On this date in 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed southeast out of Selma, Alabama on U.S. Highway 80. The march was led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), followed by Bob Mants of SNCC and Albert Turner of SCLC. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and a county posse waiting for them on the other side.
County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.
Televised images of the brutal attack presented North American and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday” within the African-American community, and now is known universally by that name.
Whilst I could go into greater detail concerning the leadup to the march and the aftermath of the events, I’ll leave you to read elsewhere about that and instead pause to underscore some critical facts. Chief of these is that Bloody Sunday is not ancient history, it is an event well within living memory. I remember it, and I was not even living in the US at the time. Many of the participants are now dead, of course, but not all, and a great many people my age who lived through those times are now in positions of power. These are people who went to segregated schools, lived in segregated communities, and championed racist policies.
Slavery ended after the US Civil War, it is true, but the emancipation of slaves by no means ended the subjugation of former slaves and their descendants. For 100 years Jim Crow and miscegenation laws along with enforced segregation continued a pattern of oppression for African-Americans so that it is supremely disingenuous for contemporary pundits to tell African-Americans that it is time to “get over” slavery, as I have heard repeatedly in recent times. At this stage of the game, slavery is not the issue; it’s what followed that is the continuing gaping wound which so many talking heads would like to pretend does not exist. The current president of the United States and his father were taken to court for refusing to rent certain properties to African-Americans, so we are not talking about the distant past or even the more recent past; we are talking about present realities.
I lived in a coastal North Carolina village in 1978 when the laws against segregation had theoretically changed the social situation, but not much had changed in terms of actual social conditions. The schools in the county were integrated by law, seemingly without much of a fight, but everything else was de facto segregated. There was a Black church (AME Zion) and a White church (Southern Baptist) with zero interaction between congregations. In fact, the Baptist church had held a congregational meeting to forbid African-American members, although I had never come across an example of an African-American attending services, let alone applying for membership. When I returned to the village in 1990, the situation was still the same. The African-American families in the village still lived in complete isolation in a sector surrounding the AME Zion church, and rarely, if ever, interacted with the White community. I vividly recall a day when I was living in the village when an old respected member of the African-American community bought something in the general store and for a few minutes sat on one of the benches in the store where old timers gathered throughout the day to shoot the breeze, and it was such a momentous event that it was talked about for days afterwards (not necessarily in a negative way, but just as a wonder that it happened at all).
What I experienced in that village could have been replicated in tens of thousands of villages across the country in those days – and not just in the South. De facto segregation was, and is, an everyday fact of life in the US. It is certainly true that from 1965 onwards, great strides have been made, but the war is far from over. This post (and others of its ilk) is meant to serve as a reminder that although the 1960s were a turning point, we are talking about a bend in the road not a 180° turn.
Perhaps you’ll appreciate the unsubtle irony of presenting a video on Alabama White BBQ sauce on this date: