Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 15. Segment 5
A Different Kind of Fight

At home, another battle was going on—the battle for civil rights. President Johnson's Civil Rights Act hadn't solved the voting problem. It did allow black people to check into any hotel they desired, sit on buses wherever they wished, and eat in any restaurant. But in much of the rural South, blacks still couldn't vote. In 1964, when black people tried to register to vote in Alabama or Mississippi or some other southern states, they were likely to be beaten, or to lose their jobs—even though the Fifteenth Amendment says that every citizen has the right to vote. See It Now - Voter Registration Drive Those who kept trying to register were given impossible questions to answer, or asked to pay a poll tax they couldn't afford. Among others, the President himself was outraged about the situation. (W03) He said, Hear It Now - LBJ "Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote!"

The town of Selma was the seat of Dallas County, Alabama. It was a town of 30,000 people; more than half were black. Before the Civil War, one of the town's buildings had been used to hold slaves as they waited to be auctioned off. During the Civil War, Selma was a Confederate military depot. In the 1960s, the streets in the black section of town were red dirt; those in the white section were paved. And in a town where 15,000 blacks were of voting age, only 333 were registered voters.

In early 1965, Selma's black leaders ask Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), to come to town with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, known as the SCLC. See It Now - Martin Luther King in Selma They need help getting people registered to vote. King saw it as a prime focal point for action. He said, "The ugly pattern of segregationist denial flourishes in Alabama, Mississippi and other southern communities. What is malignant in Selma must be removed. Selma is to 1965 what Birmingham was to 1963."

A group of Selma's black citizens marches to the courthouse to try to register. They aren't allowed inside. When their organizers bring them sandwiches and water, the workers are hit with billy clubs. That just makes people more determined. More than a hundred black teachers decide to march. That is the turning point, says the Reverend Frederick Reese. "The undertakers got a group, and they marched," he said. "The beauticians got a group; they marched. Everybody marched after the teachers marched."

Martin Luther King, Jr., stands with 250 citizens who want to register to vote. They are thrown in jail. When they hear of Dr. King's arrest, 500 school kids march to the courthouse. See It Now - School Children Marching They are arrested. Two days later 300 more are arrested. TV news pictures it all. King writes a letter from jail. "This is Selma, Alabama," he says. "There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls."

In Selma, marchers, even reporters covering the marches, are being roughed up and beaten. Where can they go for protection? Not to the police. It's the police, the state troopers, and the sheriff who are doing most of the beating. See It Now - Sheriff Jim Clark When eighty-two year old Cager Lee marches, a state trooper whips him until he is bloody. Jimmy Lee Jackson, Cager's grandson, carries his grandfather into a café. But the troopers storm right into the café. One trooper hits Jimmy's mother; another shoots Jimmy in the stomach. He dies seven days later. There is no stopping the civil rights workers now. The murder is too much for many white citizens. Seventy of them march in sympathy to the courthouse. A clergyman becomes their spokesman. He says: "We consider it a shocking injustice that there are still counties in Alabama where there are no Negroes registered to vote. We are horrified at the brutal way in which the police have attempted to break up peaceful assemblies and demonstrations by American citizens."

On March 7, 1965, six hundred people—men, women, and children—gather in Selma. They plan to march the fifty-eight miles to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, where they intend to face Governor George Wallace and demand that all of Alabama's citizens be protected in their right to vote. They march the first six blocks, singing as they go. But when they mount the sloping crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they are stunned by what they see: state troopers are lined up, gas masks in place, bull whips and billy clubs raised. See It Now - Showdown in Selma The officers move forward and release tear gas bombs. Sheyann Webb was among the marchers. She later recalled: Hear It Now - Sheyann Webb "People were running and falling and ducking and you could hear the whips swishing and you'd hear them striking people. I tried to run home as fast as I could. Hosea Williams picked me up and I told him to put me down, he wasn't running fast enough." Check The Source - Eyewitness to Selma

But something new has come to this out-of-the-way southern town: television coverage. Camera crews are filming the action. Sheriff Clark's bullying is no longer just Selma's problem: it is national news. TV stations across the nation interrupt their regular programs to show scenes of policemen on horseback clubbing peaceful marchers. See It Now - Selma March Most good people are sickened. So when Martin Luther King sends telegrams to prominent clergymen asking them to join him for a ministers' march to Montgomery, they come from many places and many faiths. Among them is a Unitarian minister from Boston named James Reeb. See It Now - James Reeb In Selma, he and some other white ministers make the mistake of eating in a black café. For Reeb, it is a fatal mistake. He is clubbed to death as he comes out of the restaurant.

In Washington, President Johnson makes a comment: "What happened in Selma was an American tragedy. Hear It Now - LBJ At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was in Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama."

The President announces that he is sending a voting rights bill to Congress. Check The Source - The Voting Rights Act of 1965 Then he speaks to the 70 million people who listen on television. It's not just Negroes, he says. It's really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And he finishes by quoting the title of the great civil rights song: "We Shall Overcome." Check The Source - "And We Shall Overcome" Martin Luther King and his friends are among those watching. One of King's colleagues told the story: "We were all sitting together. Martin was very quietly sitting in his chair, and a tear ran down his cheek. It was a victory like none other."

Six days later, See It Now - Selma to Montgomery 4,000 people, black and white, march from the Pettus Bridge in Selma to Montgomery, camping out at night and singing songs of freedom. This time National Guardsmen protect them. By the time they reach the capital, See It Now - Arriving at the State Capitol 25,000 people have joined the march. Rosa Parks is there, and so are many who, ten years earlier, walked through winter's bluster and summer's heat rather than ride Montgomery's segregated buses. Martin Luther King, Jr., was then an unknown preacher. He is now world famous.

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