Selma and the Southern Civil Rights Movement have been central to my personal and professional lives. My route to Selma began with the March on Washington which led me to organize an NAACP chapter in Ohio (That chapter is still active today.)
Following Bloody Sunday there was a call for support for another March and I drove, with several friends, to Selma from Ohio. On the ride down, we were stunned to see the many pickup trucks with gun racks When we arrived we were placed in the Baptist Church near Brown Chapel. There were bullet holes in the one stain glass window and in the walls of the church. We slept in pews in the balcony.
We all woke up and joined a group of people milling around in the space in front of Brown Chapel and across from the projects. Many standing around were Selma High school students. I think that the high school students of Selma have not received nearly enough credit for their contributions. They were everywhere, and many had been on the Bridge on Bloody Sunday. Too many of their stories have been lost. Many of them grew up there and remained for the resto of their lives.
In any event that day before the March everything was aimless for the ordinary marchers awaiting the March. My friends and I first visited the local high school. It was a long narrow one room building propped up on cement blocks with chickens scratching around under it.
But the more dramatic visit was to Sherriff Clark s headquarters. Clearly it was foolish, but we were foolish 20-year old. We had nothing to do and it seemed that once in Selma we should bear witness where we could. Obviously, Sherriff Clark did not see us; instead we were shunted off to talk with a local official. When we returned to that dusty area outside Brown Chapel it was made clear to us that was totally inappropriate. And we understood and agreed.
Remarkably, 40 years later I did meet with Sherriff Clark. When I returned to Selma for the 40th anniversary I discovered that Clark was still alive. He lived, ironically, in Elba, Alabama. He agreed to meet with my son and me. The three of us talked in a diner for almost 3 hours. He was a decrepit old man who was obviously lonely and quite talkative. My son has the notes of that conversation and he was even more stunned by the story than I was. I doubt that we learned anything of value that was not already known. But he admitted that his posse was made up of only KKK members. He said that was so he could keep an eye on them. He fiercely objected to an incident in which it had been widely reported that he had been knocked down by Ms. Boynton. When shown the picture of him on the ground he claimed that he had slipped.
He discussed the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Reverend James Reeb in a general way that admitted nothing significant except claiming that none of the members of his posse were involved. He admitted that the civil rights movement accomplished its goals, but he insisted that America was far worse off. It was only a long conversation with an old man defeated in a battle and confounded by history. The details of the conversation contained in the notes are very interesting. My son kept the notes.
Because of Selma, I went to law school. Nothing else had led me to consider law and several movement members advised me against law school and advocated that I go into the ministry because that was where change would come. I explained that my father, a theologian, had made it clear that I was not suited for that calling. And so, I went to NYU Law School.
After law school, Selma led me to the New York City Poverty program. I was one of the founding members of the South Bronx Legal Services Program and subsequently coordinating the City-Wide Legal Services cases. During those years, and after, I represented several Black Panthers in several small and one major case and other less prominent groups in other smaller but no less important civil rights cases. As a lawyer, I felt like a foot soldier for civil rights that was born in Selma.
When I left legal services, I joined the faculty of Seton Hall law School where I continue to teach. During my almost 50 years as a law professor I continued to represent a variety of civil rights cases and issues. They included civil rights, police abuse, racial profiling and sentencing that resulted from drug free zones.
For the last 15 years I have been representing detainees held in Guantanamo. Two were ultimately released and two remain. The two who remain were among the 14 people brought to Guantanamo when the CIA dark sites were closed. Both were tortured savagely. One, Abu Zubaydah is the poster child for torture. The torture memos were specifically written to torture him, by name. It is now admitted that he was never a member of Al Qaida and that he never committed any terrorist acts. He is detained not because of any wrongful actions by him but because he is the poster child for America s torture program. In fact, those who tortured him insisted that if he died that he should be cremated immediately and if he did not die then he must be held incommunicado for the rest of his life. As it now stands he has only spoken to his torturers his jailers and several lawyers, primarily me. That representation has been grueling. Getting to GTMO is very difficult and visits are highly restricted.
My experiences in Selma, especially including my thoughts about the many high school students led me to compile a list of stories by lawyers about Guantanamo just to preserve the details of the experience for history. When I returned on the 50th anniversary there was a meeting for the Footsoldiers in what the Selma high School is now. Many of former students spoke. They talked about their experiences during the months and weeks leading up to the Marches and, of course, their experiences on the bridge, but they also described their subsequent lives following the conclusion of the march and after the out of towners had left. Their post Selma stories were often ordinary and at the same time very moving
Guantanamo, on the other hand was really the opposite. All the lawyers participating knew it was important, everyone involved were good story tells and they all wrote well. My Selma lesson caused me to make sure that the stories would serve as an antidote to the eventual revisionist history about GTMO. The foot soldiers of Guantanamo's stories will be told and remembered. Too few of the Selma foot soldiers stories were preserved because no one at the time appreciated how history would view Selma. It was expected by many of us that it was merely another step in a long march. And the high school and other local students were not by their nature story tellers who would consider recording them. No one bothered to ask them. Instead everyone moved on. Or even to record them.
All these of these subsequent events in my life are the result Selma and the Civil Rights movement for me.
[Editorial note: Many of the Selma student stories were collected by Chuck Bonner — himself a Selma student leader — and can now be found in the Our Stories section of this website (search the page for "Selma").]