This article was originally published in the March 26, 1965 issue of TIME in the Nation page.
The plan as proposed reaches to the outer limits of what is constitutionally allowed. However, the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon these plaintiffs have clearly exceeded—and continue to exceed—the outer limits of what is constitutionally permissible. The extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate and march should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protected and petitioned against. In this case, the wrongs are enormous.
Those words, written by Federal District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., galvanized civil rights forces last week into a display that may well become one of the most spectacular events of the Negro revolution. It is this week’s 50-mile march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to dramatize the Negro demands for voting rights, protected by a force of 1,863 Alabama National Guardsmen, 100 FBI men, 100 federal marshals, and 1,000 U.S. Army troops.
Bombast & Scorn. The whole idea was enough to drive Governor George Wallace into paroxysms of rage. He tried appealing for a stay of Judge Johnson’s decision, but was turned down flat. He went before the Alabama legislature to rend the air with 20 minutes of bombast; the proposed march, he declared, was Communist-inspired, abetted by a “collectivist press,” by “propagandists masquerading as newsmen.” He delivered himself of a withering blast against his old Alabama University friend, Judge Johnson, calling him a man who is “hypocritically wearing the robes” of a judge while “presiding over a mock court,” one who “prostitutes our law in favor of mob rule.”
In two telegrams to President Johnson, he bluntly refused to provide protection to the marchers. He reckoned that it would cost $400,000 and require 6,171 men to police the march route, demanded “federal civil authorities” to do the job because Alabama simply could not afford to. Obviously, Wallace was throwing to the President the onus of having to call out the Alabama National Guard. The President accepted the challenge and from the LBJ Ranch issued the orders that sent the Guard onto the parade route. “Responsibility for maintaining law and order in our federal system properly rests with state and local governments,” the President scornfully advised Wallace in a telegram. “I thought that you felt strongly about this.”
Through Woods & Marshes. The civil rights leaders planning the march summoned all the skills of a regimental G-4 to get the affair organized and equipped. They assembled mountains of bedrolls and air mattresses, got hold of two huge circus tents and scores of pup tents for four overnight stops, arranged to have hot meals trucked out, lined up 32 portable latrines, a convoy of garbage trucks and a fleet of ambulances.
The marchers were to follow the same route attempted two weeks ago from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first march was bloodily halted by helmeted state troopers and mounted possemen, then onto a four-lane, divided stretch of U.S. Highway 80. All but 300 marchers were to drop back at a point 17 miles out of Selma, where the highway narrows to a two-lane, 20-mile strip of piny woods and dismal marshes.
Under court-approved marching orders, the demonstrators would cover 39 miles in the first three days, bivouacking in fields put at their disposal by three Negro farmers. On the fourth day, they would march to the outskirts of Montgomery, stopping for the night in a field owned by a Roman Catholic organization. And on the fifth day, when their numbers are expected to swell to more than 5,000, they would troop right up to Alabama’s capital, George Wallace’s Confederate flag-topped lair.
New Low. All last week there seemed to be marchers, marchers everywhere —and a few who stopped to think. From all over the U.S., bearded boys, girls in boots, and a surprising assortment of clergymen flocked to Selma and Montgomery by the busload, many of them summoned by the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and all of them ready to demonstrate anywhere, any time. One civil rights leader candidly admitted that some marches laid on during the week were designed “to give some of the ministers something to do before they go home.”
As a result, even Selma’s patient Public Safety Director Wilson Baker blew his stack before the week was out. Once, Baker dashed out of a barbershop with half a haircut to head off a crowd of white ministers bent on marching to the nearby Dallas County Courthouse. “Use your common sense and go back,” he told them. “I simply cannot protect you.”
The following day, 36 whites, most of them ministers, marched to the home of Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman to protest living conditions in the Negro districts. Furious, Baker stormed up to Harry Boyte, a white official of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and snapped: “You’re word is no good, Harry! You told me there would be no further demonstrations today. I consider this a march by a silly bunch of idiots. You ought to call your organization the Southern Stupid Leadership Conference!”
When Baker placed all 36 under arrest, Boyte said softly, “Wilson, I forgive you.” “Harry,” Baker shot back, “I don’t forgive you. Christianity has reached a new low!” Two days later, when 300 demonstrators turned up again at the mayor’s house, Baker took them into “protective custody.”
Clubs & Ropes. And there was violence in Montgomery. About 600 students assembled at the Jackson Street Baptist Church to march to the capital. At Decatur Street, they were halted by a wall of state troopers, city police and county possemen. In a mixup in orders, the mounted men waded into the students with clubs and ropes flailing. When one rider pinned a youth against a porch, a priest rushed up and pleaded, “Please let that boy go!” The posseman whacked the priest on the shoulder, snarled, “You bastard preacher!”
The presence of the priest, as well as that of other churchmen who have joined the civil rights cause in Alabama in recent weeks, remained a problem. Obviously, many were drawn there by the conviction that their consciences and their sense of Christian duty demanded no less. Others were there simply to win merit badges, still others to test their own personal commitments in the crucible of violence. Some had come be cause, as Wilson Baker said, they felt that “someone else must die in Selma to bring this movement to its climax.”
In their overzealousness, some of the ministers seemed to have left their good common sense back home with their toothbrushes. Perhaps it was time, as the Roman Catholic liberal weekly Ave Maria suggested, for many of those religious leaders “to consider and determine what means of witness and protest are appropriate to clergymen and what means are not.” Ave Maria questioned whether “the appropriate moral response of clergymen” is “always the same as the appropriate moral response of civil rights leaders.”
“Now, Now, Now!” At one point last week, Montgomery demonstrators joined in a full-throated antiphonal chant:
What do you want, what do you want?
Freedom, freedom, freedom!
When do you want it, when do you want it?
Now, now, now!
How much do you want, how much do you want?
AII of it, all of it, all of it!
Alabama’s Negroes were unlikely to get all of it “now, now, now,” but they were certainly on the way. Like electric charges, the civil rights movement has always crackled between two poles—demonstration and legislation. This week’s demonstration was a good example of how such electric charges can sizzle. But far more important were the sparks generated at the other pole—in Washington—where last week the President of the U.S. demonstrated before Congress, as few others ever have, how a functioning democracy can meet its obligations.
(More: TIME’s 1965 cover story on Martin Luther King, Jr.)
(Photos: Selma to Montgomery: Pivotal in Civil Rights)