Editor’s note: Jimmy Breslin wrote a number of columns about the 1965 Selma-Montgomery marches, which climaxed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps of the state capitol. In light of the massacre in Charleston, S.C., last week, The Daily Beast chose to reprint some of his most powerful reporting from that time. The words and views of Alabama’s white establishment are raw, like scrapes across an exposed nerve. But Breslin also captures the hope and strength of King and the tens of thousands of marchers.
MONTGOMERY, Ala.—The sidewalks were nearly empty, with only small groups of Negroes watching, but the white faces were everywhere. They were at the lobby doors of the Jefferson Davis Hotel. And they were looking out from the street-level windows of the Dixie Office Supply Company and McGehee’s Drug Store and Weiss Opticians. And they looked down from open windows in the Whitley Hotel and the Exchange Hotel, and the big First National Bank building was twelve stories of white faces pressed against windows and looking at the street below.
At first the faces were set and the lips formed curses. Dr. Martin Luther King, the enemy, was coming by. And behind King were some rows of straggly-dressed people in shoes that were caked with mud. The faces at the windows smiled, and one face would come up to another and both faces would break into a laugh.
Then the people kept coming. They came in soggy clothes, with mud on their feet, and they walked in silence and with their heads up in the air, high up in the air, with the chins stuck out and the eyes straight ahead, and they came for an hour and a half and the faces at the windows changed.
The cursing was gone and the smiles were gone and the owner of the Ready Shoe Repair Shop stood with his lips apart and he watched the life he knew disappear on the street in front of him. And a man in a white shirt and dark tie was leaning out of the sixth-floor window of the bank building, leaning far out so he could see how long the line of marchers was, and he shook his head and pulled it back in and all the faces at the window around him stared blankly.
And Mrs. R. C. Howard sat in a green easy chair at the second-floor window of Jay’s Dress Shop, sat with one shapely Southern leg over the other, a cigarette held out between manicured fingers, and the salesgirls stood around her with their arms folded, and they all tried to see what this thing was on the street in front of them.
“They are so sloppy,” one of the salesgirls said.
“But there are so many of them,” Mrs. Howard said.
“Look at that white girl holdin’ hands with that big ugly black thing,” a salesgirl said.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Howard said. “I tell you, I’ve never seen this many people together in all my life.” She sat motionless and the cigarette burned down while she stared at the street.
Up Montgomery Street the marchers came. They trailed out of the Negro section, with its mud roads, and they came onto the flat asphalt and went by the hotels and office buildings and they came around the fountain where Montgomery Street twists into Dexter Avenue and now they came straight up Dexter Avenue, up the six-lane street, with their heads high and their eyes at the white Capitol building at the top of the hill and they walked through Montgomery and changed the face of the South yesterday.
John Doar walked first. He was a half-block ahead of the march and he strolled along, a tousled-haired white guy in a quiet green plaid sports jacket and striped tie. He chewed on an apple. He is the Assistant Attorney General of the United States in charge of civil rights. He is forty-two and he has put in the last five years, the big years of a man’s life, worrying about these colored people who were behind him. Four years ago he came into Montgomery to handle the Freedom Riders, and when he walked out of the bus station for a minute, his assistant, John Seigenthaler, was jumped and had his head split with a lead pipe. But yesterday, John Doar walked up Dexter Avenue as if he were out for the air, and a guy alongside him kept talking about what was happening.
“It’s all gone,” the guy said. “The South is all gone. A whole way of life is going right into memory.”
“That’s right,” Doar said. “That’s just what it is.”
A few yards behind him, Jim McShane, the Chief United States Marshal, stopped and took off his sunglasses and looked up at something that was sticking out of a building window.
“That’s an ABC camera,” a man called out from an unmarked car behind McShane.
“Oh, that’s right,” McShane said. “For a second there…”
Then the marchers came. There were the known people. King, the old Phil Randolph, the stiffness of the years in his legs, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. But there were few that could be recognized. Civil rights, when it comes out of the lecture halls and goes into the backroads of places like Selma, Alabama, does not attract many personalities. It attracts only people whose names are nothing, and who have nothing that shows, and they take chances with their lives, and yesterday they walked through Montgomery, these nameless little people who changed the ways of the nation, and with them were people from everywhere, white people and black people, and they walked together in a parade the South never has seen. And they showed, forever, on this humid day in Montgomery, Alabama, that what they stand for cannot be stopped.
“I want to get whupped,” Alexander McLaughlin said. “I told my wife yesterday that I feels left out of this thing. I want to go out some place and get myself whupped so’s I can feel I been in it.”
He was an old man with a white card saying “Washington” sticking from the breast pocket of his gray suit.
“Come down with me and you get yourself a good whupping,” the old woman in a plaid kerchief called to him. “Oh, Ah guarantees you a good whupping.”
“Where you from?” McLaughlin said.
“Madison County, Mississippi,” the old woman said.
“They whup you for all times in Madison County,” somebody in the back yelled out. The old woman shrieked and clapped her hands and everybody laughed and kept walking toward the white Capitol building on the top of the hill.
“I’ll be in Madison County,” McLaughlin said.
Roland Cooper, State Senator from Wilcox County, stood on the white marble steps of the Capitol building and watched the line of marchers coming up the hill. Roland Cooper is a solid man. He had on a gray business suit and his hair was cut and combed and his shoes were shined, and he owns an auto agency and a small cattle farm in Camden, Alabama.
He is no street-corner redneck. He is a businessman and a politician and he shakes hands and says hello affably. He was out on the steps yesterday, watching this long line of sloppy people come up the hill toward him, and when the first rows reached the speakers’ stand set up in the plaza, they stopped and Roland Cooper, standing for everything that the South used to mean, made fun of them.
“Never saw so many coons all together in mah life,” State Senator Roland Cooper said.
“Damn,” he said. “Don’t that look like Nigger Penn over yonder there.”
“Nigger Penn. Jes’ some nigger from mah home town. If Ah catches him here…”
He looked to see if the face in the crowd was the one he knew.
“You know something?” Cooper said. “Ah’m good to niggers. Why, Ah’ve got two of ’em working for me now at the auto agency. One’s been with me seventeen years, the other eighteen. Ah got one on the farm. They like me. Ah’m good to niggers.”
“How much do you pay them?”
“Pay them accordin’ to the work they do.”
Up on the stage at the foot of the steps, Harry Belafonte stepped to a microphone and began to sing.
You waited for Cooper to say it. “Tell you one thing,” Cooper said after a while. “’Tain’t anybody can equal niggers for keepin’ time to music.”
“What do you think all this means?” he was asked. “Don’t mean nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ at all. Jes’ take a look of them. They jes’ a pack of coons.”
He kept looking at them. And they kept coming. Far down the street, around the fountain, the line coiled and the people kept coming up the hill and the sun was breaking through the clouds now and lines of Army troops stood with their rifles at parade rest, and FBI agents walked through the crowd with hand radios, and helicopters flew overhead, and Roland Cooper stood and watched his world change and he didn’t even know it, and he will not know it until he sees, someday, the registration figures in Wilcox County, Alabama, where niggers never have voted.
But the Roland Coopers were buried yesterday. They were buried on Dexter Avenue, which was decorated with flags of the State of Alabama, a final touch of small-boy toy-breaking which this state loves. And they were buried by people who came winding from a huge field of deep mud behind a Catholic hospital and school in the Negro section, four miles away.
The marchers gathered in a section of town which has places like Council Street. On Council Street, yesterday morning, a little boy sat and banged his feet on the tin porch chair they had put him on while he sucked on a smeared plastic bottle. Next door a man dozed on a bench on the porch with a red hat stuck over his face. The house was a tangle of boards nailed together under a tin roof and sat up on cement blocks.
A little girl in a red dress and bare feet stood in the garbage in the weeds at the curb and bent over a pipe that was sticking up. She turned something on the pipe and water came out of its rusted end. She bent over and started to drink the water.
“Don’t you have water inside?” she was asked.
“No,” she said, “this the water.”
On the porch a fat woman in a cotton dress and white butcher’s apron held a baby in her arms. The baby woke up when a helicopter flew low over the house, and the fat woman began to jiggle the baby back to sleep.
The march started here, and it was going on for people who live on the Council Streets everywhere in this nation. And it wound through the Negro section, past toothless old women who kept calling out, “Ah never thought Ah’d see this,” and then it came down into the white section, down onto the wide streets, and at a little after four o’clock yesterday afternoon the speeches were over and the people started singing “We Shall Overcome.”
And when they sang it, they held hands and swayed. Thirty thousand people stood on the main street of Montgomery, Alabama, and held hands and swayed and sang “We Shall Overcome” and the voices went out from the street and echoed off the buildings behind them. And the faces in the windows of the buildings were blank, all of them blank now, and these black people singing in the street, these ignorant niggers who would have been shot to death for causing this kind of trouble six months ago, seemed to glow with each word of the song.
You have not lived, in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing “…we are not afraid…” and then turn and look at the face of a cop near her and see the puzzlement and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over. The South as it has stood since 1865 is gone. Shattered by these people in muddy shoes standing in the street and swaying and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
A businessman came running down the steps of the Capitol building and reached out and grabbed you in the middle of the song.
“Look,” he was saying, “I saw you talking to Roland Cooper before. Now Roland Cooper is a sincere man, don’t get me wrong. But he just doesn’t know. Life has passed him by. This here thing is a revolution. And some of us know it. We really do.
“Now can you please do me a favor. Go over and talk to Red Blount. He’s the biggest contractor in town. You see Red Blount, he thinks different. He knows what’s going on. Red Blount knows that this is a revolution and he’s going to live with it.
“Do me a favor. You saw Roland Cooper. Now please go and see Red Blount. He knows what’s going on. The world’s just passed Roland Cooper by. It’s passed all of us by, unless we start to live with it.”