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An American Iliad

Such questions were simply the top of a molten volcano of sexual hysteria. The Alabama legislature declared that Northern women who had joined the demonstrations would return home “as unwed expectant mothers.” Governor George Wallace told President Johnson that a black Selma policeman was improbably telling his white fellow officers that their wives were sleeping with the Montgomery marchers. On the march from Selma itself, rumors spread that a white woman had already slept “with forty-one niggers.” All this makes clear the real difference in attitudes on sex between the two sides. The racists were using it to inflame the forces of repression and terror. King’s lieutenants were not letting it deflect them from their nonviolent quest for justice.


Pettus Bridge

Branch covered the first ten years of King’s public career in his preceding two volumes, taking his subject from the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The high points of that period were King’s founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, the defense of his nonviolent philosophy in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in the same year, and his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. By the time the third volume opens, in 1965, King has switched his emphasis from desegregation to the drive for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, a project on which the SCLC was cooperating with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the organization formed in 1960 to give young blacks a stronger voice in the movement.

Branch begins At Canaan’s Edge with almost two hundred pages devoted to the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This was indeed a landmark event. It was the last large-scale victory for the civil rights activists, prompting President Johnson to throw his administration wholeheartedly behind the Voting Rights Act. Some see nothing but dispersal of energies and decline for the movement after this high point. Branch will show that this is too simplistic a reading of what happened, but he is right to dwell on the great victory that was won, against the odds, by what seemed at many stages like a misbegotten march. King was dragged into it. SNCC initially opposed it, and was then dragged into it. Federal marshals were dragged into it. At last the President was dragged into it. At any moment it might have proved the greatest debacle of the movement instead of one of its greatest triumphs.

The immediate idea of the march was to put pressure on George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who had opposed school integration and was now supporting local election registrars who kept Negroes from voting. (“Negroes” was still the accepted term during the time Branch covers, before “blacks” replaced it, so this was the term King always used.) There was no idea that Wallace could be shamed into virtue. King and others hoped that by dramatizing the injustices in Alabama, national indignation could lead to federal intervention enabling blacks to vote (this, of course, rallied the opposition as well, since the threat of federal power stirred atavistic Southern beliefs in “states’ rights”).

The march was hastily conceived, recklessly endorsed, confusingly put off, and then reauthorized. The idea was impulsively put forward by the brilliant but erratic Alabama preacher James Bevel, who proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery while speaking in memory of the murdered civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson; for several days, he continued to exhort his congregation to get ready to walk the fifty-four miles from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Though such a march would likely be extremely dangerous, requiring protesters to walk on exposed highways in rural Lowndes County, King in a Sunday sermon recklessly endorsed the idea and set the date for March 7, only four days away.

Such haste was against SCLC policy, as Andrew Young pointed out, hoping to delay the march. King was not even in Selma that Sunday—he was preaching in his Atlanta church, which his father had accused him of neglecting—and he would be criticized for launching the march while he was away. At first King agreed to a delay, then yielded to Bevel and to his SCLC aide Hosea Williams, who urged him to strike while feelings were running high. SNCC, which was trying to chart its own course away from the “personality cult” of King, voted to disapprove of the march. But since their own chairman, John Lewis, disagreed and said he was going to march anyway, the organization allowed members to participate so long as they did not present themselves as representing SNCC.

The anti-black forces opposed to the march were also in disarray. Governor Wallace was torn between letting the marchers go into dangerous territory and fail to reach their goal through harassment and lack of supplies, or blocking the march with troopers. Wilson Baker, Selma’s director of public safety, was for protecting the marchers. Sheriff Jim Clark and state police colonel Al Lingo were for stopping them with force. The marchers did not know, as they started to leave Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, what the authorities had decided. They soon found out, as Lingo’s state police tear-gassed and charged them, beating them indiscriminately with clubs as the marchers piled up on the bridge or tried to make their way back from it. The ferocity of this onslaught, which left sixty-six people hospitalized, would shock the nation when it saw the march being stopped on television that night.

As so often, the blind racism of King’s opponents—in this case, the frenzied state troopers—rescued him. SNCC now had to rally around its injured chairman, John Lewis, beaten in the front ranks at the Pettus Bridge. (Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak got things exactly backward, saying that King had been forced into the march by SNCC, a group they identified as “substantially infiltrated by beatnik left-wing revolutionaries, and—worst of all—by Communists.” Novak, who is good at leaks, probably got this misinformation directly or indirectly from Hoover.)

SNCC, belatedly joining King, learned again how useful he was to the movement. When King issued a call for religious leaders to join him in Selma for a renewed march on March 9, the outpouring of hundreds of clergy from many faiths clogged the airways. He had built up such a network of ecumenical religious trust that bishops and elders who had told their fellow believers not to take part in political activity declared this an exception. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who first said he could not get there without violating Shabbat, consulted his teachings and found that one can work on Shabbat to save lives. On the march itself, Heschel said he “felt like my feet were praying.” Seminaries and convents allowed eager young priests and nuns to join in. The theologian Robert McAfee Brown, then teaching at Stanford, flew in from California. Though Branch does not indulge in such contemporary references, I thought instantly of the difference between this outpouring of religious support for the beaten marchers and the eruption of right-wing religiosity that sent President Bush hurrying to Washington to block a court order on Terri Schiavo’s condition. There was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.

King’s problems were not over when his holy army had assembled. US District Judge Frank M. Johnson, who had been a friend to the freedom movement, issued a temporary restraining order against the march on Montgomery, and John Doar of the Justice Department pleaded with King to honor it. King had relied on federal authority in the past, breaking local laws but never those of the nation itself. But King’s religious allies were invoking a higher law, and the determination to march ran high. The SNCC leaders, along with other activists who thought King too timorous, were now poised to make this a supreme demonstration of the need for boldness. There seemed no good way to act. Branch writes:

King’s worst fear was to lose everything—to march just short enough to lose momentum and cohesion within the movement, just far enough to break the injunction and lose any chance of federal alliance, just blindly enough to reap blame on all sides for getting mauled gratuitously in defeat.

Bombarded on all sides with contradictory advice, King kept silent on his intentions, but began the new march on March 9. On the far side of Pettus Bridge, a US marshal read Judge Johnson’s restraining order to King. After a suspenseful pause, King told those around him to return with him to the Selma church. There was grumbling and disappointment in the crowd, but it peaceably followed him. Only King had the moral authority at this point to turn the march back, such was the trust in his leadership. He hoped that the urgency expressed in the attempted march, plus his willingness to comply with the order, would hurry Judge Johnson’s decision to lift the ban. But his restive followers would have given him little time for this to work.

We will never know what might have happened, because once again the racists were their own worst enemies. That night, some white thugs clubbed two marchers as they left a Selma restaurant, killing one, the Unitarian minister James Reeb. This caused another outburst of shock and indignation, hardened the resolve of the marchers, and put extra pressures on Judge Johnson. More important, it made Lyndon Johnson throw all his considerable muscle behind a voting rights act, which he announced to Congress on March 15 in his one great speech, beautifully written by Richard Goodwin and ending with the movement’s own slogan: “We—shall—overcome.”

When Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach went before Judge Johnson, asking that the restraining order on the march be lifted, the judge said he would not do this unless his ruling that the protesters had a legal right to march would be backed by the federal government. Katzenbach replied, “Backed? Well, I think we can back it.” Not good enough: “I don’t care what you think.” The judge wanted assurance on the marchers’ safety. “All right, you have my assurance.” Still not good enough. “I don’t want your assurance, Mr. Katzenbach. I want it from the president.” He got it. The march went forward under full protection by the United States military, scouting ahead for snipers and disarming bombs planted on the roads. The march would still be dangerous, as Viola Liuzzo found on its last day, and Branch tells of all the problems along the way. But the Voting Rights Act was won.

It was important for Branch to dwell on this famous victory of the movement, since all the undercurrents, cross-purposes, accidents, bad luck turning into good luck, blockings, and then releases at many levels—all these were at least partly obscured to outside viewers. But they became obvious and crippling in what lay before King. Everything he did from this point on was strenuously opposed by at least some in his inner circle. The support of federal officials would blow uncertainly or, more and more, adversely. Many thought that he should stay where he belonged, in the South, talking about black issues. What right did he have to speak about poor whites, Chicago schools, or Vietnam?

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