1. What organization that was part of the Civil Rights Movement did you join?
Friends of SNCC. SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the two main organizations, the other being SCLC — Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Friends of SNCC" was the Northern affiliate of SNCC, which was based in the South. There was a small chapter at Columbia University — maybe a dozen of us.
2. Why did you join the Civil Rights Movement?
In high school I was following the civil rights movement through newspapers and magazines. I was increasingly outraged at segregation and the horrible conditions suffered by African Americans. As the attacks of the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern states grew, I became convinced that militant action was needed to end segregation. When I came to Columbia as a freshman in 1964, I rapidly found the Friends of SNCC chapter and joined it.
3. What did you do in the Civil Rights Movement?
I was not active in the moment for that long — basically only my first year at Columbia. At Columbia, I helped to organize some demonstrations near the University in Harlem. Things began to heat up in the late winter, as the battle for voting rights in Selma grew. This was also during the time that Johnson was escalating the war in Vietnam. We combined both protests in one demonstration, chanting "out of Saigon, into Selma" meaning that the government send troops to Selma to protect the marchers against the state troopers and the Klan.
After the first march in Selma had been beaten back, there was a call for a much large march with support nationally. Bill Strickland, an African-American who led our SNCC chapter, decided that we should go down. Like many in SNCC, he was suspicious of Dr. King and felt that he was too willing to compromise and too dependent on the US government. But Strickland felt that the march from Selma would be an opportunity to organize in Alabama and build the fight for voting rights.
We were to go down shortly in advance of the second march and stop in Atlanta to raise money and food for the march from among the middle-class African-American community there. Since I was only 17 at the time, Strick, as we called him, insisted that I get my parents permission to go. (A few years later, in the midst of the anti-war protests, such concern for legal niceties would have seemed quaint.) My parents gave permission. I did not think much of it at the time, but looking back, now a parent myself, they were brave to do so. One of the marchers, a white minister, had already been killed in Selma as had the civil rights workers Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner the previous year. So there was a danger, but they thought it was a battle worth fighting.
As to myself, I was not in the least worried. Like most 17-years-olds who have not been in a war, I did not have any sense of my own mortality. I was secretly excited by the prospect of facing down the Klan.
Five of us, all white students, drove down to Atlanta. Strick took the bus down separately, as he thought it would be really asking for trouble to drive though the South with a black man and a white woman in the car. (It was just that situation which led to the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a marcher, shortly after the end of the Selma march.) The woman's name was Jean Murphy, a graduate student at Columbia and I forget the names of the other guys.
We stopped in Atlanta, where an African-American family put us up — and fed us a terrific breakfast — we did our fund-raising going door to door in a suburb. Then we headed for Selma.
When we arrived, the night before the second march, things were up in the air. Five days earlier, right before we left for the South, Johnson on March 15th had introduced the Voting Rights Act and echoed the movement's slogan "we shall overcome". I, and many historians who have since written about it, feel that he did that in direct response to the growing demonstrations in Selma and especially the threat that marchers from all over the country, including both black and white, were already descending on Selma. He wanted to avoid another confrontation like that of the first march.
But we had come anyway, not trusting to Johnson to get the bill passed, and by the night before the march, we knew that there would be no state troopers to bar the march. But Governor Wallace said he could not and would not protect the marchers either from the Klan, who were threatening to attack the marchers. While we were waiting to get housing assignments for the night, we heard rumors that the Klan would indeed attack us, perhaps that night. I did not give these rumors much credence, since by then it seemed very likely that Johnson would not allow a second attack, one that would show that he did not have any control in the South.
In fact, when we woke up the next morning, our safety was quite well assured. Johnson had federalized the Alabama National Guard, putting them under the direct command of regular US army officers and had sent US army military police to take control of Selma. The Alabama National Guard was to protect the march, a situation we all found ironic, since they were the same crackers that, under Wallace orders, would have been happy to attack us themselves. But this was 1965, not 1861, and the Federal orders would be obeyed.
Downtown Selma was in fact swarming with hundreds of MPs tooling around in their Jeeps, directing traffic. They in turn were heavily outnumbered by the three or four thousand of us who were now converging on to a square to listen to the rally and await the beginning of the march. We heard Dr. King and other speakers, although, to be frank, I did not pay much attention to what they said. Then we got under way. It was quite an inspiring sight to see the thousands of us pouring across the Pettus bridge where, a few weeks before, the smaller first march had been thrown back by tear gas, dogs and beatings.
We then marched on toward Montgomery. Along the ridge bordering the highway we saw every hundred yards or so the Guardsmen with their rifles and fixed bayonets. There would be no attack on the march.
It was a very festive atmosphere. But we could not march the whole four days. We had come down early for the fund rising and had to get back to school. So late in the afternoon, well sunburned, we climbed into an open truck and took a rather wild ride back to Selma. This time five of us, including Strick, took the bus back to NY as the car was needed in Selma for ferrying marchers.
That was pretty much it. Soon after we returned home, we learned of the shooting of Ms. Liuzzo.
4. What were the effects of what you and other people did during the movement?
The Selma march was a key turning point in the civil rights Movement. While it was small by today's standards of marches of hundreds of thousands, or of the Vietnam era of only a few years later, when there were marches of up to half a million, it made a big difference. It proved that significant number of people from the North, from all across the country, would go into the south en masse to fight for the rights of African-Americans and to end segregation.
Its impact was magnified by the political situation of the time. Johnson was intent on sending troops to Vietnam. He wanted to end the strife of the civil rights era, the strife that the Selma conflict had brought into every living room. He wanted no domestic opposition when he was gearing up for war. Congress too wanted to try to end the upheavals by passing the Voting Rights bill. This is how social change often happens — the powers that be give concessions in the hope that a mass movement will be satisfied and die out.
The Voting Right law, passed in August, 1965 was the most decisive piece of legislation of that era, By given African-Americans the right to vote throughout the South and setting up Federal enforcement mechanisms to prevent their being cheated, the Act decisively ended segregation. When Sheriffs and mayors had to answer to a mainly African-American electorate or one in which the African-American vote was a large minority, segregationists and open racists could not survive in power.
Overall, the Civil Rights Movement greatly improved the lives of African-Americans who lived in the South, the majority of all African-Americans. Unfortunately, it did not succeed in ending economic discrimination against them, which was strong in the North as well. Some of its achievements were rolled back starting with the Reagan years. Today, African-Americans still have not achieved equality. But the horrors of segregation are gone — the humiliations, the lynchings, the beatings. And that is a real victory that only came about because of the actions of those who joined the movement.
Today, I and many others are working in a new civil rights movement to gain equal rights for all immigrants. There too, I think we will win.
Copyright © Eric Lerner
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Eric Lerner.