Chapter 26: Selma
In 1965 the issue is the right to vote and the place is Selma, Alabama. In Selma, we see a classic pattern of disenfranchisement typical of the Southern Black Belt areas where Negroes are in the majority.
- February 1, 1965 – King is jailed with more than two hundred others after voting rights march in Selma, Alabama
- February 26 – Jimmie Lee Jackson dies after being shot by police during demonstration in Marion, Alabama
- March 7 – Voting rights marchers are beaten at Edmund Pettus Bridge
- March 11 – Rev. James Reeb dies after beating by white racists
- March 25 – Selma-to-Montgomery march concludes with address by King; hours afterward, Klan night riders kill Viola Gregg Liuzzo while she transports marchers back to Selma
When I was coming from Scandinavia in December 1964, I stopped by to see President Johnson and we talked about a lot of things, but finally we started talking about voting.
And he said, "Martin, you're right about that. I'm going to do it eventually, but I can't get a voting rights bill through in this session of Congress." He said, "Now, there's some other bills that I have here that I want to get through in my Great Society program, and I think in the long run they'll help Negroes more, as much as a voting rights bill. And let's get those through and then the other."
I said, "Well, you know, political reform is as necessary as anything if we're going to solve all these other problems."
"I can't get it through," he said, "because I need the votes of teh Southern bloc to get these other things through. And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program. So it's just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do."
I left simply saying, "Well, we'll just have to do the best that we can."
I left the mountaintop of Oslo and the mountaintop of the White House, and two weeks later went on down to the valley of Selma, Alabama, with Ralph Abernathy and the others. Something happened down there. Three months later, the same President who was on television singing in speaking terms, "We Shall Overcome," and calling for the passage of a voting rights bill in Congress. And it did pass two months later.
The President said nothing could be done. But we started a movement.
The ugly pattern of denial
Selma, Alabama, was to 1965 what Birmingham was to 1963. The right to vote was the issue, replacing public accommodation as the mass concern of a people hungry for a place in the sun and a voice in their destiny.
In Selma, thousands of Negroes were courageously providing dramatic witness to the evil forces that bar our way to the all-important ballot box. They were laying bare for all the nation to see, for all the world to know, the nature of segregationist resistance. The ugly pattern of denial fourished with insignificant differences in thousands of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and other Southern communities.
The pattern of denial depended upon four main roadblocks.
First, there was the Gestapo-like control of county and local government by the likes of Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, and Sheriff Rainey of Philadelphia, Mississippi. There was a carefully cultivated mystique behind the power and brutality of these men. The gun, the club, and the cattle prod produced the fear that was the main barrier to votinga barrier erected by 345 years' exposure to the psychology and brutality of slavery and legal segregation. It was a fear rooted in feelings of inferiority.
Secondly, city ordinances were contrived to make it difficult for Negroes to move in concert. So-called parade ordinances and local laws making public meetings subject to surveillance and harassment by public officials were used to keep Negroes from working out a group plan of action against injustice. These laws deliberately ignored and defied the First Amendment of our Constitution.
After so many years of intimidation, the Negro community had learned that its only salvation was in united action. When one Negro stood up, he was run out of town; if a thousand stood up together, the situation was bound to be drastically overhauled.
The third link in the chain of slavery was the slow pace of the registrar and the limited number of days and hours during which the office was open. Out of 15,000 Negroes eligible to vote in Selma and the surrounding Dallas County, less than 350 were registered. This was the reason why the protest against the limited number of opportunities for registration had to continue.
The fourth link in the chain of disenfranchisement was the literacy test. This test was designed to be difficult, and the Justice Department had been able to establish that in a great many counties these tests were not administered fairly.
Clearly, the heart of the voting problem lay in the fact that the machinery for enforcing this basic right was in the hands of stateappointed officials answerable to the very people who believed they could continue to wield power in the South only so long as the Negro was disenfranchised. No matter how many loopholes were plugged, no matter how many irregularities were exposed, it was plain that the federal government must withdraw that control from the states or else set up machinery for policing it effectively.
The patchwork reforms brought about by the laws of 1957, 1960, and 1964 had helped, but the denial of suffrage had gone on too long, and had caused too deep a hurt for Negroes to wait out the time required by slow, piecemeal enforcement procedures. What was needed was the new voting rights legislation promised for the 1965 session of Congress.
Our Direct Action Department, under the direction of Rev. James Bevel, then decided to attack the very heart of the political structure of the state of Alabama and the Southland through a campaign for the right to vote. Planning for the voter registration project in Selma started around the seventeenth of December, 1964, but the actual project started on the second of January, 1965. Our affiliate organization, the Dallas County Voters League, invited us to aid and assist in getting more Negroes registered to vote. We planned to have Freedom Days, days of testing and challenge, to arouse people all over the community. We decided that on the days that the county and the state had designated as registration days, we would assemble at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and walk together to the courthouse. More than three thousand were arrested in Selma and Marion together. I was arrested in one of those periods when we were seeking to go to the courthouse.
When the king of Norway participated in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to me he surely did not think that in less than sixty days 1 would be in jail. They were little aware of the unfinished business in the South. By jailing hundreds of Negroes, the city of Selma, Alabama, had revealed the persisting ugliness of segregation to the nation and the world.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, many decent Americans were lulled into complacency because they thought the day of difficult struggle was over. But apart from voting rights merely to be a person in Selma was not easy. When reporters asked Sheriff Clark if a woman defendant was married, he replied, "She's a nigger woman and she hasn't got a Miss or a Mrs. in front of her name."
This was the U.S.A. in 1965. We were in jail simply because we could not tolerate these conditions for ourselves or our nation There was a clear and urgent need for new and improved federal legislation and for expanded law enforcement measures to finally eliminate all barriers to the right to vote.
Instructions From Selma Jail to Movement Associates
Do following to keep national attention focused on Selma:
1. Joe Lowery. Make a call to Florida Governor Leroy Collins and urge him to make a personal visit to Selma, to talk with city and county authorities concerning speedier registration and more days for registering.
2. Walter Fauntroy: Follow through on suggestion of having a congressional delegation to come in for personal investigation. They should also make an appearance at a mass meeting if they come.
3. Lowery, via Lee White: Make a personal call to President Johnson and urge him to intervene in some way (send a personal emissary to Selma, get the Justice Department involved, make a plea to Dallas and Selma officials in a press conference).
4. Chuck Jones: Urge lawyers to go to the 5th Circuit if Judge Thomas does not issue an immediate injunction against the continued arrests and speed up registration.
5. Bernard Lafayette: Keep some activity alive every day this week.
6. Consider a night march to the city jail protesting my arrest. Have another march to the courthouse to let Clark show true colors.
7. Stretch every point to get teachers to march.
8. Clarence Jones: Immediately post bond for staff members essential for mobilization who are arrested.
9. Atlanta Office: Call C. T, Vivian and have him return from California in case other staff is put out of circulation.
12. Local Selma editor sent a telegram to the President calling for a Congressional committee to come out and study the situation of Selma. We should join in calling for this. By all means, we cannot let them get the offensive. I feel they were trying to give the impression that they were orderly and that Selma was a good community because they integrated public accommodations. We have to insist that voting is the issue and here Selma has dirty hands. We should not be too soft. We have the offensive. We cannot let Baker control our movement. In a crisis, we needed a sense of drama.
13. Ralph to call Sammy Davis and ask him to do a Sunday benefit in Atlanta to raise money for the Alabama project. I find that all of these fellows respond better when I am in a jail or in a crisis.
A brief statement I read to the press tried to interpret what we sought to do:
For the past month the Negro citizens of Selma and Dallas County have been attempting to register by the hundreds. To date only 57 persons have entered the registrar's office, while 280 have been jailed. Of the 57 who have attempted to register, none have received notice of successful registration, and we have no reason to hope that they will be registered. The registration test is so difficult and so ridiculous that even Chief Justice Warren might fail to answer some questions.
In the past year Negroes have been beaten by Sheriff Clark and his posse, they have been fired from their jobs, they have been victimized by the slow registration procedure and the difficult literacy test, all because they have attempted to vote.
Now we must call a halt to these injustices. Good men of the nation cannot sit idly by while the democratic process is defied and prostituted. in the interests of racists. Our nation has declared war against totalitarianism around the world, and we call upon President Johnson, Governor Wallace, the Supreme Court, and the Congress of this great nation to declare war against oppression and totalitarianism within the shores of our country.
If Negroes could vote, there would be no Jim Clarks, there would be no oppressive poverty directed against Negroes. Our children would not be crippled by segregated schools, and the whole community might live together in harmony.
This is our intention: to declare war on the evils of demagoguery. The entire community will join in this protest, and we will not relent until there is a change in the voting process and the establishment of democracy.
When I left jail in Selma on Friday, February 5, I stated that I would fly to Washington. On Tuesday afternoon I met with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his capacity as chairman of the newly created Council for Equal Opportunity and with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. My colleagues and I made clear to the vice president and the attorney general our conviction that all citizens must be free to exercise their right and responsibility to vote without delays, harassment, economic intimidation, and police brutality.
I indicated that while there had been some progress in several Southern states in voter registration in previous years, in other states, new crippling legislation had been instituted since 1957 pre cisely to frustrate Negro registration. At a recent press conference President Johnson stated that another evil was the "slow pace of registration for Negroes." This snail's pace was clearly illustrated by the ugly events in Selma. Were this pace to continue, it would take another hundred years before all eligible Negro voters were registered.
There were many more Negroes in jail in Selma than there were Negroes registered to vote. This slow pace was not accidental. It was the result of a calculated and well-defined pattern which used many devices and tactics to maintain white political power in many areas of the South. I emphatically stated that the problem of securing voting rights could not be cured by patchwork or piecemeal legislation programs. We needed a basic legislative program to insure procedures for achieving the registration of Negroes in the South without delay or harassment. I expressed my conviction that the voting sections of the 1957, 1960, and 1964 Civil Rights Acts were inadequate to secure voting rights for Negroes in many key areas of the South.
I told Mr. Humphrey and General Katzenbach how pleased I was that the Department of justice had under consideration legislation pertaining to voting which would implement President Johnson's State of the Union declaration, namely: "I propose we eliminate every remaining obstacle in the right and opportunity to vote."
I asked the attorney general to seek an injunction against the prosecution of the more than three thousand Negro citizens of Selma, who otherwise would face years of expensive and frustrating litigation before the exercise of their guaranteed right to vote was vindicated. Moreover, to the extent that existing laws were inadequate or doubtful to accomplish this allimportant purpose, I asked the vice president and the attorney general to include in the administration's legislative program new procedures which would invest the attorney general and private citizens with the power to avoid the oppression and delays of spurious state court prosecution.
In a meeting with President Johnson, Vice President Humphrey, Attorney General Katzenbach, and Florida Governor Leroy Collins, chairman of the newly created Community Relations Service, I urged the administration to offer a voting rights bill which would secure the right to vote without delay and harassment.
Events leading to the confrontation
During the course of our struggle to achieve voting rights for Negroes in Selma, Alabama, it was reported that a "delicate understanding" existed between myself, Alabama state officials, and the federal government to avoid the scheduled march to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9.
On the basis of news reports of my testimony in support of our petition for an injunction against state officials, it was interpreted in some quarters that I worked with the federal government to throttle the indignation of white clergymen and Negroes. I was concerned about this perversion of the facts, and for the record would like to sketch in the background of the events leading to the confrontation of marchers and Alabama state troopers at Pettus Bridge in Selma, and our subsequent peaceful turning back.
The goal of the demonstrations in Selma, as elsewhere, was to dramatize the existence of injustice and to bring about the presence of justice by methods of nonviolence. Long years of experience indicated to us that Negroes could achieve this goal when four things occured:
- nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights;
- racists resist by unleashing violence against them;
- Americans of good conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation;
- the administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and supports remedial legislation.
The working out of this process has never been simple or tranquil. When nonviolent protests were countered by local authorities with harassment, intimidation, and brutality, the federal government always first asked the Negro to desist and leave the street rather than bring pressure to bear on those who commit the criminal acts. We were always compelled to reject vigorously such federal requests and relied on our allies, the millions of Americans across the nation, to bring pressure on the federal government for protective action in our behalf. Our position always was that there is a wrong and right side to the questions of full freedom and equality for millions of Negro Americans and that the federal government did not belong in the middle on this issue.
During our nonviolent direct-action campaigns we were advised, and again we were so advised in Selma, that violence might ensue. Herein lay a dilemma: of course, there always was the likelihood that, because of the hostility to our demonstrations, acts of lawlessness may be precipitated. We realized that we had to exercise extreme caution so that the directaction program would not be conducted in a manner that might be considered provocative or an invitation to violence. Accordingly, each situation had to be studied in detail: the strength and the temper of our adversaries had to be estimated and any change in any of these factors would affect the details of our strategy. Nevertheless, we had to begin a march without knowing when or where it would actually terminate.
How were these considerations applied to our plans for the march from Selma to Montgomery?
My associates and friends were constantly concerned about my personal safety, and in the light of recent threats of death, many of them urged me not to march that Sunday for the fear that my presence in the line would lead to assassination attempts. However, as a matter of conscience, I could not always respond to the wishes of my staff and associates; in this case, I made the decision to lead the march on Sunday and was prepared to do so in spite of any possible danger to my person.
In working out a time schedule, I had to consider my church responsibilities. Because I was so frequently out of my pulpit and because my life was so full of emergencies, I was always on the horns of a dilemma. I had been away for two straight Sundays and therefore felt that I owed it to my parishioners to be there. It was arranged that I take a chartered plane to Montgomery after the morning service and lead the march out of Selma, speak with a group for three or four hours, and take a chartered flight back in order to be on hand for the Sunday Communion Service at 7:30 P.M.
When Governor Wallace issued his ban on the march, it was my mew and that of most of my associates that the state troopers would deal with the problem by arresting all of the people in the line. We never imagined that they would use the brutal methods to which they actually resorted to repress the march. I concluded that if I were arrested it would be impossible for me to get back to the evening service at Ebenezer to administer the Lord's Supper and baptism. Because of this situation, my staff urged me to stay in Atlanta and lead a march on Monday morning. This I agreed to do. I was prepared to go to jail on Monday but at the same time I would have met my church responsibilities. If I had had any idea that the state troopers would use the kind of brutality they did, I would have felt compelled to give up my church duties altogether to lead the line. It was one of those developments that none of us anticipated. We felt that the state troopers, who had been severely criticized over their terrible acts two weeks earlier even by conservative Alabama papers, would never again engage in that kind of violence.
I shall never forget my agony of conscience for not being there when I heard of the dastardly acts perpetrated against nonviolent demonstrators that Sunday, March 7. As a result, I felt that I had to lead a march on the following Tuesday and decided to spend Monday mobilizing for it.
The march on Tuesday, March 9, illustrated the dilemma we often face. Not to try to march again would have been unthinkable. However, whether we were marching to Montgomery or to a limited point within the city of Selma could not be determined in advance; the only certain thing was that we had to begin, so that a confrontation with injustice would take place in full view of the millions looking on throughout this nation.
The next question was whether the confrontation had to be a violent one; here the responsibility of weighing all factors and estimating the consequences rests heavily on the civil rights leaders. It is easy to decide on either extreme. To go forward recklessly can have terrible consequences in terms of human life and also can cause friends and supporters to lose confidence if they feel a lack of responsibility exists. On the other hand, it is ineffective to g that no violence will occur by the device of not marching or under taking token marches avoiding direct confrontation.
On Tuesday, March 9, Judge Frank M. Johnson of the federal district court in Montgomery issued an order enjoining me and t local Selma leadership of the nonviolent voting rights movement from peacefully marching to Montgomery. The issuance of Judge Johnson's order caused disappointment and bitterness to all of us. I felt that as a result of the order we had been put in a very difficult position. I felt that it was like condemning the robbed man for getting robbed. It was one of the most painful decisions I ever made-to try on the one hand to do what I felt was a practical matter of controlling a potentially explosive situation, and at the same time, not defy a federal court order. We had looked to the federal judiciary in Alabama to prevent the unlawful interference with our program to expand elective franchise for Negroes throughout the Black Belt.
I consulted with my lawyers and trusted advisors both in Selma and other parts of the country and discussed what course of action we should take. Information came in that troopers of the Alabama State Police and Sheriff James Clark's possemen would be arrayed in massive force across Highway 80 at the foot of Pettus Bridge in Selma. I reflected upon the role of the federal judiciary as a protector of the rights of Negroes. I also gave thoughtful consideration to the hundreds of clergymen and other persons of goodwill who had come to Selma to make a witness with me in the cause of justice by participating in our planned march to Montgomery. Taking all of this into consideration, I decided that our plans had to be carried out and that I would lead our march to a confrontation with injustice to make a witness to our countrymen and the world of our determination to vote and be free.
As my associates and I were spiritually preparing ourselves for the task ahead, Governor Collins of the Community Relations Service and John Doar, acting assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division, came to see me to dissuade me from the course of action which we had painfully decided upon.
Governor Collins affirmed and restated the commitment of," President Johnson to the achievement of full equality for all persons without regard to race, color, or creed, and his commitment to securing the right to vote for all persons eligible to do so. He mentioned the fact that the situation was explosive, and it would tarnish the image of our nation if the events of Sunday were repeated. He very strongly urged us not to march. I listened attentively to both Mr. Doar and Governor Collins. I said at that point, "I think instead of urging us not to march, you should urge the state troopers not to be brutal toward us if we do march, because we have got to march.'' I explained to them why, as a matter of conscience, I felt it way necessary to seek a confrontation with injustice on Highway 80. l felt that I had a moral obligation to the movement, to justice, to our nation, to the health of our democracy, and above all to the philosophy of nonviolence to keep the march peaceful. I felt that, if I had not done it, the pent-up emotions would have exploded into retaliatory violence. Governor Collins realized at this point that we were determined to march and left the room, saying that he would do what he could to prevent the state troopers from being violent.
I say to you this afternoon that I would rather die on the highway. of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience. I say to you, when we march, don't panic and remember that we must remain true to nonviolence. I'm asking everybody in the line, if you can't be nonviolent, don't get in here. If you can't accept blows without retaliating don't get in the line. If you can accept it out of your commitment to nonviolence, you will somehow do something for this nation that ma well save it. If you can accept it, you will leave those state trooper bloodied with their own barbarities. If you can accept it, you will d. something that will transform conditions here in Alabama.
Just as we started to march, Governor Collins rushed to me an. said that he felt everything would be all right. He gave me a small piece of paper indicating a route that I assumed Mr. Baker, public safety director of Selma, wanted us to follow. It was the same rout that had been taken the previous Sunday. The press, reporting the detail, gave the impression that Governor Collins and I had sat down and worked out some compromise. There were no talks or agreement between Governor Collins and me beyond the discussions have just described. I held on to my decision to march despite the fact that many people in the line were concerned about breaking the court injunction issued by one of the strongest and best judges in the South. I felt that we had to march at least to the point where the troopers had brutalized the people, even if it meant a recurrence of 1. violence, arrest, or even death. As a nonviolent leader, I could not advocate breaking through a human wall set up by the policemen. While we desperately desired to proceed to Montgomery, we knew before we started our march that this human wall set up on Pettus Bridge would make it impossible for us to go beyond it. It was not that we didn't intend to go on to Montgomery, but that, in consideration of our commitment to nonviolent action, we knew we could not go under those conditions.
We sought to find a middle course. We marched until we faced the troopers in their solid line shoulder to shoulder across Highway 80. We did not disengage until they made it clear they were going to use force. We disengaged then because we felt we had made our point, we had revealed the continued presence of violence.
On March 11, I received the shocking information that the Reverend James Reeb had just passed away as a result of the dastardly act of brutality visited upon him in Selma. Those elements that had constantly harassed us and who did their cowardly work by night, went to the Walkers' Cafe and followed three clergymen and beat them brutally. Two of them were from Boston-the Reverend Miller and the Reverend Reeb - and Reverend Clark Olson was from Berkeley, California.
This murder, like so many others, is the direct consequence of the reign of terror in some parts of our nation. This unprovoked attack on the streets of an Alabama city cannot be considered an isolated incident in a smooth sea of tolerance and understanding. Rather, it is a result of a malignant sickness in our society that comes from the tolerance of organized hatred and violence. We must all confess that Reverend Reeb was murdered by a morally inclement climate-a climate filled with torrents of hatred and jostling winds of violence. He was murdered by an atmosphere of inhumanity in Alabama that tolerated the vicious murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion and the brutal beatings of Sunday in Selma. Had police not brutally beaten unarmed nonviolent persons desiring the right to vote on Sunday, it is doubtful whether this act of murder would have taken place on Tuesday. This is additional proof that segregation knows no color line. It attempts to control the movement and mind of white persons as well as Negroes. When it cannot dominate, it murders those that dissent.
From Selma to Montgomery
As soon as we had won legal affirmation on March 11 of our right to march to Montgomery, the next phase hinged on the successful completion of our mission to petition the governor to take meaningful measures to abolish voting restrictions, the poll tax, and polio brutality. The President and federal judiciary had spoken affirmatively of the cause for which we struggled. All citizens had to make their personal witness. We could no longer accept the injustices that we had faced from Governor Wallace. We could no longer adjust to the evils that we had faced all of these years.
We made it very clear that this was a march of goodwill and to stimulate the Negro citizenry of Montgomery to make use of the new opportunity that had been provided through the federal court We had a legal and constitutional right to march from Selma to Montgomery. We were very serious in saying that we planned to walk to Montgomery, and we went through a great deal of work an( spent a lot of time planning the route, the stopping points, the tent and where they would be. We felt this would be a privilege that citizens could engage in as long as they didn't tie up traffic and wall out on the main highway but on the side of the road. Hosea Williams reported to me that there were three bridges, but that on could walk across these bridges single file rather than two or three abreast.
Things were shaping up beautifully. We had people coming ii from all over the country. I suspected that we would have representatives from almost every state in the union, and naturally a large number from the state of Alabama. We hoped to see, and w planned to see, the greatest witness for freedom that had ever take: place on the steps of the capitol of any state in the South. And this whole march added drama to this total thrust. I think it will go down in American history on the same level as the March to the Sea & in Indian history.
Some of us started out on March 21 marching from Selma, Alabama. We walked through desolate valleys and across tiring hills. We walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces were burnt from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some literally slept in the mud. We were drenched by the rain. Our bodies were tired. Our feet were sore. The thousands of pilgrims had marched across a route traveled by Sherman a hundred years before. But in contrast to a trail of destruction and bloodshed, they watered the red Alabama clay with tears of joy and love overflowing, even for those who taunted and jeered along the sidelines. Not a shot was fired. Not a stone displaced. Not a window broken. Not a person abused or insulted. This was certainly a triumphant entry into the "Cradle of the Confederacy." And an entry destined to put an end to that racist oligarchy once and for all.
It was with great optimism that we marched into Montgomery on March 25. The smell of victory was in the air. Voting rights legislation loomed as a certainty in the weeks ahead. Fifty thousand nonviolent crusaders from every county in Alabama and practically every state in the union gathered in Montgomery on a balmy spring afternoon to petition Governor Wallace.
How long? Not long.
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.
Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.
The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishing of a segregated society. They segregated Southern money from the poor whites; they segregated Southern churches from Christianity; they segregated Southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.
We have come a long way since that travesty of justice was perpetrated upon the American mind. Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to tell the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world: We are not about 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. Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto of social and economic depression dissolves and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing.
Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past and Negroes and whites study side by side in the socially healing context of the classroom.
Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.
Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.
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 no altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going.
My people, my people, listen! The battle is in our hands. The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama, and all over the Unite States.
So as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than eve before committed to the struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you there are still some difficulties ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana.
I must admit to you there are still jail cells waiting for us, dark and difficult moments. We will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power transformed dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. We will be able to change all of these conditions.
Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.
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 arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling 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 men before His judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on.
As the trains loaded and the busses embarked for their destinations, as the inspired throng returned to their homes to organize the final phase of political activity which would complete the revolution so eloquently proclaimed by the word and presence of the multitude,' in Montgomery, the scent of victory in the air gave way to the stench of death. We were reminded that this was not a march to the capital '" of a civilized nation, as was the March on Washington. We had marched through a swamp of poverty, ignorance, race hatred, and," sadism.
We were reminded that the only reason that this march was possible was due to the presence of thousands of federalized troop marshals, and a federal court. We were reminded that the trot would soon be going home, and that in the days to come we had renew our attempts to organize the very county in which Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was murdered. If they murdered a white woman for standing up for the Negro's right to vote, what would they do to Negroes who attempted to register and vote?
Certainly it should not have been necessary for more of us die, to suffer failings and beatings at the hands of sadistic savages uniforms. The Alabama voting project had been total in its commitment to nonviolence, and yet people were beginning to talk more and more of arming themselves. The people who followed along the fringe of the movement, who seldom came into the nonviolence training sessions, were growing increasingly bitter and restless. For we could not allow even the thought or spirit of violence to creep into our movement.
When we marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, I member that we had one of the most magnificent expressions of t ecumenical movement that I've ever seen. Protestants, Catholic and Jews joined together in a beautiful way to articulate the injustices and the indignities that Negroes were facing in the state of Alabama and all over the South on the question of the right to vote had seen many clergymen come to the forefront who were not the some years ago. The march gave new relevance to the gospel. Sell brought into being the second great awakening of the church America. Long standing aside and giving tacit approval to the civil rights struggle, the church finally marched forth like a mighty am and stood beside God's children in distress.
Stalwart nonviolent activists within our ranks had brought about a coalition of the nation's conscience on the infamous stretch of highway between Selma and Montgomery. The awakening of the church also brought a new vitality to the labor movement, and to intellectuals across the country. A little known fact was that forty of the nation's top historians took part in the march to Montgomery.
One can still hear the tramping feet and remember the glowing eyes filled with determination and hope which said eloquently, "We must be free," a sound which echoed throughout this nation, a yes, even throughout the world. My mind still remembers vividly the ecumenicity of the clergy, the combined forces of labor, Civil` rights organizations, and the academic community which joined our ranks and said in essence, "Your cause is morally right, and we are with you all the way."
After the march to Montgomery, there was a delay at the airport and several thousand demonstrators waited more than five hours, crowding together on the seats, the floors, and the stairways of the terminal building. As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, housemaids and shop workers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in that moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.
Selma brought us a voting bill
In his address to the joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, President Johnson made one of the most eloquent, unequivocal, and passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a President of the United States. He revealed an amazing understanding of the depth and dimension of the problem of racial justice. His tone and his delivery were sincere. He rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation. He declared that the national government must bylaw insure every Negro his full rights as a citizen. When he signed the measure, the President announced that, "Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that's ever been won on any battlefield. Today we strike away the last major shackle of fierce and ancient bonds."
We were happy to know that our struggle in Selma had brought the whole issue of the right to vote to the attention of the nation. It was encouraging to know that we had the support of the President in calling for immediate relief of the problems of the disinherited people of our nation.
When SCLC went into Selma in January 1965, it had limited objectives. It sought primarily to correct wrongs existing in that small city. But our adversaries met us with such unrestrained brutality that they enlarged the issues to a national scale. The ironic and splendid result of the small Selma project was nothing less than the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the aid Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark gave us in our legislative objectives, SCLC tendered them its warm appreciation.
In conclusion, Selma brought us a voting bill, and it also brought us the grand alliance of the children of light in this nation and made possible changes in our political and economic life heretofore undreamed o£ With President Johnson, SCLC viewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as "one of the most monumental laws in the history of American freedom." We had a federal law which could be used, and use it we would. Where it fell short, we had our tradition of struggle and the method of nonviolent direct action, and these too we would use.
Let us not mark this great movement only by bloodshed and brutality. We certainly can never forget those who gave their lives in this struggle and who suffered in jail, but let us especially mark the sacrifices of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo as the martyrs of the faith. Cities that had been citadels of the status quo became the unwilling birthplace of a significant national legislation. Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Selma produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When President Johnson declared that Selma, Alabama, is joined in American history with Lexington, Concord, and Appomattox, he honored not only our embattled Negroes, but the overwhelming majority of the nation, Negro and white. The victory in Selma is now being written in the Congress. Before long, more than a million Negroes will be new voters-and psychologically, new people. Selma is a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in the dark streets of Selma, the best of American democratic instincts arose from across the nation to overcome it.