Forty years ago today: March 7, 1965 Bloody Sunday
The year was 1965 and in Washington D.C it was an early spring but true to local traditions still slightly muggy. The White House was inhabited by Lyndon Johnson but the area was still reeling from the loss of John Kennedy. Though LBJ was an obvious Southern politician (say anything you need to get elected but do what was most expedient), there was still hope that he would come through for civil rights and support the movement for equality. But certainly nothing was assured. So Selma became a very big test for the White House and for the country. And in some ways both the country and LBJ passed the test - but just barely.
The shock of "Bloody Sunday" with the beatings, tear gas and blatant and unprovoked violence on peaceful marchers spread round the world. The images can be seen today at various sites such as - here at Selma, Lord, Selma.
But what wasn't readily apparent was that from the beginning there was a great deal of negotiations going on between the marchers in Selma and the White House. Basically the marchers wanted the President to guarantee their right to march without being beaten or attacked. After all there were a great number of people of all ages who descended on Selma after the first confrontation and they were firm in their determination to complete the march from Selma to Montgomery. The state as personified by Governor George Wallace vowed to never give in to changes in the principle of a white dominated society based on segregation. At the same time the politicians in Washington wanted to diffuse the situation while allowing the principle of states rights to be maintained. Thus the lines were drawn - states rights or human rights.
There was a very active group of students in Washington D. C. during the civil rights years and they participated in demonstrations locally as well as in the vicinity such as took place in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963 and 1964. (One demonstration I remember resulted in the students getting firsthand experience with tear gas and national guardsman running amuck with rifles and bayonets.) Also the students participated in lobbying Congress as well as tracking and observing the voting patterns of congressman. There was also a loosely based student organization for civil rights made up of representatives of local schools that was affiliated with the leadership Conference on Civil Rights headed by a very fine gentleman from NAACP named Clarence Mitchell. The Leadership council was made up of representatives from all the other organizations (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, SNCC, the Urban league, etc) and represented a true planning and coordinating body.
So after the dark days of the first Selma march and after the areas was inundated with students and concerned citizens there was a time when the phones were burning up between Selma and Washington with updates and discussions and strategy meetings.
Because I had friends in Selma and wanted to support them, I stayed up for three days in a school office dedicated to social action and manned the phones. And the calls came in regularly and tracked the progress or lack of it between the marchers and the White House.
Then one day the calls turned very somber - "We need help!" LBJ was dragging his feet and it appeared that he was withdrawing his support from some kind of Federal intervention. So the decision was made to put all the pressure that we could muster to try to sway the president. A call to action - Demonstrate at the White House. The student organizations were contacted with the word to show up "ASAP" with as many people as possible at the White House to demonstrate and show support for the civil rights of the people in Selma.
The calls and messages took most of a day to get through but a small army of student sympathizers was mobilized.
But then very late in the day another call came from the Selma people with the word that Johnson had capitulated and would give his support.
"Hmmm but what about the demonstration now going on at the White House?"
"Oh my god! Cancel it ! It would look like a betrayal to the negotiations. "
"Well wait a minute that might not be so easy to stop - it's going on right now."
"OK! Will try."
So two of us jump in a car belonging to the university - technically not stealing it but certainly not what they would have approved if known, and head to the White House.
Even from a distance you could see what appeared to be a fairly large contingent of young people with signs and chanting and singing. And there too was a fairly large contingent of police trying to maintain order.
So we pull up to the middle of the block in the midst of the demonstration. (That was when you could just drive up to the place.)
I stood up on the edge of the car on the passenger side with the door open and said-
"Folks - we just got word form Selma that this demonstration is unnecessary and they want us to stop."
One of the students near by with a sign yells- "Who are you?"
So I reply- "I'm the guy who called this demonstration and put it together."
The guy replies - "I don't know you and I'm going to keep demonstrating"
So I said - "Well - It's not a good idea to keep going after its been resolved and the president is co-operating."
But the guy says something to the effect - "Screw you" and keeps on marching around.
Then I see a girl I knew who I had called personally and appealed to her for help... but just then a burley policeman walks up and says to me -
"You can't stop there! And - we're trying to figure who called this demonstration since there's no permit" with the suggestion that there is a violation that is in some way a punishable offense.
So I say - "I don't know what you're talking about" and get back inside the car.
Seeing I am leaving the cop turns away.
To the girl I say - "Well if you want to demonstrate then I guess you have every right."
Some things are bigger than anyone - I think.
And we drive away.
Maybe being up for three days without sleep it is time for some rest.
The situation in Selma was resolved: there was no more violence and the march weeks later did complete the journey
The demonstrators at the white house that evening enjoyed their freedom to demonstrate - and no harm came of it.
But the civil rights movement really had begun to change. "Selma", said Roy Wilkins, was the civil rights movement's "last great parade."
But looking back forty years later - one has to wonder - what did we as a society learn from the Civil Rights Movement and Selma.
We still treat people very badly based on the color of their skin.
We still don't get the concept of freedom and human rights or we wouldn't be involved in Iraq.
We still seem to permit and accept random violence and ugly public behavior in general and against specific groups such gays.
We seem to be abandoning the safety net for our citizens or we wouldn't be cutting welfare, health care and trying to cut social security.
Maybe it's just personal. For me it was worth it!
When you take part in something that changes history - you both become part of history and are also changed, too. So you carry a little bit of your civil rights movement experiences with you wherever you go and you remember the feelings like fear or the smell of tear gas or the sounds of bodies being cracked with sticks. And those things help reinforce your commitments to justice and fairness. And that way it isn't just about a concept you read about in school or something you see on television. It has a reality that is part of your DNA and that maybe can be passed on to future generations.
But as they say - there's no substitute for experience so go there, and Make A Difference!
For a description of what happened read on:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
The Selma to Montgomery marches, which included Bloody Sunday, were three marches that marked the political and emotional peak of the American civil rights movement. They were the culmination of the movement in Selma for voting rights, launched by Amelia Boynton Robinson and her husband, who brought many prominent leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement to Selma, including Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Bevel, and Hosea Williams.
The first march occurred on "Bloody Sunday", March 7, 1965, when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas. Only the third and last successfully marched into Montgomery. The route is memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Trail.
© Fair Use. No Copyright intended by Fountain of Light
Top of Page