The Almost Forgotten Selma March

Fifty years ago this week, thousands in the Civil Rights movement set out from Selma, Alabama, to march to Montgomery, and this time, triumphantly, they made it.

AP Photo

It was a glorious moment in American history. On March 7, 2015, forty thousand Americans gathered in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On that day in 1965, Alabama state troopers and local police brutally assaulted 600 African Americans, members of Martin Luther King’s voting rights campaign. Beaten and shocked by billy clubs and cattle prods, trampled by horses, and choked by clouds of tear gas, the marchers fell back and fled for their lives. When someone called for an ambulance, Selma’s Sheriff, Jim Clark, replied, “Let the buzzards eat them.” President Lyndon Johnson later compared the assault to Lexington and Concord, a turning point in American history because it touched the conscience of the nation and accelerated the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act.

On the anniversary earlier this month, the crowd included elderly veterans of the ’65 march, 100 members of the U.S. Congress, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and the current president of the United States and his family.

The celebration, known officially as the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, commemorated not just Bloody Sunday but the aborted march two days later and the final successful trek (March 21-25) that brought the marchers, numbering 25,000, to Montgomery, the home of arch-segregationist George C. Wallace. Civil Rights activists hoped to present the governor with a list of grievances, the greatest of which was the denial of the right to vote.

Fifty years ago, that five day march from Selma to Montgomery was not widely celebrated but denigrated by a number of distinguished Americans. Former President Harry S. Truman, who had urged Congress to adopt a civil rights program 17 years earlier, called the march “silly.” Responding to a reporter’s question, Truman went further: “They can’t accomplish a darned thing. All they want is to attract attention.” Renata Adler, a perceptive journalist who covered the march for The New Yorker, wondered what the march’s purpose was. “The immediate aims of the abortive earlier marches had been realized: the national conscience had been aroused and federal intervention had been secured. It was unclear what such a demonstration could hope to achieve. Few segregationists could be converted by it, the national commitment to civil rights would hardly be increased by it, there was certainly an element of danger in it.”

The final successful march from Selma to Montgomery was neither “silly” nor irrelevant. First, it kept a promise to the people of Marion, Alabama, who had suffered a vicious beating by Alabama state troopers and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a state trooper during the riot on February 18, 1965. At first, activists wanted to carry Jackson’s coffin to Montgomery and place it on the steps of George Wallace’s State House. From that desire evolved the eventual plan to march from Selma to Montgomery.

The march was an important event in the empowerment of African Americans. Those who had previously felt that winning the vote would not improve their lives were inspired to overcame their fears and join the movement. While the final, successful march lacks the drama of the first, it too deserves to be remembered now that the television cameras and newsmen and women have departed.

Having won the approval of federal judge Frank M. Johnson to march along Alabama’s highways, and the military protection of the U.S. government, King invited “friends of goodwill across the nation to join with us in this gigantic witness to the fulfillment of democracy.” They would set out on March 21 and arrive in Montgomery four days later. On March 25 he would speak on the steps of the state capitol, and a delegation would give Governor Wallace a petition describing black grievances.

King’s staff hurried to complete the arrangements for the trip. Campsites were located, plans to feed the marchers were finalized, and medical support was arranged. Anyone who became ill or was injured would be cared for by the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which had provided heroic service on Bloody Sunday. Almost 100 physicians and nurses soon descended on Selma to assist them. Black morticians turned their hearses into ambulances, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union donated a mobile hospital capable of responding to almost any medical crisis that developed.

The size of the crowd which responded to King's invitation was greater than he had hoped. There were 3,600 would-be marchers waiting to follow him: rabbis, ministers, nuns, and prominent religious leaders as well as civil rights icons like Rosa Parks and A. Philip Randolph, the 76-year-old president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose threat to lead a black march on Washington in 1941 forced FDR to ban discrimination in war-time industry. Ralph Bunche, U.N. official and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, would participate, as would teachers and college professors, alongside their students; labor leaders and New York politicians; actors and musicians; and ordinary men and women like Detroit mother and part-time student Viola Liuzzo, who had loaned her car to the movement and greeted newcomers at the movement’s hospitality suite. She wanted to do more than just march, and later she would get her chance. Physical problems wouldn’t stop Joe Young, a poor Georgian who was blind, or Michigan’s Jim Letherer, whose disability forced him to walk on crutches. “My handicap is not that I have one leg,” he told a reporter. “It is that I cannot do more to help these people vote.” The movement’s leaders and victims of the Marion riot were also represented: John Lewis and Hosea Williams, who were bloodied on the bridge; Amelia Boynton and Annie Cooper, who were beaten by Sheriff Clark; and Cager Lee, Jimmy Lee Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather, who remarked that if Jimmy Lee “had to die for something, thank God it was for this,” the right to vote.

At 12:30 on March 21, 1965, King addressed the marchers who had assembled at Brown Chapel, telling them to maintain their resolve during the coming march. “You will be the people that will light a new chapter in the history of our nation,” he said. “Walk together, children, and don’t you get weary, and it will lead us to the promised land. And Alabama will be a new Alabama. And America will be a new America.”

Suddenly, a group of Alabama National Guard jeeps appeared and began driving through the crowd, which parted to avoid being run down. “Didn’t realize we were interrupting,” laughed one driver, his uniform emblazoned with the letters D.D.—Dixie Division—his Southern accent unmistakable. The jeeps withdrew, leaving no casualties behind. It was never determined whether the incident was an accident or a deliberate provocation. King, fearing that the marchers’ confidence had been undermined, quickly finished his remarks and asked that two of his youngest supporters, 8-year-old Sheyann Webb and 9-year-old Rachel West, sing “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” There was a final rendition of “We Shall Overcome” before the leaders organized the group into columns and the marchers moved into the street.

It was an inauspicious beginning that left some participants in a nervous frame of mind. But this time, no police or state troopers tried to block the marchers, so the protesters’ fears passed quickly, especially when they saw U.S. Army helicopters circling above them and a truck leading the procession, providing some protection from a frontal assault. It carried network television cameramen photographing them as well as the Alabama National Guards, federalized by the president, who were thus forced by the cameras to be on their best behavior as they accompanied the marchers through the city streets.

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If no one tried to assault the marchers, it wasn’t because Selma’s white population had suddenly grown more accommodating. The marchers saw unhappy white men who held signs that read “I Hate Niggers,” and “Walk Coon,” while speakers blasted out a familiar musical refrain: “bye bye blackbird.”

The marchers stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where, two weeks before, Major John Cloud had yelled, “Troopers advance,” and the assault had commenced. “This is the place where State Troopers whipped us,” Hosea Williams told King. “The savage beasts beat us on this spot.” There was silence. Some of the younger marchers lay down on the ground, then there were cheers as many sang out another movement anthem, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

Leaving the bridge, they marched down four-lane Jefferson Davis Highway, where they encountered more hecklers. One driver yelled, “Go to hell,” and a heavy-set woman shouted at several nuns, “You’re going to burn in hell with the rest of them.” The marchers, however, seemed unaffected by their taunts: “The people just seemed like something had been lifted from their shoulders,” Sheyann Webb later recalled. “They were so proud, but it was a pride that was dignified."

They covered a little over seven miles by sundown. At that time the marchers turned off Jefferson Davis Highway and proceeded to David and Rosa Bell Hall’s 80-acre farm, where they would spend the night. The Halls, neither of whom was registered to vote (“it just never seemed worthwhile to try,” said Mrs. Hall), lived with their eight children in a three-room shack without indoor plumbing. Fearing retaliation, they had first hesitated when asked if King’s people could bed down in their field. “David didn’t know what to do,” Mrs. Hall later said, "but finally we decided we just had to do it.”

At the Hall Farm most of the first day’s group prepared to return to Selma. Only 300 marchers would be allowed to proceed past the point where the highway became a two-lane country road—one of the conditions of Judge Johnson’s order—so the rest, the children among them, boarded cars and buses that took them back into town. The lucky 300 who remained—280 black Alabamians and 20 white volunteers from across America—ate a buffet dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, served on paper plates from new, immaculately clean trash cans. Men and women slept in separate tents to squelch the accusations of hostile Southerners like Alabama’s Congressman William Dickinson, whose words were broadcast over the transistor radios many of the marchers carried. “Free love among this group is not only condoned, it is encouraged,” the congressman proclaimed. “Only by the ultimate sex act with one of another color can they demonstrate that they have no prejudice.” This produced laughter from the exhausted marchers: “These white folks must think we’re supermen to be able to march all day, make whoopee all night, and then march all day again,” said one black man.

King spent the night uncomfortably nestled inside a sleeping bag at the command headquarters, a mobile van. That day’s walk had left him with a painful blister on his left foot, and he told his friend Ralph Abernathy that he doubted whether he would be able to complete the long journey. The younger marchers, meanwhile, were too excited to sleep. They gathered around campfires singing freedom songs, disturbing the sleep of older folks, who had a restless night. There was a shortage of blankets, and the temperature dipped below freezing. To one reporter, the encampment, its perimeter guarded by U.S. army troops, “resembled a cross between a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ migrant labor camp and the Continental Army bivouac at Valley Forge.”

The next morning the marchers ate toast and oatmeal without milk, which caused one man to complain that the cereal tasted like “unfermented library paste.” An angry Andrew Young told them, “You’re not better than two-thirds of the negroes in Alabama. The average Negro here makes less than $2,000 a year and you can’t put cream on your oatmeal with that.” After breakfast the weary travelers set out slowly on a 16-mile journey to their next campsite. “You are going too slow,” Young called out. “You’re holding up the civil rights movement.”

The day began uneventfully, but there were ominous signs on the horizon. Lowndes County lay ahead, infamous for the number of black citizens who had been lynched or had died mysteriously. Rumors put the marchers on edge: Someone had heard that bombs and land mines had been hidden along the route and that Klansmen were planning to set loose deadly snakes when the marchers stopped for lunch or left the road to relieve themselves. The county’s landscape intensified their fears: They walked by moss-covered trees that might hide snipers and saw swamps filled with man-eating alligators. Troops and guardsmen combed the nearby woods but found nothing dangerous. This was “a full blown military operation,” said one officer. “It’s no different from the way we would screen a route in Vietnam.”

When they crossed the county line and entered Lowndes County at 12:13 p.m., King called out, “Pick it up, now. Everybody join in,” and he began singing, “We Shall Overcome.” His followers joined him.

Sudddenly, a small plane swooped down over the marchers. Its payload turned out to be leaflets, announcing that the black activists could expect to lose their jobs when they returned home. The plane was later identified as belonging to the Confederate Air Force. A reporter asked Jack Rosenthal, a Justice Department official, if they could do anything about the plane, as it might be capable of bombing them. “What do you want us to do?” asked an exasperated Rosenthal. “Use anti-aircraft guns?”

Later, word reached King that down the road men were erecting signs accusing him of being a Communist. When the marchers came upon one, it was a billboard depicting King in a meeting with a group said to be “national Communist leaders.” The picture did not surprise King. It had been taken in 1957, when he spoke at the 25th anniversary of the founding of Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a controversial center of economic and political activism in the South. During a break in the march, King told reporters that he had visited the school eight years earlier, as had many veterans of the civil rights movement. The school’s enemies had considered it a center of Bolshevism since its creation in 1932. The photograph had been a staple of Southern segregationists since it was taken by a spy for the Georgia White Citizen’s Council. “There are about as many Communists in the Civil Rights movement as there are Eskimos in Florida,” King joked. He called the accusation “absurd.”

Soon the marchers began to see Negro bystanders along the road, staring at them in silence as if they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing: a ragtag army, some wearing berets, cowboy hats, or head scarves—anything to protect them from sunburn or sunstroke—led by a black man wearing a green cap and ear muffs. At Trickem Fork, an especially impoverished black community, Young called the marchers’ attention to a run-down church on the verge of collapse. “Look at that! That’s why we’re marching!” Hopefully, such dwellings would disappear when black voters elected representatives who cared how they lived and died.

They stopped briefly so King could talk to some older citizens, who treated him as if he were a movie star. "Are you people gonna register to vote?” Young asked them. “We’re not just marchin’ here for fun.”

“Yes, sir,” they told King and Young, and they kept their promise. Later these elderly men and women walked to the registrar’s office in Hayneville, the county seat, and were among the first blacks in a century to demand the right to vote.

The marchers spent a quiet, uneventful night at Rosa Steele’s farm near Big Swamp Creek. Mrs. Steele, 78 years old and widowed, owned a small grocery store on Highway 80 and had shared the Halls’ reluctance to work with King. “At first I didn’t think [the movement] amounted to much,” she told a reporter. “I guess I’ve lived too long and just didn’t think things would change—until I heard the president’s speech. If the president can take a stand, I guess I can too.” Later local segregationists tried to destroy her business by threatening the vendors who stocked her shelves, but another black merchant helped drive them off.

After a journey of more than 23 miles, some of the marchers required medical attention, and all were thoroughly worn out. Like King, many had blistered feet and sunburned faces. Most went to bed early. King left the party briefly to go to Cleveland to fulfill a speaking commitment arranged earlier. “De Lawd departs,” said one member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had long criticized King's moderate tactics. Hosea Williams, who idolized King, quickly defended him. “It isn’t the president’s job to be in the sun and the mud all the time,” Williams insisted. “His job was to lead us out of Selma—that was the most dangerous part. Then he’s gone, trying to raise our budget around the country. He is telling our story.”

On Tuesday, the third day, nature turned against the marchers. It rained all day—a cold, heavy storm that lashed them unmercifully. They quickly improvised, turning cereal boxes into hats and sheets of plastic into ponchos. Everyone was drenched, from the poorest seamstress to Assistant Attorney General John Doar, who was “soaked to the skin, his hair hanging across his forehead in weeping ringlets,” according to the New York Times’s Roy Reed. But the downpour did not dampen the marchers’ spirits. “Somebody started to sing,” one of the marchers later recalled. “Everybody’s head snapped up and people had fire in their eyes, and suddenly it was a march again. It was incredible.”

The rain was unrelenting, and their campsite that night, a pasture owned by black millionaire A.G. Gaston, was a mud-filled morass. King’s staff put down hay, but it was sucked into the ooze. Tempers flared: two photographers got into a fistfight, an Alabama guardsman spat on a priest, and Alabama troopers insulted black passersby. Wet, dirty, and bedraggled though they were, all took comfort in the fact that half their journey was over: Montgomery was just 20 miles away.

They were up very early the next morning. By 7 o’clock they were again on the road, with Andy Young in front, the group’s leader for at least a few hours. A mile later the marchers crossed the Montgomery County line, leaving Lowndes County behind. The road again became a four-lane highway, and hundreds of new marchers joined the throng. King arrived with his wife, Coretta, and colleague Ralph Abernathy at 11 o’clock. “We have a new song to sing,” he said. “We have overcome.”

As they entered the city of Montgomery, their numbers had grown from the original 300 to about 5,000. They had walked 16 miles that day mostly in sunshine, but just as they reached the city, torrential rainfall briefly doused them. It didn’t dampen their spirits, however. “The marchers were ecstatic,” noted one reporter. “[They] pushed down the street joyfully, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the top of their lungs.” Decades later Bruce Hartford, a white Californian, remembered one incident that, for him, personified the meaning of the march. They were in the business district, passing a motel, and saw standing outside its cleaning staff with their carts of fresh linen and towels. “The maids were excited to see the marchers, they wanted to cheer, they wanted to join the march,” Hartford thought, but to do so would undoubtedly cost them their jobs. Behind them was their boss, “glowering at them” and at the marchers, too. “Suddenly one of them started to cheer, and they all started to cheer, and several of them ran out and joined the march under the eyes of their supervisors.” Joining the marchers had allowed these workers, however briefly, to break the shackles of an informal peonage, ignoring the likely consequences in order to achieve a very personal fulfillment. Such moments of individual liberation would be the march’s greatest achievement.

No one would forget the last night of the march when the participants camped in a muddy ballpark on the grounds of the City of St. Jude, a Catholic medical, religious, and educational complex outside Montgomery that also served as a movement headquarters. Answering the call of Harry Belafonte, musicians, actors, and comedians from Broadway to Hollywood had arrived in Montgomery to entertain the marchers, whose numbers had now swelled to approximately 10,000. The celebrities performed on a stage built from coffin crates, surrounded by a crowd so densely packed that 57 people fainted. Sammy Davis Jr. serenaded the marchers. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a movement anthem. Nina Simone probably stole the show with her angry rendition of “Mississippi Goddam.”

So far the trek had been peaceful. The only casualties were those people with blistered feet and sunburned faces. King’s fears about an assassination attempt had also proved unfounded—until, that is, terrible news reached him early on the final day, March 25.

“We have reports that there’s a sniper in the outskirts of Montgomery waiting to shoot Dr. King,” Assistant Attorney General John Doar told Andrew Young that morning. The FBI was busy checking the buildings that overlooked their route, but there wasn’t enough time to examine every spot. King should leave the march and drive to the capitol, Doar strongly urged. But, as Young expected, King refused to leave his supporters behind. “I don’t care what happens,” King said. “I have to march and I have to be in the front line.” When Young told Doar of King’s response to the news, Doar shrugged fatalistically and said, “In that case there is nothing we can do.”

But Young would not let King march unprotected. He was of course familiar with the old racist adage that “all blacks look alike,” so he invited black ministers who resembled King in physique and dress to join their leader at the head of the march. Fifteen happy ministers quickly came to his side. “They never did find out why they were there,” Young later wrote.

Doar didn’t abandon King to his fate, either. Accompanied by U.S. Marshall James McShane, the assistant attorney general walked casually up Dexter Avenue, almost a block ahead of King and the 30,000 marchers. He and McShane surreptitiously scanned open widows along the route, looking for places where an assassin might lurk. There were 800 soldiers stationed along the parade route, and helicopters hovered above, but Doar and McShane were taking no chances. At one point McShane stopped suddenly and pointed to what looked like a rifle protruding from a window. He moved toward it cautiously. A closer look revealed that it was only a television camera, much to McShane’s relief.

When the marchers reached the white-colored State House, they noticed that its dome flew the Alabama and Confederate flags, while off to the side the American flag fluttered slightly in the breeze. Someone began singing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone joined in, then added “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That popular anthem of the Northern cause must have annoyed Governor Wallace and the city’s citizens, many of whom stood by waving tiny Confederate flags. For many white Southerners Montgomery was historically sacred, as the place where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America.

For Wallace, however, the city had a more contemporary meaning. It was here in 1963 that he had officially become governor of Alabama, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” And Wallace was not going to renege on that promise with anything resembling grace or good humor. He had placed uniformed members of the Alabama Game and Fish Service at the capitol steps “to keep that s.o.b. King from desecrating the Cradle of the Confederacy,” said the governor’s aide. Wallace occasionally peeked through his office blinds, watching the demonstrators—now numbering close to 30,000—through a pair of binoculars. He too was awed by the size of the crowd. “My God, it looks like an army,” he told reporter Bob Ingram. And someone added, “Those are the next voters in Alabama.”

The march’s final mass meeting began around 3 o’clock, as speakers and entertainers climbed atop a specially built platform that acted as a stage. Young was the first to speak: “This is a revolution,” he cried, “a revolution that won’t fire a shot. We come to love the hell out of the State of Alabama.” Bunche spoke, as did A. Philip Randolph and Rosa Parks, who was treated like the real star of the festivities. But soon the crowd grew restless, as most waited for the man they thought had made this triumph possible: Martin Luther King Jr. King’s address, which began at close to 4 o’clock, was so powerful and eloquent that it rivaled his “I Have a Dream” speech, although it is not as well remembered.

“They told us we wouldn’t get here,” he told the crowd, which The New York Times later called “the greatest demonstration in the history of the civil rights movement.” “And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies,” he said, “but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama, saying, ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’ We are on the move now and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King then discussed the specific issues that had brought so many people to Montgomery that day. “Let us march on segregated schools,” he admonished, “until every vestige of segregation and inferior education becomes a thing of the past ... Let us march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena.”

The past two months had seen incredible progress, King assured his audience. “Selma, Alabama, has become a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in the dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”

The crowd remained quiet at first, reflecting the split within the movement. Although many of the older veterans saw the day as the culmination of a long struggle (which, indeed, had begun a decade prior in these very streets with the Montgomery Bus Boycott), many of the young activists in the crowd were disgusted by what they saw as King’s opportunism and by the media attention King had received. The three major television networks covered both the march and the speech. But it was hard to be unaffected for long by King’s enthusiasm, and the divisions disappeared as everyone responded with cries of “Speak! Speak!”

“How long must justice be crucified and truth buried?” he continued. “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, ’cause mine eyes have seen the coming of the Lord.” Then the crowd repeated after him, “He is 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. Glory, glory hallelujah.” At those words the crowd rose together, cheering and clapping so loud that the sound echoed through the capitol. Then they sang, “We Shall Overcome,” bringing to a close this joyous—and hard-won—event.

But the day was not over for the delegation appointed to present Governor Wallace with their list of grievances. When they marched to the capitol steps, however, state troopers blocked them, informing them that the governor was no longer in his office. A few minutes later they tried again, and this time managed to meet with Wallace’s secretary. But he would not commit the governor to any future meeting. In one sense, at least, the marchers had failed.

President Johnson and John Doar were greatly relieved that nothing had marred the Selma-to-Montgomery march. But Doar was still vigilant as the National Guard and federal troops withdrew from the capitol and the marchers boarded trains and planes for home. Volunteers were driving people to the airport or back to Selma, and James Orange, King’s aide in charge of transportation, urged them to use the movement’s vehicles and to travel in a caravan rather than driving their own cars, whose out-of-state license plates were sure to arouse the ire of the more violent townspeople. And above all, white volunteers should avoid being alone with black colleagues.

Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit mother of five, ignored this advice. Driving her own car, whose bumper sticker read “All the Way with LBJ” left over from the 1964 election, she drove back and forth to Selma and Montgomery, helping people catch a train or plane. Later that night, returning to Montgomery with a black colleague, she was ambushed by a car filled with Klansmen, their guns blazing. Liuzzo died instantly as her car ran off the road and came to rest in a nearby field. Miraculously, her companion was unhurt and managed to return to Selma, where state police and the FBI interrogated him. But he was a poor eyewitness. He could not identify the shooters or even recall the make or color of the car. It appeared that Viola Liuzzo’s killers would go unpunished.

Then, at 12:42 p.m. the following afternoon, President Johnson appeared on national television to announce that Liuzzo’s killers had been identified and were in custody. The four suspects were members of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. “Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice,” Johnson said, before continuing with obvious revulsion. “She was murdered by the enemies of justice who, for decades, have used the rope and the gun, the tar and the feathers, to terrorize their neighbors.”

Johnson’s statement was not completely true. One of the accused, 35-year-old Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., was helping the FBI build a case against the Klansmen, for Rowe had been the FBI’s top informant inside the Alabama Klan for the past five years. According to Rowe, it was fellow Klansman Collie Leroy Wilkins, a mechanic, who had fired the shots that killed Liuzzo. Rowe himself claimed that he had stuck his gun out the window and had only pretended to shoot. The FBI believed Rowe’s explanation and decided not to test his gun or bullet casings for fingerprints that might have cast doubt on his story.

It later emerged that the FBI had made a Faustian pact in order to get inside the KKK. Thanks to Rowe, the FBI arrested the suspects. In exchange for Rowe’s pledge to testify against them, the Justice Department gave him immunity from prosecution, and promised him a new life in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Rowe’s activities in the Klan had been bloody and illegal: He had organized and participated in the attack on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961 and may have been involved in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. However, the FBI was willing to overlook Rowe’s violent life in the hope that he would provide them with information necessary to destroy the Klan. The other Klansmen were eventually convicted of having violated Liuzzo's civil rights. Rowe was the prosecution’s star witness, and in recognition of his services, the FBI gave him a $10,000 reward, a new identity, and an appointment as a Deputy U.S. Marshall in San Diego, California. King’s great march, which had its origins in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, had ended as it began, with the spilling of blood.

Nevertheless, the march had again demonstrated the courage of African Americans and their white allies. They had overcome their fears, and peacefully defied racist taunts and threats as they pursued that most American of acts—petitioning their government for a redress of grievances.