Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2439

The civil rights struggle in Selma

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
A protest for voting rights shows how the Civil Rights movement radicalised and spread even after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, as a new film celebrates, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2439
Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote
Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote (Pic: Library of Congress)

Two years after becoming prime minister, David Cameron took time out from attacking multiculturalism to praise “the visionary leadership of Martin Luther King and inspirational actions of the Civil Rights movement”. 

No world leader would say a word against King today. 

But it was different in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement clashed with the US state and the FBI secret police tried to blackmail King.

Alabama cops savagely beat Civil Rights protesters fighting for their right to vote in Selma, Alabama. 

Police officer James Bonard Fowler shot protester Jimmie Lee Jackson twice in the stomach, and he died a few days later.

Jackson had been rushing to get in between his 82 year old mother and the cops who were beating her with batons. 

US president Barack Obama was in office by the time Fowler was finally charged with murder in 2010.

But he only served two months in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter.  

King’s “I have a dream” speech and the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned the South’s segregationist Jim Crow laws are often presented as the movement’s final word.

But the campaign in Selma to win the right to vote for black people  came after this. 

This campaign in particular showed the campaigners’ heroism—but also how the pressures put on the movement were pulling it in different directions. 

While the Jim Crow laws had been abolished in 1964, Southern states still enforced a series of bylaws that effectively banned black people from voting. 

Newly elected US president Lyndon B Johnson told King that he wouldn’t support immediate voting reform. He wanted to keep segregationists in his own Democratic Party on side.

So Selma was picked to start the campaign, as activists were already organising there.

People marched to the city hall to register to vote, but were bureaucratically delayed, beaten and arrested. Over 2,000 had been imprisoned by the end of February, including King. 

Disagreement broke out about how to deal with Alabama’s solidly racist governor George Wallace and the local authorities, which seemed more prepared to compromise. 

King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) believed that the national campaign to change all was most important and forcing a local retreat on bylaws was not enough.But the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), previously the movement’s student wing, opposed the SCLC’s method of sweeping in for a few months with a high publicity campaign. 

It argued that focusing on locally rooted organisations was crucial. 

One sign of the shifting politics was that Malcolm X visited the campaign, just weeks before being assassinated in New York.  

He had previously spoken against the Civil Rights movement’s passive character. But now he told King’s wife Coretta, “If the white people realise what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr King.” 

The vicious Selma police were led by the racist Sheriff Jim Clark. On a night demonstration on 18 February, police plunged the street into darkness by shutting off the street lamps and attacked the terrified protesters from all sides with batons. This was when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot.

This led protesters to change tactics, and plan a march to Alabama’s capital Montgomery. 

But police brutally attacked protesters using tear gas, electric prods and horse whips as they marched out of Selma across Edmund Pettus Bridge. Local Civil Rights leader Amelia Boynton, 53, was beaten unconscious. The bridge was named in honour of a US civil war Confederate general, who went on to become a Ku Klux Klan leader. 

The New York Times newspaper reported, “The troopers rushed forward, their blue uniforms and white helmets blurring into a flying wedge as they moved.

“The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides.”

These events became known as “Bloody Sunday”. 

Two more marches followed. 

Police stopped the first march, but didn’t attack it after King agreed to return to Selma after praying on the bridge. Nevertheless, that night racists murdered marcher James Reeb. 

Embarrassed by the terrible publicity the violence received internationally president Johnson pushed through a law to outlaw all local discrimination in voting and sent troops to protect the marchers. The third march got through to Montgomery—protected by nearly 4,000 troops. 

King said, “In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the root cause of racial segregation. 

“Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. 

“The segregation of the races was really a political strategy … to keep the southern masses divided and southern labour the cheapest in the land.”

Selma was a major victory, but it also showed that voting reform would not end racism or exploitation. 

King had already announced the movement had to shift its focus to the North. By August he was campaigning in the Los Angeles Watts ghetto after anger exploded in an urban uprising. California’s governor sent 15,000 armed police and National Guard troops to suppress it. They killed 34 people and arrested 4,000. 

The uprising represented an abandonment of King’s non-violent tactics. He “deplored” it, but rightly said that “the economic deprivation, racial isolation, inadequate housing and general despair of thousands of Negroes” were to blame. 

A year earlier he had visited Watts in a voter registration drive. But this was not in the South. Black people had the right to vote—but on the whole didn’t see anyone worth voting for. So now they rose up.

King had come to understand that radical change was needed to improve poor people’s lives, talking in private about it being a “form of socialism”. 

But others realised that more revolutionary change was required. Stokely Carmichael, who would head the SNCC after his work in Selma, broke with non-violence and called for Black Power the next year.

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a local black party set up as part of SNCC’s registration drive, was first to use the black panther as its symbol in 1965. The image became nationally famous after it was taken up by the more famous Black Panther Party the following year.

King himself continued to move leftward. He was one of the first national figures to come out against the Vietnam War, and was supporting a Memphis refuse strike when he was assassinated. King was also in the process of arranging a second March on Washington—this time focusing on poverty.

Is non-violence the answer? 

Martin Luther King made clear in notes he wrote during the Selma campaign that his strategy for the Civil Rights movement relied on forcing the US state to step in.

He wrote:

  1. non-violent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights;
  2. racists resist by unleashing violence against them;
  3.  Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation; 
  4. the Administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation.”

This had proved an effective tool, but many younger radicals in the movement rightly started questioning it.  

No one at the top could be looked to as an ally. The struggle against racism had to challenge rulers’ ability to divide the workers against each other.

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