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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Across the Bridge

The next day, life in Alabama was unchanged. In reaction to recent events, SNCC's James Forman staged a hastily arranged march in Montgomery to deliver a voting rights petition to Governor Wallace. The 600 marchers included students and people intercepted at the airport on their way to Selma. They began at Jackson Baptist Church, but were stopped by police at the corner of Decatur Street and Adams Avenue. Montgomery County sheriff Mac Sim Butler and 15 mounted troopers rode into the marchers and pummeled them with nightsticks and, in the sheriff's case, a cane held by the tip end. Photographs of the attack made the front page of newspapers around the country.

Dr. King led a second march the following day, 2,000 strong, to the courthouse in Montgomery. Aware of the negative publicity from the previous day, the local prosecutor met Dr. King to apologize for the "mix-up and a misunderstanding of orders" the day before. While the marchers waited in the rain outside, Dr. King and James Forman entered the courthouse to negotiate new protest procedures. At 5:15, they came out to brief the marchers:

Local officials had agreed to sign a statement of regret for Tuesday's violence, they said, and to forswear the use of the unaccountable possemen for law enforcement. They thanked the rain-soaked crowd for putting a "historic occasion" within reach.

Andrew Young interrupted to whisper in Dr. King's ear.

His face changed. News cameramen expectantly buzzed reporters near him to clear the view-"get the mike down, get the mike down.'

"Let me give you this statement I think will come as a source of deep joy to all of us," King called out. "Judge Johnson has just ruled that we have a legal and Constitutional right to march from Selma to Montgomery!" Rolling cheers erupted over the last words.

Judge Johnson had intended to issue the order all along, but had been waiting for guarantees from Washington that the marchers would be protected. [Canaan, p. 118-119, 122-123]

Dr. King scheduled the march to begin on Sunday, March 21. As State officials headed to New Orleans to appeal Judge Johnson's ruling, the Senate adopted a resolution sending the President's bill to the Judiciary Committee, with instructions that the committee report the bill for floor action no later than April 9, the 100th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Judiciary Chairman Eastland was outraged that his prerogative to set the timetable had been usurped. He added, "I am opposed to every word and every line in the bill."

The White House was sparring with Governor Wallace over whether the State would enforce safety for the march. The President's dominance of Wallace during their face to face meeting did not work on the telephone, but the Governor implied he would call up as many members of the Alabama Guard as necessary. Then he changed his mind. On Thursday, March 18, Governor Wallace addressed the State legislature to denounce the marchers who served a "foreign philosophy" that used African-Americans "as tools in this traditional type of Communist street warfare." He called on Alabamians to stay home, and said that since the Federal court had created the problem, he would call on Washington to "provide for the safety and welfare of the so-called demonstrators."

The President was infuriated that the Governor had gone back on his word and further angered when the Governor telegraphed a request for 5,000 civilian Federal workers, such as marshals and prison guards, to police the march. The telegram put the President in an awkward position because the States rights issue made calling out the National Guard or other Federal law enforcement officers problematic. The President, who wanted to issue a rebuke, instead replied that civilian workers were untrained for the task whereas the Alabama National Guard was trained and equipped for the purpose. Under the circumstances, the President intended to protect the marchers if Governor Wallace would not. [Canaan, p. 125-128]

Dr. King and his aides had to concentrate on planning the march in accordance with limitations placed by Judge Johnson's order. He allowed the march to last 5 or fewer days. Any number of people could participate at the beginning and end of the march, but no more than 300 could walk on the two-lane segment of U.S. 80 in Lowndes County. What to do with the marchers who could not participate in Lowndes County posed a logistical nightmare. [Canaan, p. 131]

On Sunday, March 21, the march began at Brown Chapel just before 1 p.m. with over 3,000 participants, a large press contingent, and hostile bystanders along the route. Dr. King led the march alongside Reverend Abernathy, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Marchers included college and high school students, housewives, movie stars, maids, even couples with baby carriages. Cager Lee, Jimmie Lee Jackson's 80-year old grandfather, was the oldest marcher. The bystanders were quiet, confining themselves to occasional protests, such as playing the popular song "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" from their car radios.

At Broad Street, the marchers turned left and approached the Pettus Bridge, now clear of any obstacles. Under General Graham, the federalized Alabama National Guard was ready to protect and facilitate the march. The marchers crossed the bridge without incident and continued on U.S. 80 as National Guard Jeeps drove ahead to block intersections. Passing vehicles sometimes included intimidating signs such as "Cheap ammo here," but the marchers continued unimpeded.

At the first break, things began to sort out, according to Branch:

After the reclining multitude ate bologna sandwiches-King in a dark suit, overcoat, and new hiking boots-hard pavement troubled the march more than danger. Backpacks grew heavy and assorted protections awkward-yellow hardhats, umbrellas, one football helmet. For stragglers who dropped from the lines by the score, sore and sick, marshals arranged transport back to Selma in private automobiles with National Guard escorts. [Canaan, p. 144]

The first night's campsite was 7 miles out of Selma on property owned by an African-American. Many of the marchers were shuttled back to Selma for the night by car on U.S. 80 or on a special train. About 400 marchers spent the night in four large field tents.

Monday morning, the marchers got an early start, gradually joined by some of the marchers returning by bus from Selma. At the next rest stop, organizers had to reduce their number to 300 as mandated by Judge Johnson because the marchers had reached the 22-mile long segment of two-lane U.S. 80 in Lowndes County. The reduction led to arguments and resentments as those not selected returned to Selma.

Finally, they set off again, with the reduced contingent including about 22 white marchers and John Lewis, just arrived despite his injuries on Bloody Sunday and advice from friends that he avoid potential confrontations while he was convalescing. About one-third of the marchers were women. They completed 16 miles on Monday without incident except for greetings from well-wishers along the way. Arriving in camp that night, many marchers needed treatment for sunburn and other heat-related conditions. Dr. King's wife, Coretta, joined them in the evening.

On Tuesday, Dr. King flew to Cleveland to raise funds for the march before taking his charter flight back to Montgomery. He told 2,200 people at the Hotel Sheraton that their donations would help defray the estimated $50,000 cost of the march. "Ohio's largest newspaper, the Plain Dealer," according to Branch, "highlighted blistered feet on the front page-'Dr. King, in Cleveland, Tries Not to Limp' . . . ." [Canaan, p. 152-153]

While in Cleveland, Dr. King missed the morning deluge that saturated the marchers, but they continued along U.S. 80 in the rain. White bystanders taunted them, but the marchers sang songs to keep their spirits up. Branch noted a significant moment:

Halfway to Montgomery, on request from [Assistant Attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice] John Doar through Pentagon Channels, Guardsmen in splattered ponchos along the route obediently turned outward toward the countryside, acknowledging external rather than internal danger. [Canaan, p. 150]

At the end of the day, the marchers arrived at their camp to find much of it too wet to use. After the Army demolition unit finished sloshing through the mud in search of bombs, march organizers found ground that was solid enough for two of the field tents that were usable only after bales of hay and straw provided some relief from the wet ground.

Wednesday morning, Andrew Young led the marchers out of the muddy camp onto U.S. 80, which returned to four lanes a mile ahead. No longer limited by Judge Johnson's order, additional marchers began to join.

By the time Dr. King returned around 11 a.m., the marchers totaled over 1,000, with more continuing to arrive by car and bus. When thunderstorms struck at around 1:30 p.m., the marchers stretched over a mile of the highway. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 were marching by the time the group reached its final stop on a Catholic campground just outside Montgomery.

More supporters joined through the late afternoon and evening in anticipation of the march into the city. The crowd swelled to 30,000 by the end of the day, straining the limited capacity of the campsite. A stage had been erected, but the planned program was delayed by equipment failures that kept the camp in the dark. Finally, technicians coaxed a sound system to life:

[The] jerrybuilt sound system sputtered to life late in the evening, allowing Harry Belafonte to sing one of his signature calypso hits, "Jamaica Farewell." To restore order and spirits, Belafonte presented a midnight gala featuring Nina Simone, Alan King, Billy Eckstein, Johnny Mathis, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, and many others. Coretta King read a Langston Hughes poem in a rare joint appearance with her husband, saluting the large contingent of marchers from her native Perry County-"I was born and reared just eighty miles from here. [Canaan, p. 157-158]

Dr. King spent most of the night in a nearby home participating in a staff meeting. When he returned to the St. Jude camp in the morning, soldiers, who had been told to block left turns into the campgrounds, initially blocked his car. Bernard Lee and Andrew Young tried to convince the sergeant in charge to let Dr. King's car through. When they failed, Dr. Ralph Bunche told the sergeant, "I'm Dr. Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations. Here for the march." The sergeant replied, "Sorry, sir. This is not the United Nations. My orders are no left turn." Finally, as Dr. King left the car to try to resolve the situation, a Montgomery police officer arrived and told the sergeant, "You danged fool. This is the man. Let him through!" The sergeant let the car through. [Canaan, p. 159-160]

Inside the camp, the order of marchers was hotly debated. Finally, 2 hours late, Dr. King was ready to lead approximately 12,000 marchers out of the camp. Intersections along the 4-mile march had been blocked, but more participants joined the long procession as it passed through the city:

From St. Jude hospital, where Coretta had given birth to the Kings' first two children, the path moved into Negro neighborhoods down Oak Street past Holt Street Baptist Church, where King at twenty-six had addressed the first mass meeting of the bus boycott more than nine years earlier . . . . The column streamed down Mobile Street into a downtown business district that was eerily deserted. Governor Wallace had proclaimed a "danger" holiday for female state employees, and major businesses placed newspaper advertisements endorsing his stay-home message. From an office building at the corner of Lee and Montgomery, marchers were showered with leaflets picturing King in 1957 at Tennessee's Highlander Center, labeled "MARTIN LUTHER KING AT COMMUNIST TRAINING SCHOOL" . . . .

From a high window in the federal building, where four years earlier a horrified John Doar had watched mobs beat integrated Freedom Riders at the bus station, Frank Johnson witnessed a political demonstration for the first time in his life; he and a fellow judge measured two hours for the lines to pass the Jeff Davis Hotel . . . .

Around the fountain at Court Square, where Rosa Parks had boarded her segregated bus home from work on the day in 1955 when her arrest started the boycott, the route opened broadly for the last six blocks up the hill toward the Palladian white dome of the Alabama state capitol. [Canaan, p. 162]

State troopers stood behind wooden barriers along Dexter Avenue as Dr. King led the march past Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, site of his first pastorate. Troopers also blocked access to State property where Dexter Avenue, the route of Jefferson Davis' first inaugural parade, met Bainbridge Street. Governor Wallace had ordered a plywood covering to prevent the marchers from "desecrating" by their touch the bronze floor emblem on the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America in February 1961.

The stage for the rally was the back of a flatbed truck. The rally began with performances by singers, including Odetta, Leon Bibb, Joan Baez, and Oscar Brand. When national broadcasts captured the white Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary kissing the black Harry Belafonte on the cheek, telephone calls flooded the networks from outraged southerners demanding that the broadcast be ended (as well as calls from angry viewers whose afternoon soap operas had been preempted).

Amelia Boynton read the petition intended for Governor Wallace, while Rosa Parks, pushed forward against her wishes, spoke briefly to thunderous applause. Finally, Dr. King took the stage to address "all of the freedom-loving people" assembled before him and around the Nation and world:

Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains.

He acknowledged that, "Our bodies are tired, and our feet are somewhat sore," but he recalled what a 70-year African-American woman had said when she was asked during the bus boycott if she wanted a ride. When she declined, the friend asked if she wasn't tired. "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." He continued:

And in a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested.

They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."

He reminded them why they had marched to Montgomery. "Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course." He continued:

A president born in the South had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight.

He was confident of the future:

So I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.

The denial of the right to vote that they had come to secure was "the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland." The denial supported the segregated society in which they lived, and blocked the progress of African-Americans who needed to join in the American way of life:

Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world: We are not able to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.

We are on the move now.
The burning of our churches will not deter us.
We are on the move now.
The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us.
We are on the move now.
The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us.
We are on the move now.
The arrest and release of known murderers will not discourage us.
We are on the move now.

Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.

Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream.

He continued with the list of barriers to be overcome, including segregated and inferior education, poverty, and hunger:

Let us march on ballot boxes, until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God's children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.

For all of us today the battle is in our hands. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going.

Difficulties remained, a season of suffering was ahead, jail cells awaited them. But "the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." He continued:

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.
How long? Not long. Because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, 'cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpets that shall never call retreat. He is lifting up the hearts of man before His judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on. [Testament, p. 227-230]

Governor Wallace refused to accept the voting rights petition the marchers had brought with them.

One of the people in the crowd for Dr. King's speech was a 39-year old white mother of five from Detroit, Violet Luizzo. She had been inspired by President Johnson's March 15 speech to hop in her Oldsmobile and drive to Alabama for the march. She performed administrative tasks for the marchers waiting at Brown Chapel for Judge Johnson's clearance, and had loaned her car to the transportation committee for the march.

Now, with the march ended, she found her Oldsmobile and used it to transport marchers back to Selma on U.S. 80. On the way, her car was tailgated by two cars with bright headlights flashing, but she arrived safely. She and a young African-American named Leroy Moton decided to make one more run to Montgomery to help marchers get back to Selma.

Four Klan members from Birmingham had been looking for trouble all day, but had been frustrated by the presence of military vehicles and State troopers. They had been inspired at the Silver Moon Café by one of the men who had killed James Reeb. "I did my job," he told them. "Now you go and do yours." Shortly after, they spotted Liuzzo and Moton and began pursuing the interracial "couple."

The four followed Liuzzo across the Pettus Bridge and tailed the vehicle past Craig Air Force Base and by a radar speed unit. The State trooper operating the unit had stopped the four earlier in the day on U.S. 80 because of an equipment disparity on their car. Now, the four tailed Luizzo and Moton onto the two-lane segment of U.S. 80 in Lowndes County.

Finally, the four saw their opportunity:

Over one hilly straightaway, jammed against rolled-down windows on the passenger side, they held on for a passing run with three guns poked into the howling wind.

Leroy Moton was absorbed with the radio dial, making an effort to accept Liuzzo's hope that the pursuers might be "some of our own people," when glass exploded over the front seat. Realizing that the car still hurtled along with Liuzzo slumped under the wheel, he grabbed from the side and steered blindly off the right shoulder over violent bumps to a tilted stop along the embankment of a fenced pasture. Moton managed to turn off the engine and headlights, blacked out for some time from the look of Liuzzo's dead face, then ran toward Montgomery. Not for several miles of empty night did a truck come along driven by a Disciples of Christ minister from Richmond, California, Leon Riley, who backed up to investigate the frantically waving, blood-spattered young beanpole-nearly six feet four, less than 140 pounds. [Canaan, p. 173-174]

Word of the murder soon reached President Johnson, who called on the FBI to investigate. Wilson Baker took Moton into custody in Selma, where he was questioned by the FBI. Finding the perpetrators had not been hard. The four men in the car included an FBI informant. He was given immunity in return for his testimony, while two of the other three would eventually serve time in jail. (The other murderer died before justice could be done.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
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