[It's probable that some of the people Bernard mentions by name were sitting next to him on the panel or in the audience at the time, though their laughter, comments and interjections (if any) were edited out.]
Selma — Cracking
the Wall of Fear for background & more information.
See also Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for web links.
There was a split in SNCC and there was an ongoing debate about direct action and voter registration, and I think that Charles Sherrod probably epitomized that debate because he was one of the people who was part of the direct action wing and who believed that nonviolence is a way of life, but when we had the opportunity to get some financial support to do voter registration, we jumped right at it.
The spring of 1962, I was off raising funds in Detroit, Chicago, and St Louis, because Chuck McDew and Bob Zellner and Dion Diamond were in jail in Louisiana on conspiracy charges, conspiracy to overthrow the state of Louisiana because they were trying to get people registered to vote. And I think the bail was about $10,000 each; they were only accepting cash bail. And we didn't have that kind of cash, $30,000. I had come down to work in a project, but Jim [Forman], who was executive director, said no, we need you to go raise funds. Go out and organize Detroit. I didn't even have a pair of shoes. I ran into a cousin I didn't know I had in Detroit and he bought me a pair of shoes.
But, anyway, Elizabeth Hirshfield and some people who had been on the Freedom Rides and who had been supporting efforts in the South were there, so he sent me there to raise funds. Jim always had great ideas, so he said, "I have a great idea, what we'll do is get Diane Nash out of jail and have her come up there and speak." You see, she was in jail and she was pregnant, about eight months pregnant Her father lived in Detroit and was a well-known dentist; she was a well-known freedom fighter from the Nashville movement. So he sent me this eight-month pregnant woman to help raise funds in Detroit It was a close call. I got her on the plane that afternoon, the next day she was in Albany, Georgia, and she had the baby.
I don't know how much money we raised, Jim, I never did find out. Well, I'm only saying this because I was late getting down to Atlanta to take on a project and so when I arrived, Jim Forman said, "We could send you to some places in Mississippi with Bob Moses, we could send you over to Arkansas with Bill Hansen." I said, "No, I'd like to have my own project." I was a young guy, maybe twenty, twenty-one years old, and I wanted to do my own thing. So, he said, "Well, there's only one other place left, and that's Selma, Alabama, but we've scratched that off the map." We'd sent in a SNCC staff person and the only people he could meet that had organized themselves was a group called the "12 High" — and that's because they stayed high all the time. This is true. They were organized and very serious. I mean, you never caught them , sober; it was their policy. You got kicked out of the group if they ever caught you sober.
The other problem was he felt there was so much intimidation in Selma, and that black people were just afraid. The last organized effort they'd had was an effort to desegregate the schools, and they had about ten people who had signed a petition. That was the method for desegregating the schools in the South: ten people from the community would sign the petition and they would send it to the school board demanding that the school be desegregated. They would be systematically rejected by the school board, an all-white school board, and then that would precipitate a suit from the NAACP. And then they would file a suit that would go through the courts. In fact, it's still in court; it's been in court for the last thirty-five years. That was the slow approach to desegregation. But some great results have come out of this kind of effort.
But what happened in Selma is that the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan systematically forced all the people to withdraw their names from the petition, and they did some very unscrupulous things — I mean besides shooting in their homes and discouraging them in that way and intimidating their children — one fellow's mother-in-law was fired from her job, and he had to leave town because of that. They used various forms of intimidation until all the people withdrew their names except one person that was a postal worker, a fellow who worked as a mail carrier in Selma. So they didn't go very far with their desegregation suit. The point I'm making is that Selma had had some very serious experiences, so there was a reason why people were very much afraid and intimidated and slow about getting involved in the movement.
Well, this staff person had decided that we had to go some other place because Selma was a little too rough. So I said, "That's great! I'd like to take that place." Jim said, "Well, if you want to go down there, you can check it out and see what you think." This was back in the fall of 1962.
There was always a lot of pressure on the staff people because Jim Forman would call people on the phone: "What's going on down there? I don't see anything in the newspaper. You all sleeping or what?" In Selma he didn't expect anything because everybody assumed that place was so backward. So I thought that was a great place for me to do some serious social science work, so I said, "I'll take Selma." There was a fellow named Jack Minnis who had done some research on the hidden power structure and the economics of the South. I took my time and I went down to the library at Tuskegee. Before even going into Selma, Alabama, I did research. When you can take your time and really do a thorough job, it pays off, and I found this over and over again. It doesn't make sense to rush. And the older I get, the slower I get at making decisions, and talking, and walking — it's great! I mean, wait till you get old and try it.
So I stopped at the library in Tuskegee and read all of the newspapers of the White Citizens Council. I wanted to see what happened in Selma in terms of lynchings and stuff like that, so I got a chance to read, and study all about the banking and finances. It was fun, I enjoyed it, it was very exciting. Armed with all of this information, I decided to go and start talking to people in Montgomery who had experiences in Selma, Alabama, and in Dallas County.
I talked to Mr. Rufus Lewis who had been an NAACP organizer, and since I mention that, I should tell you it was no coincidence there were so many movements in Alabama — the Montgomery movement, Birmingham movement, Selma movement You see, during the period when SNCC went in, the NAACP was outlawed; they had banned the NAACP operation from the whole state. Teachers had been fired from their jobs simply because they had membership in NAACP. The NAACP could not operate. So that created a gap and a void. And as a result of that, we were able to do some things. Now the other reason is that when SNCC moved, it mainly moved in rural areas for voter registration; there was no competition. The SNCC people were in places where only angels dared to tread. You're talking about the bodacious thing.
Going into Selma meant we were going into a big void that was created by a lot of things that happened earlier. My first work in Selma was to focus on the leadership. What SNCC people really did was to become full-time volunteers for community groups. We became the staff of community groups. I began to work with the local organization [Dallas County Voters League], about thirty people. When I got there only about three hundred black people were registered to vote in the whole county. The literacy test was a problem. So we tackled the problem exactly where we found it.
There was Ms. Marie Foster and Mrs. Amelia Boynton, and there was Attorney Chestnut — a few people around who were not afraid and they were willing to stand up. So we worked with those few people. As Sherrod said, you find one other person interested in doing it. I found about four who were interested in doing this thing. We set up office and began to start the movement.
Well, a couple of things happened. The first mass meeting we had in Selma, Alabama, was in May 1963 at a memorial for Mr. Boynton, who had passed. He'd been the head of the Dallas County Voters League. I stayed with him in the hospital to relieve his wife at night while he was dying, and I realized this was a great man who had made a tremendous contribution. His son was the one who filed the suit, Boynton v. State of Virginia , that desegregated lunch counters at the bus stations, and there was a whole lot of strength there.
I always stayed open to learn from the local people, and I learned a lot. If you want to know how to organize people, what you do is ask them to teach you, and they will teach you how to organize them and to educate them. I asked the people to teach me how to organize them and they did. They were concerned about outside people coming in, taking over the leadership. So what we did was help them to organize a movement against me. We got all the people who wanted to be leaders, and I got somebody else to organize them. I didn't want to be the leader. I had already had my head cracked.
Coming from a mass meeting one night, June 14, 1963, one of the local white gentlemen waited for me. I was unloading some leaflets in the back of my car, getting ready to go into my apartment, and this huge tree on the side of the little apartment where I lived shaded the streetlight, so it was dark. I had already observed a car parked there across the street when I drove up. When I was bent over in the back of my seat of the car for the leaflets, I heard some footsteps coming behind me, the cracking of the leaves. There were different periods in the movement when we thought it was going to be allover, and that was one of the periods that I thought that was it. We knew the day would come at some point, and I thought that was it. And then I heard this voice, it said, "Buddy, how much do you charge me to give me a push?" I was so excited, he only wanted a push, I volunteered right away, I said, "I won't charge you anything, gladly give you a push." Well, he had other plans, I learned later. I had this 1948 Chevrolet; Julian Bond had gotten me this car in the movement. Everybody else had a new car; Jim, you didn't ever give me a new car. Gave them to all those other people and they wrecked the cars and I took care of mine. I just want the record to show, Julian's contribution to the Selma movement was to get the staff person a good car to last, and it made it. Well, so much for that.
So I had this high-bumper car, so it would be no problem pushing the car that was supposed to have been stalled. And what happened was, the fellow said, "Maybe you ought to come out and take a look at this to see if the bumpers match, so the bumpers wouldn't get stuck." I was wondering what the problem was. I hopped out of the car and bent over, and then he clubbed me with the butt of a gun. I fell to the pavement and I stood up again. Well, the significant thing here is in terms of nonviolence. The most important thing is to be able to face death, and when that moment comes, the question is whether you have the courage. But one of the things you have to do is first of all is give up life. It's only when you give up life that you really and fully embrace life and rea1ly appreciate it. And at that moment, I had no thought of what would happen to me. And I stood up and I watched this man, and he clobbered me again; in fact, he hit me three times in the head. Each time I would stand up again and there was blood dripping down on my shirt as I stood there and watched him.
Now, that was unexpected behavior. And unexpected behavior sometimes can have the impact of arresting the conscience of your assailant, because they don't know how to respond to you. They expect you to run, they expect you to plead for your life, they expect you to fight back. I did none of those things; as I was trained in the movement, I simply confronted him and looked at him. That upset him, unnerved him. He began to back away and I was afraid that he would shoot me as he got into his car, so I yelled up to my neighbor, and my neighbor came across the banister upstairs — we called him "Red" — with a shotgun.
And then I really got terrified because if he had shot that white man down in Alabama, there was nothing I could have done for him. So I said, "Red, don't shoot, don't shoot" — I started screaming and hollering, "Red!" Part of the account is in Howard Zinn's book SNCC: The New Abolitionists; he never talked to me about it, so he didn't get the full story, but it's okay.
That was the same night that Medgar Evers was killed. The reason I didn't know Medgar Evers was killed that night was that I was in the hospital. And I learned later from the FBI that there was a three-state conspiracy: they were going to get Elton Cox over in Louisiana, Medgar Evers, and myself.
As a result of that experience, the people in Selma really began to rally. When we had the first mass meeting, we had a memorial service for Mr. Boynton and on the leaflets it said, "Memorial Service for Mr. Boynton and Voter Registration." And that was the thing that caused people to come out. Jim Forman was our first mass meeting speaker in Selma, Alabama, and he gave one hell of a speech that night. A mob came in front of the church with baseball bats and big table legs to break up the meeting. The only thing that saved us was the high school coach, who had some influence, because the sheriff was just out of it.
The other thing about Selma, Alabama, is there's tremendous history there. Reverend D. V. Jemison (whose son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, desegregated the buses in 1953), Tabernacle Baptist Church was the church where he pastored. He was the president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., before Dr. J.H. Jackson — early on we're talking about. I think that history has to be resurrected.
When we look at history, we begin to see that there are sediments of things that are already there. It's an opportunity for us to bring those back together, but the seeds of resistance were there before. It was a matter of rearranging those and replanting those in a way that would cause new life to grow. Well, that's a bit about what happened from the beginning. The main thing that happened in Selma, Alabama, was that we took the time to develop local leadership and to bring them together in a way that they were able to sustain themselves through the struggle.
Copyright © Bernard Lafayette. 1988.