Lyndon Johnson might have gotten his way regarding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic convention, but Martin Luther King would force the president’s hand regarding passage of a voting rights act in 1965. King had undergone a subtle transformation in his attitude toward non-violence. As historian Allen J. Matusow notes, “Once he employed it to persuade racial oppressors of their guilt and to change their hearts. Many broken heads later – in fact, by Birmingham, 1963 – he had come to direct his campaigns not at the heart of the South but at the conscience of the North, seeking primarily to enlist the coercive power of the federal government against racial injustice.” For his next voting rights campaign, King targeted Selma, Alabama, where only 383 of about 15,000 African Americans were registered. King chose Selma not only for the obvious suppression of black voting but because he could count on an overreaction by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. This man had acquired a reputation for out-of-control anger and violence.
The campaign started in January 1965. King announced that the campaign would climax with a 54-mile march on March 7 from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery, the one-time capital of the Confederacy. That day, 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge onto state Highway 80 before state troopers, who arrived in squad cars adorned with Confederate flags, halted the march. The state police charged into the crowd wielding billy clubs and firing tear gas canisters. State police chased the marchers back across the bridge with Sheriff Clark shouting, “Get those goddamned niggers.”
Deputies carried on what was essentially a police riot in Selma’s black neighborhoods that day, seizing a young black man from inside a church and throwing him through a stained-glass window decorated with an image of Jesus. Footage of the police violence interrupted ABC’s broadcast of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, and the ugly scenes played on televisions around the world. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
King had been warned of an assassination plot by the Johnson administration and so was not present at the march but, after hearing of the injuries suffered by his friends and allies, he announced a second march. Johnson worked out a deal with Wallace, however. King could bring the marchers to the bridge, but they would halt when ordered to by the state troopers. The protestors would then bow in prayer and leave. Sadly, violence still broke out the night of the second march on March 9, when thugs beat to death James Reeb, a white minister from Massachusetts who had participated in earlier protests.
Matusow argues that this event marked a key turning point in the relationship between King and the younger firebrands in SNCC. SNCC activists already chafed because Selma represented one more case in which local groups laid the foundations for the movement before a national figure like King swooped down with the national media in tow to get credit and publicity. King’s compromises with state and national officials caused some members of SNCC to charge King with cowardice and betrayal of local activists.
King’s tactics, however, had an impact on President Johnson. Johnson had wanted a “cooling off” period for civil rights legislation and hoped to focus on Medicare and other parts of his “Great Society” agenda, but the scenes on Bloody Sunday outraged him, and he made a voting rights bill a priority. Johnson would also step in to allow King and his fellow marchers to complete their symbolic trek from Selma to Montgomery. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard for the third march, which began on March 21. With 1,900 guardsmen shielding them from violence, by the fourth day the marchers numbered 25,000 protestors and included entertainers like the musical group Peter, Paul and Mary, United Nations Ambassador Ralph Bunche, and longtime activists like Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Whitney Young. On March 25, King spoke from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861.
The protestors happily sang freedom songs at the end of the long journey to Montgomery. This moment represented in many ways a final hurrah for King’s movement. A deep generational split over the tactics of non-violence and incremental reforms would cause the young members of SNCC to move in a more radical direction, to be followed by more confrontational groups such as the Black Panthers. Too many African Americans got tired of African American non-violence provoking white brutality. The night of March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit, had volunteered to help transport marchers. The mother of five was driving with a black passenger on Highway 80, the main route to Montgomery, when a car occupied by four Klansman pulled alongside her and fatally shot her in the head. Gary Thomas Rowe, an informant on the FBI payroll, testified against the other three Klansmen, who were never convicted of the murder but sent to prison for 10 years for violation of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.