Giant Step on Freedom Road
by Norman Hill, CORE

Originally published in New America, March 24, 1965

Civil rights history is again being made in the streets. As Birmingham served to trigger the most comprehensive civil rights bill the nation had yet seen, so the demonstrations in Selma, Alabama have sharpened and intensified a second major legislative assault on the power of the Southern racists.

Perhaps as never before in civil rights campaigns, the Selma movement has involved Negroes, on a grass roots, block by block basis, in direct action. Labor, liberal and church forces which worked together with civil rights organizations to pass the Civil Rights Bill have now joined the struggle in the South as allies in broadly-based community movement. The northerners are living in the homes of Negroes in the community of Selma and life is like for Southern Negroes.

In this dramatic way, the March on Washington pledge for people to go back to local communities and be active in the streets is now being fulfilled.


The Selma demonstrations, led by the Dallas County Improvement and Voters League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have been immediately aimed at achieving the right to vote for thousands of Negroes in the Black Belt of Alabama.

The consequences of this goal explain the fanatical resistance of Southern racists like Sheriff Jim Clark and Governor Wallace, whose stay in power is based on Negro disenfranchisement. The Selma movement constitutes a direct threat to these men, for Negroes will vote without question to send Sheriff Clark (who faces reelection in a year) and Governor Wallace straight home to their political graves.

Located in the heart of Alabama's Black Belt, Selma represents a classic case of segregationist resistance to the Negro ballot. Here in the deep rural South where Negroes form a majority of the population, local officials have continued almost unimpeded for centuries — with only a short exception during the period of reconstruction — to keep Negroes from having any voice in their political or social destiny. And the pattern of political and economic exploitation which reigns here holds true throughout the rest of the Black Belt from East Texas to Southwest Georgia.

The means of sustaining this disenfranchisement are sometimes open and ruthless, sometimes ingenious, the essential means is the police-state control in the hands of local officials like Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma or Rainey of Philadelphia, Mississippi. These men use their power and brutality consciously to create in the Negro community an atmosphere of fear which is pervasive and which serves as the strongest barrier to voting.

And the fear of the oppressed, although it sometimes merges with fantasy, is based on harsh reality. Racist officials have ready access to the gun, the billy club, the cattle prod and the bull whip to reinforce that terror at any time; they will even go as far as placing snakes on persons standing in line to register as scores of witnesses have testified. Here the nightmare merges with reality.

Secondly, local ordinances are manipulated to prevent Negroes from making united moves to protest or change their conditions. Parade ordinances, laws against public meetings, harassment and surveillance of gatherings and public officials and thugs — all these means are used to keep the Negro separated from any group action and, therefore, helpless against the power of the state.


Thirdly, Negroes are kept from political participation by the slow pace of the registrar and by the limited number of days and hours which the registration office is open. In Dallas County the present rate of registration is only about 144 persons a year. At this rate, it would take roughly one hundred and three years for the 15,000 eligible voters of the county to register — an accounting which leaves out the persons who reach the age of 21 each year or who move into the area.

Fourthly, the literacy test has been an effective instrument of disenfranchisement. The Justice Department has so far established cases in hundreds of Southern counties where these tests are administered unfairly. The pool tax, still effective in five southern states for state and local elections, further complicates the registration process and hurts those, both black and white, in the poorest group.


The story of the first two bloody marches in Marion and Selma, the martyrdom of James Lee Jackson and the Rev. James Reeb are by now certainly well known to NEW AMERICA readers. But certain aspects of the Dallas County situation bear close attention at this point. The movement in Selma and Marion, Alabama, stands out for the tremendous participation of all sections of the Negro community. While the Birmingham movement depended — largely on students and unemployed adults for its impetus, Selma has actively involved over forty per cent of the Negro population in demonstrations. And in one day in Marion at least half the population was arrested.

The Selma movement is striking, too, for the courageous spirit and willingness of local Negroes who, in spite of their poverty, have enthusiastically welcomed supporters from other areas of the country into their homes.

They are showing daily that the old techniques of intimidation and brutality — the weapons of Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark — are totally ineffective in the face of a mass movement.

Children and adults standing on sidewalks as police and marchers passed would spontaneously join the demonstration, unafraid. Fears which held sway for centuries have been lifted.

There are a number of reasons behind the spirit of the Selma movement. For one thing, the passage of the first civil rights bill had raised the hopes and expectations of Negroes. The symbolic weight of Dr. King's leadership served to spark the deep community involvement which SNCC had helped prepare for months.

When Dr. King and his supporters arrived to focus the nation's attention on Selma, sympathizers of the Negro cause no longer felt isolated; inhibitions quickly dropped as all sections of the community joined in direct action. Even seventy whites from Dallas and surrounding counties dared to show themselves in Selma in a silent demonstration in support of the protests.

The sight of nuns, ministers, rabbis, priests, demonstrating in their full religious garb in the heart of the Black Belt had likewise a tremendous impact. And the fact of nuns marching at the head of a civil rights demonstration not only startled local people, but helped bring nuns into the street in scores of cities throughout the nation. In New York City, for example, hundreds of nuns walked for the first time in a Harlem march in support of Selma.


The first significant victory for the 'Selma movement came on Monday, March 15, the day of the memorial meeting for Rev. Reeb. The announcement that an order from a Federal Judge in Mobile, Alabama, would permit a march to the Dallas County Court House, brought prolonged applause and enthusiasm.

The labor movement also took a big step forward on this day when an official AFL-CIO delegation authorized by President George Meany and led by Don Slaiman, AFL-CIO Civil Rights Director, flew to Selma to participate in the demonstrations. They joined with leading representatives of the major faiths to give on the spot evidence that there could be a coalition, not just of pronouncement, but of action and struggle.

At the close of the memorial service, three thousand people made civil rights history in the deep South by staging an integrated march on the streets of Selma, Alabama.

A dramatic example of the changes taking place in this racist outpost was the sight of state troopers and local police protecting the marchers from "the rednecks of Selma." These incidents may seem minor to someone who has not experienced the police state atmosphere that prevails in the deep South. But the effect of these victories on the Negro community was exhilarating.

For Sheriff Jim Clark, this represented the begining of the end of his reign in power based on terrorizing the local Negro population.

For civil rights, labor, liberal and church lobbyists in Washington, it meant the additional political leverage on the President and on Congress needed to obtain a meaningful and effective voting bill, one which would embody the following principles as put forward by Dr. Martin Luther King:

  1. Provide machinery which is virtually automatic to eliminate the interposition of varying standards and crippling discretion on the part of hostile state officials — in short, require only elementary biographical data;

  2. Eliminate the use of literacy tests in those areas where Negroes have been disadvantaged by generations of inferior, segregated education;

  3. Apply to all elections, federal, state or even for sheriff and school board;

  4. Provide enforcement by Federal registrars appointed by and responsible to the President;

  5. Cover the most oppressive areas of the South as typified by Selma, Alabama, but also be comprehensive enough to guard against the sophisticated resistance encountered in cities like New Orleans.

As protest mounted through out the country, President Johnson went before a joint session of Congress and spoke in no holds barred fashion demanding the immediate passage of a voting bil! which would meet the long overdue and justified demands of the civil rights movement. At this writing the details of the bill have just been presented to Congress and are being evaluated by civil rights organizations and their allies. It is already clear that the Administration bill is designed to eliminate voting discrimination from 6 key states in the deep South — Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Misaissippi and Louisiana. The brutality in Selma and the nation-wide supportive demonstrations have forced Lyndon Johnson to do what no other previous president has done — namely, to make a direct legislative confrontation of the Dixiecrats and challenge them on an issue that is a basic threat to their power.

President Johnson's timetable was changed by the events in Selma, Alabama. He was committed to some kind of voting rights bill in this session of Congress but on his schedule other legislation had top priority. It appears that the President wanted to maintain some Southern support on key committees or at least to lessen their obstructionism. There was no place in this broad "consensus" for any major conflict with the Dixiecrats — at, least not until he got his major legislative proposals through Congress. This probably would have meant a weaker voting bill than the one presently being considered.

Johnson delayed sending that bill to Congress for weeks, but in response to the nationwide protest that erupted over the crisis in Selma, the President switched his tactics. Now it was Johnson who was demanding that Congress not delay or compromise voting rights legislation. The Negro vote has radical implications for American politics. When Negroes can vote in Selma, Alabama, and other Black Belt areas it will mean the end of Dixiecrat power locally and nationally. This will be the death-blow to the Republican-Dixiecrat coalition that has either blocked or weakened all progressive legislation since the New Deal. The passage of an effective voting rights bill will not only be a major step forward for Negroes, but also for liberals, trade unionists and for all people who want progressive economic and social change.

The Coalition of Conscience which was instrumental in gaining the 1964 Civil Rights Bill must solidify what will soon be a great victory on voting rights by mobilizing for the next stage in the struggle. This will include the fight for a program of economic and social roconstruction of the South within the context of democratic national planning. A new society must be built in Dixie to heal the wounds of oppression and race hatred.

Copyright © Norman Hill, 1965.

See 1965: Selma & The March to Montgomeryfor background & more information.
See also Selma & March to Montgomery for related documents
See also Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for web links.

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