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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Voting Rights March

In 1965, U.S. 80 was a transcontinental highway from Savannah Beach, Georgia, to San Diego, California, a distance of about 2,570 miles. The State of Alabama had officially named its part of U.S. 80 the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a name that dated to the 1910s. Not long after auto industry executives announced plans in 1913 for a northern transcontinental route called the Lincoln Highway, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.) adopted the idea of a comparable southern route named after the president of the Confederate States of America. The U.D.C. selected a route from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, and arranged for the States it passed through to adopt the name.

When the U.S. numbered highway system was adopted in 1926 to supplant the names applied by private organizations to interstate routes, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway was split among U.S. 1, U.S. 15, U.S. 29, U.S. 80, U.S. 90, and others.

(Eventually the U.D.C. extended the highway along the Pacific Coast via U.S. 99 to Washington State based on the fact that Davis, as U.S. Secretary of War before the Civil War, had obtained appropriations and directed surveys for wagon roads and railroads to the North Pacific Coast. In November 1966, at the request of Arizona and California, the western terminus of U.S. 80 shifted to Yuma, Arizona.)

When the writers of the Depression-era American Guide Series drove between Montgomery and Selma in Alabama on U.S. 80 in the late 1930s, they found that the route traversed ". . . a gently rolling, open country similar to the Mid-Western prairies." The writers added:

The pattern of life, with its stratified society, still rests on the twin pillars of a Negro's strong shoulders and a bale of cotton . . . . For many years the densest Negro population in the State was found in this section. But tractor farming and cattle raising have removed half of the Negroes from the plantations where, as tenants and sharecroppers, they grew corn and cotton on the same acres that their ancestors tilled as slaves. [Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South, American Guide Series, Richard R. Smith, 1941, p. 287]

About 30 years later, in 1965, that same stretch of U.S. 80/Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in Alabama played a role in one of the most important events in the Civil Rights movement.

Selma had been a white bastion resisting the civil rights advances taking place elsewhere. Branch explained:

After the Brown decision of 1954, a number of prominent Negroes, including professors at Selma University, had followed NAACP instructions to petition for their children to attend the white schools-only to be crushed by retaliation against school budgets, bank loans, and other middle-class vulnerabilities until every name was withdrawn from the petition and the local NAACP disbanded. [Leading] Negroes were fearful, protective, and escapist-more likely to take private flying lessons than visit the courthouse. [Pillar, p. 64]

The attitude extended to voting:

Less than two hundred of fifteen thousand voting-age Negroes were registered in Selma's Dallas County, and only seventy-five even tried to register during the entire decade since 1952-all rejected, including twenty-eight college graduates. On the wall of their Selma insurance office, [voting rights activists] Sam and Amelia Boynton posted the names of all seventy-five rejected applicants as an honor roll of the brave. [Pillar, p. 63]

Into this unpromising atmosphere came Bernard Lafayette, a member of the Nashville Movement, a Freedom Rider, a SNCC founder, who was nicknamed "Little Gandhi" because of his slight stature, scholarly inclinations, and devotion to nonviolent protest. In his early 20s, Lafayette worked closely with Diane Nash and her husband James Bevel.

In the fall of 1962, he moved to Selma as part of the movement's fight to remove barriers to voting. The Justice Department had filed its first voting suit in April 1961 in Selma, with the Boyntons' list of rejected applicants as a starting point. The suit gave Lafayette an opening to work with the Boyntons and other local voting rights advocates. His initial efforts were stymied by resistance from African-Americans who preferred not to antagonize the city's white power structure.

In 1963, he drove to Birmingham most days to help Diane and James Bevel plan the teenage marches that would end the city's protection of its Jim Crow heritage in May. Branch explained:

The thunderous breakthrough in Birmingham made him uncomfortable away from his new post some hundred miles to the south, and Lafayette returned to Selma most evenings that week to sit in vigil at tiny, segregated Berwell Infirmary, where a last debilitating stroke did not keep Sam Boynton from proselytizing whenever conscious. "Are you a registered voter?" he called out to strangers walking down his corridor. "I want you to go down and register. A voteless people is a hopeless people." [Pillar, p. 81-82]

Following Boynton's death in May 1963, Lafayette wanted to hold a memorial service, but had a hard time finding a church willing to sponsor the event that church leaders knew would really be a voting rights rally. The service finally took place at Tabernacle Baptist Church on May 14, with over 350 people in attendance. Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies, strict enforcers of Jim Crow laws, also attended, armed with guns and a court order that they claimed allowed them into the church to guard against insurrection.

SNCC's James Forman was the featured speaker during the 3-hour service, addressing the crowd on "The High Cost of Freedom." Branch summarized his speech:

Forman said it was good that the white officers were there to deprive [attendees] of cheap courage. If they wanted to shout amen to the mission of Sam Boynton, they should do so in front of the sheriff who stood in its way. "Someday they will have to open up that ballot box," said Forman. A crescendo of enthusiasm made a number of elders cringe for the reaction of Sheriff Clark.

After the service, the crowd leaving the church found an angry white mob, including many "teenagers wielding freshly lathed table legs from a nearby furniture company." Sheriff Clark and his deputies, to the surprise of those leaving the church, tried to disperse the crowd, but without success:

As Negroes huddled in panic, fearing arrest if they stayed and attack if they moved, decisive peacemaking authority arrived in the person of the football coach from Selma High School, who jumped from his car and pointed out his current and former players, telling them to go home. [Pillar, p 84]

The drive for voting rights was underway.

On December 10, 1964, Dr. King was in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. He began his remarks by saying:

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.

He used road imagery to make his point:

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity. This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

He concluded with a reference to Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune in munitions, including the invention of dynamite, and whose will dedicated most of his fortune to annual prizes for distinction without regard to nationality:

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners - all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty - and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

On January 2, 1965, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy drove from Atlanta to Selma to energize the voting rights initiative. They saw opportunity because a new Mayor, Joseph T. Smitherman, had taken office and, while he was a segregationist, he took a more moderate approach than his predecessor. He and his city sheriff, Wilson Baker, said they wanted to avoid confrontation through negotiation that would keep Dr. King out of the city and reduce or minimize the types of protests that had damaged the reputation of other cities.

With support from several churches, King and Abernathy intended to defy an order issued in July by Judge James A. Hare that banned "assembly of three persons or more in a public place" under the sponsorship of specified organizations or individuals, including John Lewis and Amelia Boynton. The ban was a reaction to recent events. John Lewis had arrived in Selma in July 1964 to join protests against Jim Crow laws.

On July 4, literacy workers from the north had attempted to eat at the segregated Thirsty Boy Drive-In, prompting a visit from Sheriff Clark. He and his deputies arrested the four workers, using cattle prods in the process, and impounded their car. Later that day, when African-Americans flowed from the balcony of the city's two movie theaters into downstairs seats reserved for whites, Sheriff Clark chased the African-Americans out and closed both theaters.

These confrontations resulted in a large crowd for a Sunday evening meeting at AME Zion Hall. Sheriff Clark declared the meeting a riot and invaded it along with his deputies and their tear gas and billy clubs.

When Lewis led 70 African-Americans to the courthouse on July 6 to register to vote, Sheriff Clark arrested most of them. He and his deputies marched them five blocks to jail, occasionally jolting them with cattle prods. At the sheriff's request, Judge Hare issued his injunction. [Pillar, p. 391]

An appeal of the injunction was making its way through Federal courts. On January 2, Dr. King and Abernathy arrived in Selma. With Sheriff Clark in Miami to watch Alabama's Crimson Tide, led by quarterback Joe Namath, play the Texas Longhorns in the Orange Bowl (the Longhorns won, 21-17), Dr. King stood before a crowd of 700 at Brown Chapel challenging the order as he launched the voting rights initiative:

Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama. If we are refused, we will appeal to Governor George Wallace. If he refuses to listen, we will appeal to the legislature. If they don't listen, we will appeal to the conscience of the Congress . . . . We must be ready to march. We must be ready to go to jail by the thousands . . . . Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one. Give us the ballot! [Pillar, p. 554-555]

Dr. King designated January 18, 1965, as Freedom Day and arranged a series of efforts to desegregate Selma and open voter registration to African-Americans. The registration effort proved symbolic, but seven of eight restaurants served integrated groups and Dr. King registered at the formerly segregated Hotel Albert. (In the hotel foyer, James Robinson of the NSRP asked to speak with Dr. King for a moment. When Dr. King approached, Robinson punched him in the face and kicked him until being pulled away and arrested.)

The following day, volunteers expected to be arrested when they attempted to register to vote. Sheriff Clark obliged them, initially arresting Lewis and others without using a cattle prod or nightstick. However, at one point, he seized Amelia Boynton by the neck of her dress coat and shoved her to the sidewalk while photographers captured the image for newspapers, magazines, and television newscasts around the country.

As President Johnson prepared to begin his first term as elected leader of the country, he planned to emphasize the Great Society proposals he had outlined in his State of the Union Address on January 4, 1965. It would be a society that "asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed." The national agenda he outlined included eliminating "every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote."

His Administration, however, was unsure how to proceed. After 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the Justice Department had found that the pursuit of county-by-county litigation was fruitless. While some officials favored a constitutional amendment, the reality was that the South would block ratification. Moreover, the right to vote was guaranteed already by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution ("The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"), which had proven a weak guarantee in the South.

Although the Administration planned to do something about voting rights, the focus initially would be on securing the Great Society legislation. Despite President Johnson's legislative skills, that would be challenge enough. Critics were already dubbing his Great Society proposals a Communist plan. [Pillar, p. 556]

On February 1, Dr. King led a rally from Brown Chapel down Sylvan Street and into the arms of Sheriff Baker. When the marchers refused to break into small, separated groups that would not constitute a parade under city ordinance, Sheriff Baker arrested all 260-plus. Initially, he refused to include Dr. King and Abernathy among the arrested, but when they held a brief press conference on the sidewalk (Dr. King: "He said we could not come in. They were full and we could come back"), Sheriff Baker's officers arrested them, too. Sheriff Baker also arrested nearly 500 schoolchildren who had marched from a different church, but he released them to their parents until trials could be scheduled.

While pressure continued outside the jail, Dr. King's administrator, Andrew Young, approached President Johnson's staff seeking support. President Johnson addressed the topic at a news conference on February 4, saying in his opening remarks:

On another matter, I should like to say that all Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote. The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. This is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama.

The basic problem in Selma is the slow pace of voting registration for Negroes who are qualified to vote. We are using the tools of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an effort to secure their right to vote. One of those tools of course is legal action to guarantee a citizen his right.

One case of voting discrimination has already led to a trial which has just been concluded. We are now awaiting a decision in this case. In the meantime I hope that all Americans will join with me in expressing their concern over the loss of any American's right to vote. Nothing is more fundamental to American citizenship and to our freedom as a nation and as a people. I intend to see that that right is secured for all of our citizens.

That same day, U.S. Judge Daniel Thomas of Mobile ruled in the case the President had mentioned. After consulting with the Justice Department, Judge Thomas "formally suspended a version of the Alabama literacy test, ordered Selma to take at least one hundred applications per registration day, and guaranteed that all applications received by June 1 would be processed before July." [Pillar, p.579] Marches to test the ruling resulted in more arrests.

Dr. King, in a controversial move, posted bond, an act that undercut a visit by 15 Members of Congress to the jail to see him. By the time they arrived at the jail, he was at Amelia Boynton's home. His supporters announced that he came out of jail to meet with President Johnson at the White House about the need for voting rights legislation.

When an aide told the President about the announcement, he was furious ("Where the hell does he get off inviting himself to the White House?"). Although Press Secretary George Reedy announced on February 6 that the Administration intended to submit voting rights legislation by the end of the year, the President was tied up with issues related to the war in Vietnam on the Monday when Dr. King had proposed the meeting.

To smooth over the embarrassing situation, Dr. King agreed to a White House plan that he would announce a meeting on Tuesday with Vice President Humphrey. The White House promised that the President would emerge from his war meeting to greet Dr. King "spontaneously" if he kept this part of the plan secret. The meeting went as planned, but afterwards, Dr. King refused to read the White House's draft statement or disclose what the President had said. Instead, Dr. King offered the media his own ideas for legislation and referred to the President's commitment to take action. [Pillar, p. 581-582, 584]

The following day, over 160 students left Brown Chapel. To evade the city's parade ordinance, they walked to the courthouse in small groups. Once there, they displayed voter rights signs they had hidden in their clothes. Sheriff Clark, under orders to avoid confrontation, called for buses to block the reporters' view of the demonstrators. Finally, after receiving new instructions in the afternoon, he and his deputies herded the students along Alabama Avenue, past the city jails, and out of town. With billy clubs and cattle prods, the police forced the students into a trot and, finally, a run.

At a creek bridge on River Road, deputies blocked press photographers while he let the students escape into the fields. Later, Sheriff Clark announced that the students had escaped while he had simply been marching them the 6 miles to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge because his jails were full. [Pillar, p. 586]

As protests continued in Selma and the surrounding area, an incident occurred in Marion, a few miles northwest on State Route 45 in Perry County, that would turn into one of the galvanizing moments of the voting rights crusade. Officials and white citizens in Marion decided to call in State police to put an end to the Perry County Voter League's agitation in their community.

The league met at Mount Zion Baptist Church one evening with the intention of marching to the jail a block away to sing a freedom song in honor of SCLC leader James Orange, who had been arrested for contributing to the delinquency of young marchers in Selma. Reporters were on hand, but had told camera crews and photographers to leave their equipment in their cars to avoid provoking police or angry white crowds.

Half a block from the church, Marion Police Chief T. O. Harris ordered the marchers back inside. Reporters, confined across the square, could hear the struggles between the two groups in the darkness. Camera crews and photographers retrieved their equipment from their cars, but police and bystanders prevented them from taking any images of the nighttime events.

Many of the marchers tried to get back into the church, but the entrance was blocked by protesters who were coming outside to begin their march:

Panic drove the ones trapped outside to flee toward buildings behind the church. Fifty state troopers overtook many of them, including eighty-two-year-old Cager Lee, who stumbled bleeding into Mack's Café to find his daughter Viola and grandson Jimmy Lee. In utter chaos, some troopers chased two dozen marchers into the café while ten others pushed inside to chase them out. They expelled one crippled customer unharmed, overturned tables, smashed lights, dishes, customers, and marchers. The café owner saw troopers attack Cager Lee again in the kitchen. For trying to pull them off, Viola Jackson was beaten to the floor. Her son Jimmy Lee Jackson lunged to protect her. One trooper threw him against a cigarette machine, another shot him twice in the stomach, and then they cudgeled him back outside toward the bus station, where he collapsed. Jackson was the only gunshot victim among ten Negroes who were hospitalized . . . . Reporters on the Marion square were surprised to come upon Sheriff Clark among the officers imported from other counties. He quipped that things had been too quiet for him in Selma. [Pillar, p, 592-593]

Jackson, a 26-year old pulpwood worker who had tried five times to register to vote, was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, where he died on February 26. According to Branch:

Colonel Al Lingo, head of the Alabama state troopers, served an arrest warrant upon Jimmie Lee Jackson in his hospital bed Tuesday, and the Alabama Senate formally denounced "baseless and irresponsible" charges of dereliction by his men in the Marion incident. [Pillar, p. 597]

James Bevel, his marriage to Diane Nash dissolving because of his philandering, and Lafayette visited the Lee family, who encouraged them to continue the marches for voting rights. Bevel suggested to Lafayette that they march the 54 miles to Montgomery on U.S. 80, a plan Bevel announced that evening at Brown Chapel:

He expounded on Esther 4:8, in which Mordecai warned Esther of an order to destroy the Jews, and charged her to go to the king and "make request before him for her people." He preached that the king now was Governor Wallace, who ran the state troopers and kept Negroes from voting. "I must go see the king!" he cried, and soon brought the whole church to its feet vowing to go on foot as in the Bible. "Be prepared to walk to Montgomery!" shouted Bevel. "Be prepared to sleep on the highway!"

On the day that Jackson was buried, Wednesday, March 3, Dr. King participated in the funeral service in Marion. He predicted that "love will conquer hate" through justice, and endorsed the march to Montgomery scheduled for the coming Sunday. Returning from Marion to Brown Chapel, he predicted, "We will bring a voting bill into being on the streets of Selma." [Pillar, p. 600]

Governor Wallace and his staff decided on a plan they thought would make the marchers "the laughingstock of the nation." They would surprise marchers, who assumed they would be blocked, by letting them march to Montgomery. But police would block all vehicles, leaving the marchers without supplies for the 3-day walk. The marchers would have to straggle back to Selma, leaving the protest a shambles. The Governor approved the plan with the understanding that he could change his mind at the last minute to block the march.

He did change his mind.

Dr. King stated that if the marchers were blocked, they would "lie down in the road" and wait for Federal relief. Governor Wallace responded by announcing, "There will be no march between Selma and Montgomery." Mayor Smitherman added, "Negroes should not be permitted to make this senseless march." [Branch, Taylor, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Simon and Schuster, 2006, p. 38-39]

On the Friday before the scheduled march, Dr. King was in Washington to meet with President Johnson to discuss the proposed voting rights bill. The President agreed about the need for a bill, as opposed to a constitutional amendment, but only agreed to submit a voting rights message to Congress.

Finding that he had to be in Atlanta for services at Ebenezer Church on Sunday, March 7, Dr. King proposed to postpone the march to Monday. While march leaders in Selma debated whether Dr. King had, or had not, approved the March 7 start, marchers began to assemble at Brown Chapel. Leaders reached Dr. King at his church and he concurred in the plan to proceed despite his absence.

Sheriff Clark had been in Washington on Saturday to tape the Sunday morning ABC show Issues and Answers (he claimed that "nigras are registered pretty much as they desire to" and that Dr. King had come to Selma "to make his personal bank account larger"). Sunday, he returned to Alabama and drove from Montgomery on U.S. 80 to the east side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to oversee plans for the march. In addition to troopers on horseback, he had wide-nozzle tear gas spray guns and launching rifles for tear gas canisters. [Canaan, p. 46]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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