The Riot That Sparked the Selma March

The racist violence in Selma, Alabama, 50 years ago lives in history as ‘‘Bloody Sunday,’’ but do not forget the February night of vigilantism in Marion that inspired the Selma March.

02.18.15 10:15 AM ET

President Lyndon Johnson called “Bloody Sunday” a turning point in American history, comparing it to Lexington and Concord and Appomattox. This was not Texas hyperbole. The brutal attack on voting rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago this March 7 shocked the nation and forced LBJ to put a voting rights bill at the top of his legislative agenda. On March 15, he addressed the nation, telling the American people bluntly that “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote … [T]here must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise … It’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then he paused, and slowly and distinctly, Johnson uttered the words never before spoken by an American president: “And-we-shall-overcome.” Two days later, the bill was delivered to the House. In early August, it passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins and, on August 6, the president signed it into law. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans in the South were free to vote like all Americans. Among those commemorating Bloody Sunday on March 7 will be President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

While Bloody Sunday undeniably focused the attention of the nation on Selma and accelerated the congressional process, another event, which occurred on Thursday, February 18, 1965, also deserves to be remembered because it rescued King’s voting rights movement at a critical moment and led to that fateful confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one, “ Martin Luther King told his followers who had assembled at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church on January 2, 1965 to launch his voting rights campaign in Selma: “Give us the ballot!”

His listeners were familiar with the obstacles Alabama placed in their way: the Board of Registrars, located in the Dallas County Courthouse, opened only twice a month, and its staff usually arrived late, took long lunches, left early, and almost always ignored black visitors. Their oral and written tests were so complicated that not even the most brilliant teachers at Tuskegee Institute could pass them. And if that failed to dissuade black applicants, intimidation and violence were used against those who showed up to apply.

“Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” he said, and the people, numbered at 700,  cheered with an intensity that shook the building.

But as the weeks passed, King failed to achieve his objective. Hundreds of demonstrators were jailed, including King. Student protesters were run out of town by Sheriff Jim Clark, whose deputies beat and shocked them with electric cattle prods. Amelia Boynton, a leader of the local movement, was arrested and Clark himself dragged her down the street and threw her in a police car. Television news and the nation’s most prominent newspapers brought these events into American homes, but they did not capture the attention of the people.  

King was very disappointed and wondered if they should withdraw from Selma. “You should not only know how to start a good movement,” King told his advisers,  “[you] should also know when to stop.” His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)  should “make a dramatic appeal” in some other embattled county.

One possible spot was the town of Marion in Alabama’s west-central Perry County, where King’s troops were already working with local leader Albert Turner. They created voter workshops, held demonstrations, and boycotted white businesses. On Thursday night, February 18, King’s aide, C.T. Vivian, came to town to preach and to test whether conditions were right to bring the movement there. He found the local church filled to capacity with about 450 people. After Vivian concluded his sermon, the activists planned to march on the local jail where SCLC leader James Orange was falsely imprisoned.

Night marches were always potentially dangerous for demonstrators because darkness gave their enemies a better chance to waylay them and flee, but Turner and the others were surprised to see what awaited them when they left Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church. There stood more than 200 Marion policemen, Perry County deputy sheriffs, and 100 state troopers dressed in riot gear—as well as townspeople brandishing clubs.

Television reporters and photographers were also on hand but were quarantined near City Hall to keep them from observing events. Townspeople cursed them, and some sprayed their cameras with paint. The cameramen turned their lights on anyway, hoping to photograph the march, but an officer yelled, “Turn those Goddamned lights off!” They did.

When the marchers appeared outside Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church, Marion Police Chief T.O. Harris stepped forward and told them to return to their church or face arrest for unlawful assembly. Turner’s colleague, Rev. James Dobynes, asked Harris, “May we pray before we go back?” and then knelt to pray. The troopers grabbed his arms and legs and dragged him away. That seemed to be a signal to the other officers and townspeople, because suddenly the streetlights went out and the mob attacked demonstrators and reporters alike. From his vantage point, John Herbers of The New York Times observed “state troopers shouting and jabbing and swinging their nightsticks. The Negroes began screaming and falling back around the entrance of the church,” where troopers and police kicked and beat them. Screams and the sound of clubs hitting bodies echoed through the town square.

When United Press International photographer Pete Fisher snapped a picture of the mayhem, someone hit him on the head with a nightstick. Fisher ran toward City Hall but never made it. A group of men surrounded him, slapped him, and destroyed his camera. A deputy sheriff attacked UPI photographer Reggie Smith, jabbing him in the ribs and smashing his camera. Local police stood by silently while Fisher and Smith were attacked and other reporters called for help.

One of Pete Fisher’s attackers approached NBC correspondent Richard Valeriani and asked, “Who invited you here?” Valeriani moved away but then felt a severe blow to the back of his head. A state trooper took a blue axe handle from the hands of Sam Dozier, a lumber salesman, and sent him on his way. Dazed and held upright by his cameraman, Valeriani touched the back of his head and found his hand covered with blood. Another man approached him and asked, “Are you hurt, do you need a doctor?”

“Yeah, I think I do,” Valeriani replied, appreciating the man’s concern. “I’m bleeding.”

The man looked Valeriani in the eye and said, “Well, we don’t have doctors for people like you.” Only when someone from City Hall offered to take Valeriani to the hospital did he receive treatment for his head wound.

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Eighty-year-old Cager Lee, who wanted to vote at least once before he died, was one of the last to leave the church through its rear exit. Walking around to the side he saw a crowd of white townspeople milling about. One approached him and said, “Go home, nigger. Damn you, go home.” Lee said nothing, and, at 5 feet and 120 pounds, posed no threat, but the man struck him on the head anyway. Lee fell to the ground. When he tried to get up, the vigilante kicked him twice in the back. “It was hard to take for an old man whose bones are dry like cane,” Lee later told a reporter. One of his assailants recognized Lee, which may have saved him from a worse beating. “Goddamn, this is old Cager. Don’t hit him anymore,” he said, then helped him up.

Lee paused to catch his breath, then walked to Mack’s Cafe, where he found his daughter Viola, granddaughter Emma Jean and grandson, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, an Army veteran active in the movement. Seeing the bloody cut on Lee’s head, Jackson exclaimed, “Grand-daddy, they hit you! Come on out of here and let me carry you to the hospital.”

As they started to leave, state troopers burst into the café, overturning tables, smashing lamps, and hitting black patrons. What happened next is unclear. Some eyewitnesses later claimed that a trooper clubbed Viola Jackson and threw her to the floor. Her son rushed the trooper but received a punch in the face while another threw him against a cigarette machine. A third trooper, James Bonard Fowler, drew his service revolver and calmly shot Jimmie Lee in the stomach. Fowler later claimed that Jackson attacked him with a beer bottle and tried to seize his gun, causing him to fire in self-defense.

Although seriously hurt, Jimmie Lee staggered outside, running a gantlet of troopers who yelled, “get that nigger.” A deputy sheriff ran after him, hitting him on the head until he collapsed. Jackson lay on the ground for half an hour until an ambulance picked him up and took him to Perry County Hospital for treatment. “I have been shot, don’t let me die,” Jackson mumbled as he lay on a stretcher waiting for a doctor to appear. Eventually he was treated for a scalp laceration and a gunshot wound, but because he needed surgery and the facility lacked a blood bank, physicians decided to move him to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, a trip that took two hours.  Alabama state police quickly charged him with “assault and battery with intent to murder a peace officer,” but Jackson told a doctor that a state trooper shot him while he was trying to protect his mother from a beating. One nurse who examined him did not expect him to survive, saying later that “his insides are torn up and his body is infected.”

Martin Luther King was in Atlanta suffering from a bad cold when he received news of the Marion tragedy later that night. He immediately wired the Justice Department asking for help, but Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach did not reply until the next morning. He said only that the FBI was on the case—a not very encouraging response, given the agency’s history of hostility toward the civil rights movement. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover  informed  Katzenbach that the Marion riot was “grossly exaggerated,” that there was “no truth to the statements that Negroes have been brutally assaulted.” The White House reaction was equally tepid: the president was being kept informed of developments, said a spokesman the following day. Apparently, the administration believed Hoover’s report that  “no police brutality” had occurred, just  “the use of force necessary to handle an unruly mob.” Because of the assault on the network and newspaper photographers, the evening news programs showed no film, and America’s most influential newspapers published no photographs to prove Hoover wrong.

King’s illness prevented him from returning to Selma until Monday afternoon, February 22. He visited briefly with Jimmie Lee Jackson and found him in “good spirits.” He also drove to Marion that afternoon, where he found the Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church filled to overflowing with the crowd waiting to hear him speak. “We have now reached the point of no return,” he told them. “We must let George Wallace know that the violence of state troopers will not stop us.” One possible response was to organize a motorcade from Selma to Montgomery, but King didn’t say much more about it. He left Selma that night for a fund-raising trip to California.

During the next few days Jackson improved slightly, so hopes rose that he might recover. But then late on the night of February 25, he began to have trouble breathing. Doctors rushed him to surgery, opened his stomach and found a massive infection. He slipped into a coma and died at 8:10 the following morning. The official cause of death was listed as “Peritonitis due to gunshot wound of abdomen.” His killer would not be brought to justice until November 2010, when retired trooper James B. Fowler pled guilty to a charge of “misdemeanor manslaughter” in the Jackson shooting and was sentenced to six months in prison. Even then, Fowler insisted that he shot Jackson in self-defense.

James Bevel, a King aide who wore a skullcap and was nicknamed “the Prophet,” blamed himself for Jackson’s death and the injuries Marion’s demonstrators sustained. For two years, Bevel and his wife, Diane Nash, had pressured King until he finally decided to campaign for voting rights in Selma. So they demanded action. Bevel met with James Orange and other activists and discussed the King motorcade. Lucy Foster, a Marion resident, suggested instead that they march from Selma to Montgomery, and Bevel was immediately taken with the idea. Others were thinking along similar but more brutal lines. Albert Turner was so angry that he “wanted to carry Jimmie’s body to George Wallace and dump it on the steps of the capitol.” That anger had to be diffused, Bevel thought, and a five-day march was the best remedy. It would also focus the nation’s attention on Alabama’s officially sanctioned brutality and promote the cause that had led to Jackson’s murder: the need for a voting rights bill.

At a mass meeting in Selma’s Brown Chapel on the night of February 26, Bevel talked about Jackson’s death and how the community should respond. “I tell you, the death of that man is pushing me kind of hard,” he said.“The blood of Jackson will be on our hands if we don’t march.” They must take their message directly to George Wallace in the Alabama capital. “Be prepared to walk to Montgomery. Be prepared to sleep on the highways,” Bevel urged the crowd of 600, and the people cheered.

Bevel had committed King to an action his boss had not yet approved and presented him with a fait accompli. King, caught between the agony of his supporters—who needed desperately to respond to Jackson’s death—and his awareness of the dangers that he and his fellow activists would face, went forward with the plan. It was announced that King himself would lead the march from Selma to Montgomery on Sunday, March 7.  Privately, however, he looked for ways to limit his participation in an honorable way.

In Montgomery, Gov. Wallace and his advisers sought a way to handle this crisis. Bill Jones, an influential aide to the governor, surprised everyone by recommending that they do nothing. He felt that King’s forces expected to be arrested and were not seriously planning for such a long and difficult trek. Informants planted inside the movement revealed that the marchers thought Selma’s jail was their likely destination, not the state capitol. Just ignoring the marchers would, Jones hoped, “make them the laughingstock of the nation and win for us a propaganda battle.” At first Wallace accepted this strategy. However, he changed his mind when he encountered opposition from state legislators, especially those from Lowndes, the most dangerous county in south-central Alabama and the area through which the marchers would pass. “I’m not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I am governor,” he proclaimed. Later he announced that nobody would be allowed to march and that his troopers were instructed to “take whatever steps necessary” to stop it.

The march from Selma to Montgomery on Sunday, March 7, would be a historical turning point that transfixed the nation and helped smooth the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But this momentous event began as a comedy of errors. Learning of Wallace’s plans to stop the marchers and fearful of violence and the possibility of his own assassination, King met with his top aides on the night of March 6. Perhaps it might be wise to postpone the march, he told them, although he had not decided what to do. All but two—James Bevel and Hosea Williams—agreed that a postponement might be the best course.

Early the next morning King made up his mind. Hurriedly he called Andrew Young  and asked him to go immediately to Selma to cancel the march. Young took an 8 a.m. flight to Montgomery, rented a car, and raced to Selma. When he drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which the marchers would have to cross when leaving downtown Selma on their way to Montgomery, he saw an ominous site: hundreds of state troopers, city police, and Clark’s men already in place atop their horses. At Brown Chapel he received another shock: 600 would-be marchers—men, women, teenagers, and even children—all preparing for the journey ahead. Among them were heartbroken but determined people from Perry County who wanted to honor Jimmy Lee Jackson.

Young cornered Hosea Williams, asking why he had not followed King’s order to postpone the march. Williams claimed that King had “reauthorized the march.” Find Bevel, Williams said, he had talked recently to King and would back up Williams’s story. Bevel did, stating that King had changed his mind again and had said that the march should go forward. Young must have felt like a character in Through the Looking-Glass.

The only way to resolve the conflicting information was to ask King himself, a difficult task, as King was preaching at his father’s church in Atlanta. With Ralph Abernathy’s help, Young and the march’s organizers were able to confer with King. By this time Young was in favor of the march going forward. “All these people are here ready to go now,” Young told King. “The press is gathering expecting us to go, and we think we’ve just got to march, even if you aren’t here. There’ll probably be arrests when we hit the bridge.” King reluctantly gave his assent.

And so, at 2:18 p.m., after a prayer led by Andy Young, and the singing of “God Will Take Care of You,” the 600 set out, with Williams and John Lewis in the lead and Marion’s Albert Turner walking behind them. Lewis didn’t know what the day would bring. Nobody was really ready for a five-day, 50-mile hike. In his backpack were an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and something to read—everything he needed to pass the time in one of Selma’s rancid jail cells A few days before, King had said, “We will write the voting rights law in the streets of Selma.” He was wrong. The Voting Rights Act would be written—in blood—on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But as we commemorate that event on its 50th anniversary, we should also remember Jimmie Lee Jackson, the brave men and women of Marion, Alabama, and “Bloody Thursday,” which created the event that changed America.