Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bridge to Freedom, 1965: Selma, Alabama


NARRATOR: Selma, Alabama, 1965.

C. T. VIVIAN: I don't want to ... (inaudible) leave. We have come to register to vote.

RACHEL WEST NELSON: If we can't vote, you ain't free. If you ain't free, well then you're slaves.

C. T. VIVIAN: We're willing to be beaten for democracy.

NARRATOR: Years of struggle came down to this climactic battle for voting rights. Before it ended, black and white Americans gave their lives. But would that be enough?

C. T. VIVIAN: You people beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote.

MALCOLM X: In the areas of the country where the government has proven itself unable or unwilling to defend the Negroes when they are being brutally and unjustly attacked, then the Negroes themselves should take whatever steps necessary to defend themselves.


NARRATOR: To many Americans, black and white, this was their worst nightmare. Race riots in northern cities during the summer of 1964. The civil rights movement was ten years old, nonviolence had been the strategy. But could nonviolence work in a society which grew angrier each day?

GUNNAR JAHN: On behalf of the Nobel Committee --

NARRATOR: To the world, Martin Luther King, Jr., had come to symbolize the success of nonviolent strategy. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964.

GUNNAR JAHN: -- and the gold medal.

NARRATOR: But in America, young militants were beginning to challenge King's leadership. Dallas County, Selma, Alabama. For more than a year, organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, had worked with local residents in waging a voter registration campaign. They met some resistance.

By the end of 1964, SNCC was exhausted, with little money to continue. Selma's black leaders turned to Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for help.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign.

NARRATOR: King's presence reopened an old rivalry between the ministers of SCLC and the young organizers of SNCC.

JAMES FORMAN: We felt that there should be a projection and an organization of indigenous leadership and leadership from the community. Whereas the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took the position that Martin was a charismatic leader who was mainly responsible for raising money and they raised most money off of his leadership. But this differences in leadership then led to differences in style of work. We wanted a movement that would survive the loss of our lives; therefore, the necessity to build a broad based movement and not just a charismatic leader.

NARRATOR: SNCC and SCLC put aside their differences and launched a combined effort on January 18th, 1965. The Dallas County courthouse steps became a dramatic stage as prospective voters lined up for the registrar's office in Selma. The key actor was Sheriff Jim Clark. Movement leaders counted on Clark to draw media attention, the kind of attention that would interest Washington and win voting rights legislation.


MAYOR SMITHERMAN: I am a segregationist. I do not believe in biracial committees.

NARRATOR: Selma's political leaders understood the movement's tactics and were desperate not to get caught in the middle. Mayor Joseph Smitherman and his public safety director, Wilson Baker, hoped to restrain the volatile Sheriff Clark as he dealt with the demonstrators.

JOSEPH SMITHERMAN: They picked Selma just like a movie producer would pick a set. You had the right ingredients. I mean, you'd had to have seen Clark in his day. He had a helmet on like General Patton, he had the clothes, the Eisenhower jacket and a swagger stick, and then Baker was very impressive and I guess I was the least of all. I was 145 pounds and a crew cut and big ears. So you had a young mayor with no background or experience.

MAYOR SMITHERMAN: Our city and our county has been subjected to the greatest pressures I think any community in the country has had to withstand. We've had in our area here outside agitation groups of all levels. We've had Martin Luther Coon -- Pardon me, sir, Martin Luther King, we have had people of the Nazi Party, the States Rights Party, both of these groups have come in, they have continually harassed and agitated us for approximately three or four weeks.


NARRATOR: More than half of Dallas County's citizens were black, but less than one percent were registered by 1965. Throughout much of the South, custom and law had long prevented blacks from registering. In Selma, the registrar's office was open only two days a month. Registrars would arrive late, leave early, and take long lunch hours. Few blacks who lined up would get in. And getting in was no guarantee of being registered.

President Johnson knew the problem, and now having soundly defeated conservative Barry Goldwater in the recent election, he set this goal.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I propose that we eliminate every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote.

NARRATOR: But Johnson's staff had doubts about pushing for more legislation.

NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: I think those of us who had been involved day in and day out in civil rights legislation, in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress were the people who were dragging our feet and wanted breathing room. The President didn't want that. He said, "Get it and get it now because we'll never have a better opportunity to get legislation on any subject including civil rights than we have right now in 1965. We have the majority to do it, we can do it."


NARRATOR: Although Sheriff Clark tried to control his temper, the strain began to show. In mid-January, he arrested Mrs. Amelia Boynton, a highly respected community leader. Angered by Mrs. Boynton's arrest, 105 local teachers marched to the courthouse in protest, knowing they might be fired by the white school board.

SHERIFF CLARK: This court house is a serious place of business and you seem to think you can take it just to be, uh, Disneyland or something on parade. Do you have business in the court house?

TEACHER: We just, we just want to pass through.

SHERIFF CLARK: Do you have any business in the court house?

TEACHER: The only business we have is to come by the Board of Registrars to register...

SHERIFF CLARK: The Board of Registrars is not in session this afternoon as you were informed. You came down to make a mockery out of this court house and we're not going to have it.


REV. FREDERICK D. REESE: So I saw then that he was not going to arrest us, as I really wanted him to do. Therefore, we asked the teachers then to regroup and we marched back, not to the school but to the Brown Chapel Church, at which time there was a rally held.

NARRATOR: The teachers march was the first black middle class demonstration in Selma. Sheyann Webb and Rachel West were schoolchildren at the time.

SHEYANN WEBB: And it was a amazing to see how many teachers had participated. I remember vividly on that day when I saw my teachers marching with me, you know, just for the right to vote.

RACHEL WEST NELSON: Teachers there was somewhat like up in the upper class, you know. People looked up to teachers then, they looked up to preachers. They were somewhat like leaders for back then.

REV. FREDERICK D. REESE: Then the undertakers got a group and they marched. The beauticians got a group, they marched. Everybody marched after the teachers marched because teachers had more influence than they ever dreamed in the community.

C. T. VIVIAN: And we want you to know, gentlemen, that every one of you, we know your badge numbers, we know your names.

NARRATOR: In mid-February, Reverend C. T. Vivian, an SCLC organizer, confronted Sheriff Clark and his deputies on the courthouse steps.

C.T. Vivian
C. T. VIVIAN: But believe me, there were those that followed Hitler, like you blindly follow this Sheriff Clark who didn't think their day was coming. But they also were pulled into courtrooms and they were also given their death sentences. You're not this bad a racist, but you're a racist in the same way Hitler was a racist. And you're blindly following a man that's leading you down a road that's going to bring you into federal court. Now, I'm representing people in Dallas County and I have that right to do so. Now, and as I represent them and they can speak for themselves, is what I'm saying true? Is it what you think and what you believe? For this is not a local problem, gentlemen. This is a national problem. You can't keep anyone in the United States from voting without hurting the rights of all other citizens. Democracy is built on this. This is why every man has the right to vote, regardless.

JIM CLARK: And he started shouting at me that I was a Hitler, I was a brute, I was a Nazi. I don't remember everything he called me. And I did lose my temper then.

C. T. VIVIAN: We have come to be here because they are registering at this time.

SHERIFF CLARK: Turn that light out. You're blinding me and I can't enforce the law with the light in my face.

C. T. VIVIAN: We have come to register and this is our reason for being here. We're not --

SHERIFF CLARK: You're blinding me with that light. Move back.

C. T. VIVIAN: You can arrest us. You can arrest us, Sheriff Clark. You don't have to beat us.


JIM CLARK: I don't remember even hitting him, but I went to the doctor, got an x-ray and found out I had a linear fracture on my finger on my left hand.

C. T. VIVIAN: With Jim Clark, it was a clear engagement between the forces and movements and the forces of the structure that would destroy movement. It was a clear engagement between those who wished the fullness of their personalities to be met and those that would destroy us physically and psychologically. You do not walk away from that. This is what movement meant. Movement meant that finally we were encountering on a mass scale the evil that had been destroying us on a mass scale. You do not walk away from that, you continue to answer it.

C. T. VIVIAN: If we're wrong, why don't you arrest us?

POLICEMAN: Why don't you get out of in front of the camera and go on. Go on.

C. T. VIVIAN: It's not a matter of being in front of the camera. It's a matter of facing your sheriff and facing your judge. We're willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in this street. You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote. You beat me in the side and then hide your blows. We have come to register to vote.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: I'm here to tell you tonight that the businessmen, the mayor of this city, the police commissioner of this city, and everybody in the white power structure of this city must take a responsibility for everything that Jim Clark does and has created. It's time for us to say to these men that if you don't do something about it, we will have no alternative but to engage in broader and more drastic forms of civil disobedience in order to bring the attention of a nation to this whole issue in Selma, Alabama. (Transcript: Eyes On The Prize, Bridge To Freedom, 1965)


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