being with them, because you said we knew the SNCC people would be with us, and here you are and you're not on that front line with your students, I can understand that, you were being just... So what happened? Is that when the other students came and, or were you attacked?
Jean: We weren't attacked by the horses. It was the students who were attacked were on the periphery. They never came through with the, what is that, a squad? What is that attack thing? A wedge. They never came through, but they made life hell for everybody who refused to...
Chude: But then others came on the outside, you said earlier, the students from the state college? And the kids who came, they came to help, because they're the second grouping, and they come to the Tuskegee kids and say we're here with you. [They were the ones attacked by the posse on horses.]
Jean: Right, so you had at this point double or triple the amount of protesters that we had anticipated.
Hardy: And people were running.
Jimmy: Alabama State is right in Montgomery, and Tuskegee is 40 miles away. So there could have been a lot more students from Alabama State.
Chude: But the point is still that when the Tuskegee students had come, they don't know what's going to happen. When the Alabama State kids come, they do know what's going to happen.
Jean: I think they, oh yes, they know for two reasons. One is because the shit has already started, and two because they live in Montgomery.
Hardy: That was the first time I had seen Jim Forman actually in a conflict situation. Most of the time I'd seen him he had dropped by the Freedom House in Holly Springs, or given a speech. But on that scene when he was up here by the hill, I don't know how many SNCC members he had, but he was like a field general in that whole Montgomery thing.
And that's when [Forman] started the "Toilet Revolution." Okay, people had to go to the bathroom and that kind of shit, and Jim says: "Well just do it here." And we just pissed, and it ran right down the hill. It actually was a "toilet" revolution, we peed down the hill from the capitol.
Wazir: Washing the street down..
Hardy: Washing the street down. Because they wouldn't let us out. Some of us did, slipping out and coming in.
Don: When did the arrests come?
Jean: They started that day. They went into the night. When did you [Jimmy] get arrested?
Jimmy: I got arrested before the Tuskegee students went to...
Jean: Oh, okay. So in terms of larger numbers, arrests began pretty much as soon as we arrived. Because we had no permit to march, we had no permit to petition, we had no...
For a lot of us in Alabama during that time, the [actual] march to Montgomery was really anti-climactic, or at least I should say it was for me and a number of us. I mean, there had been so much drama during the [preceding] weeks and one interesting thing for me was the long-standing class division between Tuskegee and Alabama State. That was something nobody liked to talk about, but it was there, and you saw it just fall apart. That distinction just fell apart, because when Tuskegee students were locked inside the perimeter, it was the Alabama State students who came [up in support] and therefore they were among the first to get arrested because they were trying to get in to help the Tuskegee students, and hundreds of them got arrested. And that break of the class division lasted. I hope it's still there, but it certainly lasted for a very long time.
So that was an interesting dynamic playing out. And part of the new front was that now the cops had the children of Montgomery citizens because they were Alabama State students. And that was Jim's way of breaking that wedge head-on, right away. Because Jim [felt], it may not come again so let's do it now. So I guess what I'm saying is that I have all these little vignettes, but that's why I said that the march for me is blurry because the real events happened before, and they would be rather lasting in the sense of where and how SNCC would move after the march.
Hardy: You know what it reminds me of? Because there was as much action going on, it was two sets of reaction, there was a circle in front of the Capitol. But like the shit break out [here] in Berkeley, all along the different streets people running, and that was part of those [Alabama State] students. It was like all of a sudden you got a center here all around because you go a few blocks either way you're in the Black community. And some churches, some office, somebody opened up, let us in to get us some water, as I remember.
Jean: Yeah, somebody did.
Hardy: And so all that night you got cop cars running down the street. But the reality was that, after I think there was some we actually did get into some church.
Wazir: And then it was like certain little things were going on all the time, for the next two or three days. Because they [SCLC] still hadn't decided at this time whether they were going to come over from Selma.
Jean: Right. Whether [there would be a march from Selma to Montgomery].
Bruce: I don't agree with that.
Bruce: From SCLC's point of view, they knew they were determined that they were going to march from Selma to Montgomery.
Jean: Well they weren't communicating that.
Bruce: They were communicating it to us in Selma. At every mass meeting every night in Brown Chapel they said we were going to march. The issue was that there was a temporary injunction by Judge Johnson that forbid the march. They couldn't march until the injunction was lifted.
Mike: Why was everybody so confident the injunction would be lifted?
Don: It was a deal.
Mike: Oh, it was a deal. With the federal district court?
Don: With Judge Johnson. Fager wrote in his book on the march (Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South), that the belief was that [Judge] Johnson would not lift the injunction for [the Tuesday march] because he wanted to undercut King who he considered as a militant, and this was Johnson's anti-militancy thing. The theory being like you said Wazir you wait a couple of weeks, you break your movement.
Bruce: But it didn't happen.
Don: It didn't happen.
Chude: And it partly didn't happen because of Tuskegee...
Wazir: Because the students came...
Chude: ...students had gone to Montgomery ...
Jean: Somebody had to do something....
Don: That was part of it, but they were also the residue of the television coverage [of Bloody Sunday].
Wazir: As we got pushed out [from the Capitol], this church was benevolent to us, so we had to stay in there all night, because they didn't want us to stay nowhere, down in the basement.
Hardy: I remember the basement.
Wazir: Then [the next morning] we decided to go over to [Dexter Avenue Baptist church] King's old church near the capitol where Martin had been the pastor at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954.. We're going to get in position that was Jim's idea to get into position to march on the capitol [again]. And we went there, and then all hell broke loose from SCLC.
All of the students were in there, that's where we kind of bedded out. They sent Andy and James Bevel, and you name it, they all came trying to drive us out of Dexter Street church, and to get on back to Tuskegee and all that kind of stuff. And we had to make a stand that we weren't going nowhere, you know. And we said, "We'll be here when you all get here with the march [from Selma]," you know, that kind of thing.
Jean: And to lock the churches [against SNCC]. That's why I'm saying Montgomery was weird to me from that point of view...
Wazir: They were going to put us out of the church...
Jean: Because SCLC the top people in SCLC came to tell us to get the hell out of Montgomery, and if we don't they're going to lock all the churches and in fact they did. There was only one church available [to SNCC].
Chude: So the question I have is that you get to Montgomery, do the students assume that there would be support from the churches and the community, the Black community of Montgomery?
Wazir: No. We weren't concerned about that.
Jean: Right. I mean, part of this, we're all novices here, you know, and for almost all of the students, this is their first time to do any direct action of any kind, so they're raring to go. I'm not sure we even talked about, or tried to organize any support. We knew a lot of Tuskegee students had relatives, like Gwen herself, in Montgomery. We had no way of knowing that the churches wouldn't be supportive, I mean, that never crossed anybody's mind. And we also thought that being in Montgomery would force some action from Selma. We thought being there would help to get the march going in other direction, although we have no word from SCLC about anything except you can't use the churches, that's the only word we got from them.
Bruce: Why did they want you out of Montgomery?
Jean: Because they hadn't decided what they were...
Mike: What you're saying isn't inconsistent with what Bruce is saying because what may in fact have been going on was them saying: "This is going to be an SCLC thing, and we don't want these Tuskegee SNCC-related students stealing our thunder."
Jean: Yeah, it really did go down like that. It's one of the things I'll never forgive SCLC for...
Hardy: I'm going to tell you how strong the feeling was Bruce. The feeling was so hostile that a lot of us who had come over from Mississippi said when they finally decided they were going to march [to Montgomery], that we don't want to participate in this shit.
Jean: That's right. Let's get the hell out of here.
Hardy: We don't want to participate, we want to go back, we want to go back to Mississippi.
Wazir: Here we were, we got all these intelligent people and all these intelligent students and all that, two heavyweights from SCLC comes to Dexter and just talk about we should wait on King's blah, blah, blah, blah and [they] don't tell not one time, not even Jim Bevel did not one of them tell us about it. Now we were too dumb and too stupid to be told the real reason why [the march had turned around on Tuesday]. And they confronted and attacked Jim before all of us, you know, our respected leader of SNCC, and they attacked him, just like we weren't there.
Chude: What was the argument then?
Wazir: The argument is that this was King's thing.
Chude: Why is SCLC opposed to the students from the two colleges and the SNCC people being involved in Montgomery?
Jean: Because we took it on our own to get there. They had said not to go. Somebody from SCLC had said had sent word that we should wait and the students said "No." And certainly one of the things I had in mind about that "no," is that we're thinking, we're in the tradition of the Freedom Rides, you stop one bus, another bus gets through. I mean, that was our whole thinking in terms of going there.
Chude: And not necessarily at the same spot. You start in another spot.
Jean: Right, wherever you can break it through, you break it through, in the same tradition that we thought everybody was operating from.
Chude: For me as an outsider this very interesting question about movements [which] if I understand social movements social movements are constantly generating new actions.
Chude: And this is where the new action was, and the students were not part of Selma, and they did not see themselves as being directed by SCLC and King, ...
Jean: Or SNCC.
Chude: They were going to do it. The question in Montgomery it seems to me is at one level simply control and containment. SCLC tried to control and contain, and to take credit for it. But for us, that's not where we stop. The question for the future is anytime there's a movement, things are going to grow past whatever group initiates. Otherwise it's not a movement.
Don: Actually, anything there's a movement, both will be going on. It's the nature of the beast.
Chude: Yeah, I think so, but I just read something on the Internet by a guy about some kind of march it was a women's march and he was saying we need to control and contain, we need to get rid of these oddballs on the edges. And you can't control movements. Control and contain is not quite the right way to approach it.
In this one, what's so clear to me are the two things, that SCLC simply wanted to control, and contain, and stop, and never even showed the students the respect of saying what is it you're demanding? There was that sense of we're going to block you out, we're going to block you out, we're going to make sure you have no resources, and we don't even respect you enough.
But the difference was that [SCLC]'s was a single-issue campaign, and I'm assuming [that was not the case with the Tuskegee students] if there was in fact a whole list of demands, and that always happens in movements. There are the single issue people who argue that the only way you can win is to narrow it down to one issue and eliminate everything else and go for it, and always movements builds and bubbles up all these other demands.
Bruce: Well, I can tell you what SCLC people have said in books since then [about SNCC in Montgomery], if people want to hear the SCLC point of view. As recorded in books, their take is that it was the local Montgomery ministers who closed the churches, not SCLC.
And that SCLC's opposition to student demonstrations in Montgomery was that they saw them as led by SNCC, and they believed that SNCC had abandoned non-violence, which would jeopardize the chances of winning a voting rights bill because the demonstrations would get into violent battles with the police, and that their whole strategy of getting the voting rights bill was predicated on they felt it was essential to that strategy that there be complete nonviolence on the demonstrations.
Here's what Fager writes in Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South:
The demonstrations in Montgomery have been marked by conflict, between SNCC and SCLC staff and between SNCC and local black preachers. SCLC wants to keep control of the actions mounted in support of the Selma campaign, particularly those during these days when the voting bill was being drafted and Judge Frank Johnson was deliberating over whether to permit the march to proceed. The local black ministers in Montgomery were almost unanimously staying away from both organizations and the campaign. This attitude had had much to do with the failure of Dr. King's effort to mount a large march on the registrars' office there in February. Both SNCC and SCLC had great difficulty in finding a pastor in the city willing to allow mass meetings to be held in his church; and the march this Monday had proceeded over the vigorous opposition of the Alabama State administration.
And in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, & Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David Garrow says:
...and in Montgomery the attack sent SNCC's leader into new paroxysms of anger. The days since their departure from Selma had been marked by repeated shouting matches with SCLC's Jim Bevel, and prior to Tuesday's assault, "We were perhaps more furious with Bevel than with the police," James Forman remembered. SNCC was also angry at the lay leaders of King's former church, Dexter Avenue Baptist, who had vetoed SNCC's use of their building as a headquarters. King tried unsuccessfully to mediate, but the lawmen's attack drove James Forman to a heightened fury. That night, at a mass meeting at Beulah Baptist Church, Forman told the crowd that if the powers that be were unwilling to let his people sit at the table of government, then SNCC stood ready to knock the "fucking legs" right off the table. ... [King] expressed his fears by phone to Bayard Rustin and Harry Wachtel, telling them he was worried that SNCC was growing violent and might stage objectionable disruptions in the Alabama capital. Forman was advocating "violent overthrow of the government," and King said he feared SNCC was seeking a martyr in Montgomery. Rustin said that sooner or later King and SCLC would have to divorce themselves from SNCC.
Jean: That's bullshit. Because there was no proof of that.
Hardy: It might be true that they wrote it, but that's no basis to prove it.
Wazir: They're lying.
Chude: What do they say in the books about what was going on in Montgomery?
Bruce: They say very little about it. When we post this discussion, we will probably have more about what happened in Montgomery than any book on the shelves today that I know of.
Jean: That's because it's such an indictment it seems to me against SCLC. It's one thing to have strategy, no problem, nobody was arguing with them about their strategy of voting rights. But to be an organization of ministers and order the local churches closed to unarmed, helpless, people? And I don't care what they say about what they thought about what SNCC people might do, they had to have known that there weren't any SNCC people there before. Those coming in couldn't have been the whole SNCC staff, because most of them were still in Mississippi. And, I mean, like what could they do? I don't buy [the claim that SNCC would be violent] for a minute. It was retaliation. We told you not to come, you came fuck you!
Jean: That's the way we interpreted it, and I don't see any other way. It's a real indictment. So yeah, I'm not surprised, I'm surprised they mentioned it at all ever. Because it was ugly.
Wazir: It was uglier than anything I had seen in the movement among the leadership of civil rights people in my whole [experience] Andy Young, Hosea Williams, and Bevel and whoever else was in their contingent that came in the church after we had got in the church some kind of way. And the way they disrespected Jim [Forman], I had never seen him disrespected that way before. And I had never seen anybody in the leadership disrespect each other.
Chude: Give us an example of that if you can, when they told everybody to go home.
Wazir: The kind of language that they were using to Jim. And so I spoke up I can't think of all the words, but they were putting the whole weight on him that he caused us to come up from Tuskegee and all that.
Jean: They never believed that SNCC hadn't created this whole thing. And they had assumed that if there were [just] students, the students would have been long gone by now, because they had closed the churches, there wasn't nothing to do, Wallace wasn't coming out. But the fact that people did not leave, they blamed us then SNCC. That was SNCC's maneuvering. But, you know, not a single person in SCLC asked us could they see the petition that you're about to give to the Governor.
Chude: It's so staggering that SCLC did not want to read the statement, did not want to take that statement to the press in no way, I mean, that's just such a powerful indictment.
Wazir: They didn't come for that.
Jean: Right, that wasn't why they came. They came to be ugly and to tell us thinking that it would work that there is no sanctuary. Ministers? There is no sanctuary? Come on!
Don: How did you actually hear that? I mean, did you go up to the church itself and somebody would come out?
Wazir: They told us the church was closed. After we got into Dexter Baptist Church, they came to put us out of there. They came, they said we [SCLC] are holding the police back now from coming in here. At this point you can be escorted out of here safely.
Jean: And might not hold them much longer.
Wazir: Much longer. We said, "Well, that's on you." That's what I told Andy, "It's on you." You [go ahead and] let them in here.
Don: How did they communicate to you that the churches were going to be closed, we want you to leave. I mean, was there was a meeting, was there some way...
Jean: No, [the first time] it was in this place that I keep trying to figure where it was. It was like an auditorium.
Wazir: The first place we went was in front of a big church.
Jean: We hadn't even marched to the Capitol yet.
Wazir: It wasn't Dexter.
Jean: I'm sure [the first time] it was nobody high up in SCLC. I am sure about that. I am indoors at this rather large meeting, but most of the Tuskegee people are outside because it's not big enough.
Don: Who's speaking on behalf of SCLC [the next day in Dexter Church]?
Jean: Well Bevel is certainly there. Andy is there, right. I think that's my first time to see Andy. I'd seen Bevel a lot of times, not Andy.
Don: And did they tell you direct that they want you to leave and there won't be any place for you to...
Wazir: They wanted us out of there. Where we went, after all, they say you're going to safe escort out of here. We can promise you, we can promise you safe escort out of here, the police will not bother you as you come out of here, because we are here. I didn't like that either.
Jean: They wanted us gone.
Wazir: They were so in with the power structure. This thing was so in other words, power don't recognize nobody but us [SCLC], so to speak.
Chude: So what they're basically saying is, "Children go home."
Wazir: After this, after we give you this reprieve to walk your ass out of here, with the [police] commission, the police aren't going to bother you now. When we [SCLC] walk out of here, you are on your own, that's what they were saying, when we walk out of here of here without you coming out, you're on your own.
At this point, Jim Forman had been with us, after he been attacked, they attacked him and all that, and since we didn't budge, they really got nasty with him. They wanted to put it on him that he was the cause of it, as if no way overnight we [students] could get that strong in our conviction to do what we did [on our own]. But TIAL had been organized before, maybe in the summer or fall of '64, It was reactivated, they reactivated it. It wasn't a new student activist organization it wasn't new.
They wanted to belittle and deny the intelligence of these students of this era. They had forgotten that these are the same students coming of the same sit-in era that everybody else had been through, they were on fire everywhere. Andy Young and Hosea Williams and all of those people, they wanted to deny that. They always wanted to treat the student people like stepchildren, like we just...
Jean: Yeah, that's how SNCC got formed. Thank God for Ella Baker.
Wazir: Thank God for Ella Baker, yeah.
Chude: So in terms of understanding things, one of the things we are saying in this tape is that even if whether or not SCLC was right about SNCC or not there was this whole thing called the student movement that they were not even acknowledging as a viable upsurge of protest.
Bruce: I think that's true, yeah. They would not even have noticed this as coming from the students. To them it was coming from SNCC.
Chude: The students didn't count. So the students coming from Tuskegee and then from the state college are moving into Montgomery.
Bruce: It might not have counted to people like Andy Young, Hosea Williams, Blackwell, people like that, I don't know. I do think that the student movement might have meant something to people like James Orange and the other field workers.
Hardy: Bruce, that's a very important distinction you're making, okay? You used the word "field workers." Because when you're talking about "field workers," you're talking about SNCC [type] people, all right?
I don't know all the people in SCLC, but I think Jean has a point. There was nothing that I am aware of that had happened in Mississippi I can't speak for Alabama but there is nothing that suggested that we would in fact start a riot nothing.
Wazir: So we throw negative thoughts and feelings at Martin about this. But it still didn't keep us from coming. It still didn't keep us from it didn't make us leave. They still didn't keep us from stirring up the deal that they were making. We did know that some deal had been made between Martin and [President] Johnson, we knew that.
I knew some deal had been made and it made us feel that Martin King was going to play into that and not march at all. And the dynamics were that he worked all of these local people up to do something and as an organizer where I'm coming from is that if something don't happen quick, these people will never do anything again. They'll never believe or trust again.
They was playing, [King] was playing some high-handed tactics. When you're playing this kind of game, somebody the organizers, God damn it the organizers need to know what you're doing.
That old Baptist Church back door kind of keeping the peons not knowing shit, that's the whole thing. That's a part of what I was fighting against not only in the Civil Rights Movement that's part of what I was fighting against. People making decisions about my life regardless of what color they were. Even Aaron Henry used to try that and he looked at us just like we were just like kids. I mean we had to confront him over and over and over again about that kind of stuff..
Bruce: And SCLC was totally infected with that...
Wazir: Yeah they were infected, because they had all them preachers. (Laughter)
Bruce: Both class and age. They disrespected people like the SNCC workers because they were young, although they themselves were only 10 years older. (laughter) And they disrespected the people who were not college educated, and so forth and that's ...
Chude: And women...
Wazir: "So we can decide what's best for you..."
Don: There's also another piece, and that is that in the same way so many people think of Dr. King as being the entire movement, within the Movement everybody thought of SNCC as totally dominating everybody that wasn't SCLC. For example, Atlantic City. I never stopped hearing that this was a SNCC decision and it shows why you can't deal with SNCC, you can't make...
Bruce: The rejection of the "compromise" [see The Mississippi Movement & the MFDP].
Don: Right, you can't do business with SNCC. No one else was ever noticed in the same way as SNCC was noticed when it came time for the larger movement.
Wazir: Also what played a part in this is the church gonna lock [us out], we didn't dare come out of the church but were getting word from outside that people are coming in from all over the country to Montgomery.
Bruce: And Selma.
Wazir: And Selma. So that was much pressure to march, to do the final march. There was much pressure and it had an impact on the battle between the movements.
Bruce: The battle between SNCC and SCLC?
Don: And local groups.
Jean: And that you can certainly see coming out of MFDP in Atlantic City. That finally they get the chance now that the organizations do battle with each other in a way that they couldn't do in Atlantic City. And they go to it.
Hardy: But I think of it in a bigger way. I think it also had to do with the split that's gonna come within SNCC at the Nashville meetings. John Lewis, a whole segment of SNCC had torn his ass, for even participating in that in that first march. And so there was this friction going on.
Wazir: He had overstepped the bounds, although he was chairman, just because he was chairman of SNCC he couldn't just arbitrarily go and do something you know, in the name of SNCC. In other words, he couldn't separate himself from SNCC.
Hardy: And from SCLC. I mean he was close to Martin then.
Bruce: He was on the SCLC Board.
Hardy: All of this discussion makes a lot of sense to me now in terms of being there as a SNCC worker, working that stuff. But I had never heard all this, I had never heard all this because it would have been impossible for me to hear it unless I'm three people. Because you're talking about an SCLC strategy, you're talking about a power strategy, you're talking about Jim Forman's strategy, and we're talking about John Lewis, who is our leader somewhere else. So I just think that, you know, a lot of this stuff is four or five prong arguments coming together.
Jean: That's what makes it so fascinating.
Bruce: I think something important went down, came into play, about this time. On Sunday March 15 a week after Bloody Sunday President Johnson I keep saying president to distinguish him from the judge made this televised speech to Congress in which he called on them to enact a voting rights bill. And in that speech he very deliberatley used the Movement slogan: "We shall overcome."
Wazir: The horses [in Montgomery] were about to run us down, as I can recall, the horses had almost ran us down...
Bruce: I was watching the speech in the West's crowded living room in Selma and we all took it as a sign that we were winning. People were cheering and some were crying.
Don: What was the action that triggered off that speech?
Bruce: I was always thought it was because of Bloody Sunday...
Chude: If there are horses surrounding a group of students in Montgomery, and the President does this, well there has to be some relationship between these two things. Everybody's putting it on Bloody Sunday, but there has to be if nothing else trying to prevent another bloody day. I mean, it cannot have been in the President's interest to now have students have their heads beaten in Montgomery at that point.
Bruce: I agree with what Chude is saying, that some of the pressure that brought LBJ to that speech had to be seeing that Bloody Sunday didn't end it, but Bloody Sunday touched it off.
Chude: The beginning, yes.
Bruce: I think that LBJ's speech probably caused this enormous sea-change in the thinking of not Dr. King himself but the other SCLC and ministerial big shots along with all the other powers-that-were-and-wanted-to-be. Because with that speech it suddenly became clear that there was going to be a voting rights bill and there were going to be hundreds of thousands of Black people registered to vote across the South. And those votes suddenly became treasure on the table that was now up for grabs. Who is going to lead and control those voters? There was going to be a whole new electoral situation in the South. Who will those voters elect to office? Who will benefit from the down-stream government grants and contracts and so on that will inevitably follow?
Treasure on the table who's gonna get it? Who's gonna control it? And suddenly there were folk scheming to grab a piece of that treasure. And that's where I keep coming back to this class thing. Because once LBJ made that speech, it was very clear that there was political and economic treasure on the table.
Chude: Well, that's interesting, given what those ministers did in Montgomery, they contributed to radicalizing some students. I'm talking about the Black middle class played a role in radicalizing Black students.
Bruce: Some Black students.
Chude: Some Black students. It is not minor that SNCC wore overalls and identified with the poor. I mean, I was at Spellman, I was at the SNCC conference in the spring of '64, I heard these kids, I sat and listened to my peers argue about ruling class identification. It was not a minor thing for those kids going to the elite Black schools to make the choice to identify with the poor and the working class.
Chude: So I'm saying that if the ministers, if the authority figures in their communities, if the people that they had been raised to respect and to see as their moral leaders, could act in such an unconscionable way, that would have contributed to some of their radicalization. I just add that because Bruce has just put that once it's clear that the Voting Rights Bill is going to pass, there's a whole shove towards control and containment in the Black community around controlling who's going to have these votes.
Bruce: And the reason I raised it is that I think next time we need to start discussing this whole issue of the independent Black political power in Lowndes County, compared to the MFDP being merged in with the regular Democrats. And there was similar movements in Alabama, and there was that whole issue of Mrs. Boynton and the election in Selma, but what triggered a lot of that stuff was that suddenly now there is treasure on the table, and up until that point there hadn't been any treasure on the table.
Wazir: True. I think somewhere way up there in the those people are smart way up there in Washington. They had that in their back pocket at the right time to drop they wanted to take the Movement out of the street.
Chude: But you guys were in the street at the moment that that gets said...
Wazir: They wanted to give us as less they could, and this will get them [out of the streets] if we have to give it to them.
Don: A wrinkle on that, as somebody said about the elections and the question of who will have the power, one way of looking at it is that the power already is in the hands of the upper class Blacks, and now could be taken away by virtue of an election.
Bruce: Taken away because scruffy, overall-wearing SNCC people trying to organize the sharecroppers.
Don: And being very close to it.
Wazir: And I'm sure [Mississippi Senators] Stennis and Eastland, if they didn't do something to keep those guys in power, they could see a movement, a re-emerging of the Populist movement.
Don: Yeah, they were certainly worried about it. Unlikely as it might be...
Wazir: It was something [for them] to worry about. That's for sure.
Bruce: I think another person who eventually ended up thinking that way but on the other side was Dr. King, with the Poor People's Campaign.
Wazir: Of course. He said it loud and clear. And he was too popular among the people period.
Bruce: White, black, brown, red, yellow.
Wazir: Yeah, everybody.
[BACKGROUND — After the TIAL demonstration and the SNCC-SCLC confrontation in Dexter church, SNCC mobilizes Black students at Alabama State and other nearby colleges to support the on-going Montgomery actions initiated by the Tuskegee students. Jim Forman of SNCC issues a nationwide call for students to join a mass student march in Montgomery on Tuesday, March 16.]
[Email addition from Sam Carcione]
After the Edmund Pettus Bridge attack, while waiting for the injunction that allowed the Selma to Montgomery March, SNCC held a march in Montgomery. I came to that march with a group from Pittsburgh, PA (3 chartered buses) with a contingent of students, some 30 strong, from the small, liberal arts, Catholic college where I was teaching at the time (Mount Mercy College, since renamed Carlow College).
The march never made it to the Capitol building. A few blocks away the police stopped us and surrounded us. A small group that managed to avoid being blocked proceeded on the sidewalk across the street from our location. Suddenly we heard a loud noise coming from a side street ahead of us. A mounted posse came charging around the corner, the police stepped back, and the members of the posse charged into the marchers, clubbing them as they rode through the crowd. Marchers who fled onto porches found themselves trapped as the horse riders came up onto the porches after them.
Eventually we made out way back to the church where the march began. Police lines were formed at each end of the street and people milled around, angry and in a mood for rebellion. Rev. C.T. Vivian spoke to us and was able to inject a measure of realism about our chances if we tried to attack the police and he was largely successful.
Some time later that afternoon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to see us. I will never forget the feeling that swept the crowd as he came walking down the street. It was a transformation that was unbelievable. It was as if the Savior had appeared.[By this time the crowd includes a large number of adults from Montgomery's Black community].
That evening, we held a rally in a large church. Time has erased the memory of the name of the church. [Beulah Baptist Church.] I remember the church being packed to and beyond capacity, the intensity of the freedom songs, the fervor of the attendees, and a line from the speech Jim Forman made. It got a lot of attention and, of course, condemnation. The line was: "If we can't eat from the table of justice, we are going to kick the mother f***ing legs out from under it." Jim was furious, justifiably so, about the attack on the marchers that afternoon.[According to historical accounts, Forman immediately apologizes to the congregation for his intemperate use of language in a house of worship, though not for the anger that lay behind it.]
The chartered buses had to leave the next morning, so our group headed back to the "safety" of the north. We learned later that that "safety" was relative and that attacks were carried out differently in our area, that is, with an aura of legality.
I wasn't able to return to participate in the Selma to Montgomery March, though I tried to make arrangements to do so. As I alluded to earlier, I did make it for the bulk of the Meredith March. But that's a story for another day.
[BACKGROUND — On Wednesday, March 17, Dr. King, Jim Forman, Rev. Abernathy, and John Lewis lead a large march to the Montgomery Courthouse in pouring rain to protest the assault against the students the day before. Sheriff Mac Butler is forced by the swiftly evolving political realities both national and local to address the marchers and publicly apologize for the behavior of the men under his command. He has to promise that peaceful demonstrations will not be attacked in the future. (His promise, however, does not include refraining from arrests, and more than 100 students are jailed later that day for picketing the Capitol.)]
Don: I eventually represented Forman and tons of others in connection with the Montgomery arrests. You were part of that Jimmy, you needed to try the case, right?
Jimmy: Well, I was part of the demonstration where we ended up in the state prison, because there were so many of us. [After the Montgomery jails became full, demonstrators were detained in the state prisons.]
Bruce: From talking to students and seeing the questions the send in to the website, there is little real understanding of what underlay the Movement in terms of organization. They say, "Oh, look at all these big demonstrations," but they have no real idea that those demonstrations were sometimes spontaneous, but most of the time they had to be carefully planned and organized.
For many weeks, while all of the voter registration and the mass marches and the vigil and all that stuff was going on, there was also a boycott of the white merchants in Selma. This was around demands to desegregate and begin employing Blacks in jobs that had previously been white-only, like sales clerk, bank teller, and so on. And that meant that every Saturday something had to be done to uphold the boycott, because the people both white and Black would come in from the country to shop on Saturday. (The stores were, of course, closed on Sunday.) So Saturday was the big shopping day.
One of the first assignments I had from SCLC during this period, because of my CORE experience, was to organize Saturday picketing of the stores. I did this on several Saturdays. But it was a sure arrest to picket peacefully in Selma. So if there was picketing and demonstrating there would be arrests and turmoil and no one would come to shop even white people would not come. Black folk would support the boycott if there was something visible going on to remind them it was still on, and some white folk would not because of the turmoil. They'd go to Montgomery instead.
The pickets were mostly junior and senior high school kids. And we drew up these maps that had all of the streets, all of the stores, the location and number of every single pay phone, where everything we might need was. The night before, we would paint the signs in Brown Chapel and then sneak them into the funeral parlor that was underneath the SNCC and SCLC offices at the corner of Washington & Alabama. This was right across the street from the Jail and police headquarters. We hid the picket signs in the coffins ...
Don: Not with bodies in?
Bruce: I don't remember ever seeing any bodies... (laughter)
Jimmy: Don, and you know the funeral home that he was talking about, that was down the street from the Boyntons...
Don: And my office was above, above the funeral parlor.
Bruce: Anyway, the next morning, the kids would show up at Brown Chapel and we would divide them down into teams of ten and appoint a captain for each team. The teams would have to infiltrate out of the project, around the cops and sheriffs and state troopers if they were blocking the way downtown. They would plan, "You two go here, you three go there, and so on." They would go in little groups like, "Oh we're just a bunch of kids wandering around."
Those who had too many previous arrests were given dimes and assigned to hang around the different pay phones so they could call in reports, and we could call them to find out what's happening at such-and-so location.
At a certain time, each team would converge on the funeral home, they would sneak in making sure no one saw where they were getting the signs. They would grab the signs and they would have an assigned route that they would go out and hold up their signs, and the trick was to see how far they could get before they were all arrested. Sometimes a half a block, sometimes a full block, Sometimes even a block and a half, or two.
Don: A block and a half in Selma, that is the shopping district. (laughter)
Bruce: When the cops saw them, they would swoop in and arrest them, and there would be turmoil. We would time it all out over the course of the day so that when things began to settle down from one team being arrested, we'd send out the next team. And we would keep this up all day. Sometimes I would go out with the last team and get arrested with them.
It was all organized and tightly disciplined. The reason I wanted to tell this story is that there's this kind of assumption nowadays that demonstrations can "just happen." They don't "just happen." They have to have leadership, they have to have discipline, they have to have planning, they have to have organization.
Phil: So what kind of effect did that have, though? Did it actually have turn people away?
Bruce: Oh, yeah. Most Blacks and a good number of whites would not come downtown to shop [while that was going on.]
Phil: So you were out there long enough so the disruption of the police would ...
Bruce: Well, each disruption would last a half hour, 45 minutes. Then we would send another team. The way Selma was at that time, you had a white shopping district along Broad Street, which was the main street. Highway 80 comes over Edmund Pettus Bridge and becomes Broad Street. Pickets rarely got as far as Broad Street because the cops were very determined to keep them away from any place where the whites were shopping. But just the fact that there were police all over the place, and the risk of being confronted by "uppity" Blacks, kept many whites away.
The Black shopping district was to the east of Broad St. The stores were owned by whites and only employed whites but the customers were all Black. This was the area around the funeral home. The boycott was 98% effective against those stores. Many of them were owned by Jews Selma had a small Jewish community that had lived there for generations. Anyway, the boycott was quite effective, and I think it had a lot to do with the final desegregation of Selma.
Jimmy: Now when you go to Selma, and you go up Broad Street, and you go to all the hotels, it's like being in Berkeley. Blacks and whites sitting down at the same table, eating together.
Bruce: It sure wasn't that way then. (lots of laughter)
Bruce: The injunction that was finally issued to allow the march to go to Montgomery specified certain rules. Because the highway leading out of Selma was four lanes wide, everybody who wanted to could march the first day to the border of Lowndes County out past Craig Air Force base. But the road through Lowndes County was only two lanes wide, and so only 300 people were allowed to march that stretch no more than that. And then once the road hit Montgomery County, it was four lanes wide again, so as many people as wanted could march.
That created a situation. By this time a large number of Movement people from all over the South were in Selma, you had the Selma Movement people and the people from the surrounding counties, and you had hundreds of supporters who had flown in from all over the world. And of course everybody wanted to be among the 300 to march most of them having never done a route march before [laughter]. But everybody wanted to march. And so they had to pick the 300. And I think Dr. King did a very clever thing. He nominated Frank Sirocco of SNCC to be the person to choose the 300. And put it all off on him. And so [Frank] was very popular for a while.
Don: Was anybody here in the 300? [No.]
Mike: I'll tell you about Sirocco. Sirocco came to be in the Bay Area Friends of SNCC, to Alabama, and the reason I think that King picked him, beside him generally having a good reputation down there with SNCC people, was that they had shared a jail cell one night, at least my recollection of what Frank told me. Because Frank has the highest regard for King.
Chude: I have a question about the march. The logistics of this rule limited the number of people who could walk this one segment to 300. So everybody else had to be driven in cars? People still got moved from one spot to the spot to the next?
Bruce: No. For three nights and two days, only the 300 were on the march as it crossed Lowndes County. Everyone else was hanging out in either Selma or Montgomery. And then on the fourth day, from the last camp on the border between Lowndes and Montgomery Counties into the City itself, the road expanded again to four lanes. And from that point on, cars and buses were ferrying people from Selma and Montgomery out to join the march as it approached the outskirts of Montgomery.
Cars and buses and trucks were just pulling up and people were jumping out and joining the march. And so it just expanded incredibly. I think probably by the time we reached St. Jude, which was the campsite inside the city, I think there were maybe 5000 people who marched in to St. Jude. So it had grown from 300 that morning to 5,000. And the next day when we marched through the city from St. Jude to the Capitol there were maybe 25-30,000 or more.
Jean: That's not what I recall at all. So I'm trying to figure out where those buses got started. Because I don't have clear memories of the march. I seem to be stuck in the pre-march phases of the big march. But I certainly remember people lined up on both sides of a narrow road, a highway it probably was, in those days, on both sides, and being struck by all of these people moving in the same direction, with other people, myself included, just hopping in at anywhere I wanted to hop in to be in the procession. But this was far more than 300. And I don't recall any buses, I just recall those people on the roads cheering and waiting to step in.
Bruce: Was it in a built up area?
Jean: No, no, no. This was rural.
Bruce: Maybe it was at the edge of Lowndes County. There was a short two-lane stretch from the last camp in Lowndes to where the road widened at the start of Montgomery County. I remember that stretch from the camp into St. Jude because it was the only actual marching I did except for the next day when everybody marched up to the capitol.
Chude: So what did the people do who waited in Selma? Was there anything for them to do, were there meetings or teach-ins or singing? What do you do with a bunch of people that got stuck in one spot and can't...
Betita: And had come from all over the world.
Bruce: I have no idea. I was on non-stop work supporting the march, and don't know what they did.
I was not one of the 300. My assignment was that I was on the night security detail. I was part of a team under the leadership of a minister from LA, I think his name was Morris Samuels. Our job was to patrol around the camp while everyone was sleeping, and to make sure that none of the Alabama state troopers were "cleaning their rifle" in our direction or letting people through who shouldn't be through, and so on. Of course, it was impossible to sleep during the day with everything going on, and mobilizing food, and cars, and caravans, and all kinds of other stuff that had to go on, so basically it meant that I got to stay up awake and working for about five straight days which in those days I could do.
Nothing happened regarding security on my team, but when I was in Selma last March for the 40th Commemoration, Arkansas Benson Arkansas was one of the genuine characters of the Movement, a really wonderful guy but bold, very bold. He told me this story that he was on a secret security detail. Our security detail wore armbands and such, but he was on, or was leading, a secret security team that patrolled out in the woods around the night camps. And he told me this story.
He said that one night, the first or second night, they were patrolling the woods and they see these two white guys dressed in those khaki work clothes that people used to wear redneck clothes. And they've snuck through the Alabama National Guard, and they're trying to get into the camp. He said they weren't armed or anything, but they were definitely sneaking in. So his group seizes these guys.
It turns out to be the regular Army general who was legally in charge of the federalized Alabama National Guard, and his aide. They had decided to test how effective the Alabama National Guard was in protecting the camp, [laughter] and had gone right through them, and then been seized by Arkansas Benson and the secret security team. [More laughter] And so the general after he identified himself and convinced Arkansas that he really was a general took Arkansas and the other guys with him to "discuss" the situation with the commander of Alabama National Guard. And apparently this Army general really ripped as they say in the Army ripped that guy a new asshole. So that's a story I had never heard.
One of my most vivid memories of the march is that it had been raining. And the campsite was just deep in mud, and people were trying to sleep in mud, and we were patrolling in mud, and everybody was miserable. I mean, nobody got any sleep. Being in mud is horrible. And that morning why are you laughing, Chude?
Chude: It's the side of things that nobody ever talks about, right? You run all those pictures, and none of those pictures ...
Betita: All the glamorous pictures...
Chude: ... the flags, the great "vote" thing [painted] on the kids' faces, I mean, and here's the truth of it, it was muddy and cold.
Bruce: They bought bales of hay, and tried to put hay down on the mud so that people wouldn't sink into the mud. So all that did is it mixed straw in with the mud. [laughter] It was miserable.
And the food, breakfast and dinner, the food was all cooked in Selma. And they had bought these galvanized steel garbage cans the big 50 gallon ones. Brand new, of course, so they were clean, and the food was dumped into these trash cans and then driven to the campsite. Well, that was fine for the first camp, which was only a few miles out of Selma. But for the last camp, which was like 40 miles from Selma, it was stone cold. So dinner that night was stone cold spaghetti, dished out of a galvanized steel trash can, you're sitting in the mud and it's oozing over you, ...
Betita: ...really appetizing....
Bruce: ... and then breakfast was the same way. So people were really I'm not a morning person, nobody was a morning person that morning. And then these two really incredible things happened. People sort of fall into line and start marching, and this storm came up, one of these cold drenching showers, and everybody was being rained on, and then somebody started to sing.
Betita: Uh huh.
Bruce: And it was amazing. Everybody's head snapped up and people had fire in their eyes, and suddenly it was a march again. It was incredible.
[Email addition from Gwen Patton:]
Tuskegee also fed the 300 marchers. Spider [Martin], the UPI photographer, took photos of Tuskegee students serving the food.
Bruce: The other thing that happened that I remember, I guess probably a few miles in on the four lane road, this was on the outskirts of Montgomery and by this time it was a 1,000 people maybe, 1,500 people, something like that, I'm just guessing. Anyway, we passed this district which is the upscale motel district, with the Holiday Inn and the Ramada Inn and, I forget the other ones, Holiday Inn, Ramada, the big chain motels.
Jean: That was it, the Holiday Inn, and the Ramada.
Wazir: That was uptown.
Bruce: So the march is going by these two big motels, and all of the cleaning staff all Black are out there in front of the motels with their mops and their pushing carts loaded with the new linens and the towels and stuff, and they are looking at the march. And standing immediately behind them are their white managers. And the maids are looking at the march, and the managers are looking at the maids, and it was so totally clear that they wanted to cheer they wanted to join the march. But they were afraid, he was hard-stare looking at them, he was glowering at them. Suddenly one of them started to cheer, and they all started to cheer, and several of them, I don't how many, ran out and joined the march under the eyes of their supervisors.
And if you look at the pictures of the people who are watching the march, there was such joy on their faces, such an emotional feeling, and that was true for the whole march all the way through, Selma Lowndes Montgomery.
Then the next thing that happened for me was we arrived at St. Jude, which is this kind of big school, I think, or a hospital or something, and they had this big entertainment show, with all these movie stars and entertainers there. I was so exhausted that I stumbled into the tent, I could hear Peter, Paul and Mary start to sing something somewhere in the distance, and that was the last thing I knew until the next morning, when somebody kicked me awake. I missed the whole thing.
Jimmy: I remember getting arrested in Montgomery because they were having demonstrations all over leading up and we ended up in the city jail at first, Montgomery City Jail, and then were so many of us that we ended up in Kilby State Prison, and I remember meeting Julius Lester and Worth Long, and it was Mendy [Samstein] and Sammy [Younge] and [Simuel] Schutz, and a bunch of other people, I don't recall who they are right now. And I didn't get out until the march had reached Montgomery.
Bruce: How long were you in?
Jimmy: For three or four days. In fact, it was still full of people in there when I left, because I had an exam, a very important exam that I had to take, so I got out early.
Hardy: I was on [the march] for the first day out to the Air Force base. As far as I marched [on the final March to Montgomery] was across that bridge to Craig Air Force base out there and I left. And a whole bunch of us went back to Mississippi.
I want to [follow up on] the question that Jean raised. It was interesting actually. And that is that to a certain extent the march was anti-climactic for the people who had been through a lot of shit in Mississippi, and stuff. Because what we felt was that [after] we had been in these meetings [with SCLC], we're not participating in this march.
We [SNCC Mississippi folk] went back to Mississippi. After all we'd been through up there in Montgomery and shit, fights and all of that, and running, and going to these churches and getting thrown out a lot of stuff happened to us. So some of us went back to Mississippi, we drove back, it was about four or five of us, we drove back to Mississippi. I don't know why I went back to Mississippi, because I could have easily went on the march. But after marching out that morning and nothing happened, we split, we split and went back to Mississippi.
It was anti-climactic and I think it probably made a difference a year later, when the Meredith March happened [Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear, June 1966]. It could have been the first stages of the conception of the Black power. Because to a certain extent the reason I didn't give a shit about marching was because as far as SNCC was concerned, we should have gone back across that bridge the next day after the big beating [Bloody Sunday]. I mean, that was a real hard feeling. That's why when [Rev. Reeb] got killed, we was in the cold, like being in combat or some shit, I mean when the guy got killed we were real quiet about it, we didn't make a big issue of it. And part of it was that by that time we had been through a whole lot of shit in Mississippi, with beating and jail and a whole lot of other things that happened to people.
And all of a sudden, we didn't even want to participate, we didn't want to participate in going to Montgomery then. John Lewis was going, and that fueled the feud between the John Lewis faction and the Carmichael faction. And I think that once all those people came down, I think it probably might have been that SNCC was not going to be seen as a major player to the national press in terms of the way that the march had turned out. I think we should have gone across that God damned bridge on Monday or Tuesday after that first beating.
Don: Well, when the march reaches Montgomery you have this whole large group you have the world media present. No one, very few in the world know about the internal problems that went on. Most people think that there was a beating, there was Bloody Sunday, and because of Bloody Sunday they couldn't be able to march until it was safe to do it two weeks later. I mean, that's how most people see it, this is the finale of what had gone on. And this is a great moment of triumph for the civil rights movement. And now everything is just going to work out, because all that power has been demonstrated. But as we said tonight, a lot of other things had started to be set in motion because of this, and this will change civil rights direction in many different ways.
Bruce: I agree with that, but I do think that a lot of people I'm not talking about Movement people, but the public may have felt that way until the news of Mrs. Luizzo being murdered. Because I think that did have an effect on mitigating any assumption of, "Okay, everything solved now, everything cool now. They were allowed to march, justice now reigns." I think her murder did have a strong effect. I certainly think her death it played a role.
And I think some Movement people were over-confident about the passage of the Act after LBJ's speech. Because it turned out to be a hellacious battle. It was a much tougher fight than anyone thought [it would be] right after LBJ's "We shall overcome" speech.
Don: Of course, if you know you have the votes, especially someone who is as clever as Lyndon Johnson, you excuse people from casting a vote they don't want to be stuck with. So it's very possible there were lots more votes to back the Act if they were needed.
Bruce: Well, I think it was a tougher fight to pass it than they expected, because everyone assumed it would be signed into law by May. That was the whole idea of the SCOPE summer project to implement the Voting Rights Act and it didn't pass until the middle of August. So in that sense at least it was tougher.
Jean: I have this profound ambivalence about King. I'm probably not the only one, you know, who does. But when I'm yelling about SCLC, there are two people in SCLC that I'm not really yelling about, because I'm not sure they're in the mix of this bullshit. One is King himself, the other is Shuttlesworth. And I thought about Shuttlesworth, Bruce, when you said the local ministers in Montgomery could have opened thier doors no matter what SCLC did, and my first thought was there was not a single minister there who was like Shuttlesworth. He is the only minister I ever read about who I ever met who was in your face, Dr. King, and all of your lieutenants. A study really needs to be done on Shuttlesworth. He was a major player that didn't get any play.
But shortly after all of this happens, I'm upset, I'm distraught about what has happened in Montgomery and so forth, and we learn that King is going to be the graduation speaker at Tuskegee. It's like, "whatever" to me. I just decide that I wont participate, because I'm really mad. But I can't figure out whether I'm mad at King or mad at... So I decide that I'm not going. At some point I must have mentioned that to somebody, who says, "No, excuse me, all teaching staff of whatever rank absolutely must participate, must wear their gowns, wear their shawls." So I'm now in a quandary, because I hadn't expected not to have a job in three days. So I do march [in the graduation processional].
First of all, I was profoundly moved by the whole ceremony, when I hadn't expected to be. But darn it, I looked up, and my tears are falling just as hard as everybody else's, when King starts speaking. I mean, I've never seen anything like the power, the power of King's message, I've never seen anything like it. And you know, I never, in talking about the Movement, want to do anything that diminishes his role in it, because the Movement would have looked very different without him.
I couldn't believe it, I'm sitting here angry with man, wishing he'd mess up, you know, and suddenly I realize that I am so moved by what he's saying. And what he's talking about is a vision. It's not a strategy, it's not a mobilization, it's a broader vision that you tend to forget living in this society that you can even have one.
So I'm probably not alone in being conflicted. I remember Stokely used to get furious with King and his lieutenants. But they always maintained a respectful, relatively close relationship, even though they disagreed on almost everything.
King deserved a better organization, I guess that's what I'm saying. King deserved more than SCLC.
Wazir: I got to say that he was under "house arrest," especially when Andy Young came into the picture, when he got on the staff. So there were rumblings in the upper echelons. And I don't know what they were saying, but I can imagine, "He done step way out there now."
Jimmy: I went to the testimony for Forman in Washington DC. And the one thing that struck me about it was Stokeley said the one person he respects the most is King. And the reason why was he never heard King bad mouth anybody.
Wazir: Everybody bad mouthed King, but he had never, not one time [retaliated]. And he repeated saying it, he kept saying it.
Don: When Black Power hit, [King] was the only one who would not sign the condemnation of ...
Jimmy: [Stokeley] said he had more respect for [King] than anybody.
Bruce: I think there were some others in SCLC who followed King.
Jean: It is now much clearer to me what I just said, he deserved better than SCLC.
Wazir: He did. I think just like [with] Medgar the intelligence community is everywhere and they know things. And they drop seeds, they drop the seeds that Medgar wasn't being supported by NAACP, that the support had been snatched from him. And when you do that to somebody, that sets him up to be assassinated. The people around King, here were certain people who had certain ambitions and certain things, you know, and some of them were always out speaking policy before it had even been decided by SCLC and that kind of stuff. And where King was, and where he was coming from with the [Vietnam] war and all of that, you know, was different. He had stepped way radical in some of his speeches.
Jean: Oh, yeah.
Jimmy: That is true.
Wazir: So they knew, the intelligence community, whoever made the call and said, "commit homicide," they knew that he didn't have the complete support ... They knew they could walk in the field and do this boom, boom, boom. They knew when they could do it. Somebody knew when to have King out on the porch, on the balcony, at the right time. Nobody wants to talk about that. But somebody knew. And some people got, a lot of folks got the rewards, they got the rewards.
Don: King ended up mostly with an organization that was very much like he was when it all began. A very middle class guy, really looking for his own future and looking to make a decent living, not that impressed with people that weren't as articulate as him. And his evolution was incredible. The others really remained...
Jean: Remained right where they were.
Bruce: Except for Shuttlesworth.
Jean: But Shuttlesworth had been an activist even before King.
Bruce: Yeah, Shuttlesworth was always that way.
Don: You know, with all the meetings all the discussions we've had this is most new material I've ever heard, that I knew nothing about.
Wazir: This is what I was talking about some years ago, when I said Alabama was the most untalked about thing and so much happened.