The Day Voting Rights Finally Got Traction in Selma, Alabama 1

Every year, in early March, thousands flock to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate one of the most important moments in American history— “Bloody Sunday.” President Lyndon Johnson compared it to Lexington and Concord and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, moments when “history and fate” combined to create turning points in American history. Without it, it is unlikely that the historic Voting Rights Act would have become law in 1965.

That Sunday, March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and vigilantes attacked peaceful civil rights activists with cattle prods and baseball bats, hoping to kill as many as they could. “I’m going to die here,” thought John Lewis, as he fell to the ground with a concussion. When colleagues called for doctors to help him and many others, Jim Clark, the sheriff of Dallas County, replied, “Let the buzzards eat them.”

The event, later televised, shocked the nation and led thousands of Americans to rush to Selma. Among them were hundreds of clergymen, teachers, lawyers, labor leaders, college professors, homemakers, entertainers, laborers, and the wives and children of Washington officials. Those who could not go South demonstrated in their own communities from Maine to Hawaii.

Washington, D.C. became a center of protest where activists demanded the swift passage of a voting rights act that would eliminate obstacles like literacy tests and poll taxes that had long prevented African Americans from voting.

“The mournful, determined tones of ‘We Shall Overcome’ rang out from Miami to Seattle,” noted The New York Times. Never had America seen such an outpouring of support for the Civil Rights Movement.

It is no surprise then that Bloody Sunday and the later, more successful crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge led by Martin Luther King Jr. would be commemorated for decades. The “Annual Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee,” would be held from March 5 to March 7 in Selma drawing presidents and ordinary citizens alike.

This year it was different, however, another casualty of the pandemic. Activities were virtual and televised, making it, for the first time, a truly global event.

Among those honored this year were four Civil Rights icons who died in 2020:

  • The Reverend Joseph Lowery, who created the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led that city’s bus boycott following Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
  • John Lewis, a longtime member of the House of Representatives where he became known as the “conscience of the Congress.”
  • Reverend C. T. Vivian, a member of Dr. King’s inner circle, who played a critical role in the 1965 voting rights campaign. Once, leading a group of demonstrators to the courthouse, he directly confronted Sheriff Jim Clark, who punched him in the mouth. He got back up, his lip split and bleeding: “What kind of people are you?” he asked. “What do you tell your children at night?… We’re willing to be beaten for democracy.”
  • Bruce Boynton was a young Howard University Law School student when, in December 1958, he refused to give up his seat in a segregated café attached to a Virginia Trailways Bus terminal. After a judge found him guilty of trespassing, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won. It ruled that earlier courts were guilty of “unreasonable prejudice” and violated the Interstate Commerce Act as well as the Equal Protection, Due Process, and Commerce clauses of the Constitution. Boynton’s bravery and the court’s ruling ignited the 1961 Freedom Rides which led eventually to the desegregation of bus and train stations and energized the civil rights movement.

Also deserving of recognition that weekend is a forgotten civil rights activist whose efforts also paved the way for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. James Rufus Forman (1928-2005) was executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1961 to 1967. He took the movement’s shock troops, the often chaotic, disorganized young students who risked their lives fighting Jim Crow in the South’s most dangerous places, and built it into a mostly disciplined and vibrant organization. He was often a controversial figure even in his own ranks. He challenged Martin Luther King, believing that SNCC needed to create indigenous leadership in the places where they served, arousing the local populations to take control of their own destinies rather than rely on one charismatic leader who briefly came to town, gave an eloquent speech, then quickly left them to their own devices.

“Fiery” and “impatient,” he was a decade older than most of his troops, grew up in Mississippi and Chicago, and experienced both Southern and Northern racism first hand. As a child, racists threatened to hang him for misbehaving. While briefly attending college, he was falsely arrested by Los Angeles cops who beat him so badly that he ended up in a California psychiatric unit. He survived and returned to Chicago, where he studied at Roosevelt University and earned a Masters degree in African Studies at Boston University. He became a public school teacher and also began work on a novel about the developing civil rights movement. He worked part time for the Chicago Defender covering the integration of Little Rock High School and other racial flash points in Tennessee and North Carolina. Such experiences led him eventually to a career with SNCC.

He was not an office-bound executive who safely gave orders from his tiny, congested office in Atlanta. Often, he went into the streets, organizing freedom marches, encouraging African Americans to risk their homes, jobs, and even their lives, to vote. So it was on Monday, Oct. 7, 1963—two years before King’s own campaign to vote, that he created “Freedom Day” that led hundreds of Alabamians to register to vote.

To energize his troops, Forman invited comedian Dick Gregory to address a rally just before the event. Gregory accepted immediately, caring as much about civil rights as he did his own career—more, probably. To speak after the rally, he asked James Baldwin, the celebrated writer whose account of modern race relations, The Fire Next Time, was a current bestseller.

Sheriff Jim Clark’s uniform bore a large gold star and a helmet stamped with the Confederate flag. At his side, he wore a gun, a club, and an electric cattle prod.

Surrounded by what he called a “posse of 200 rednecks,” Gregory entered the church on Sunday night, Oct. 6. There were police inside as well as out, waiting to record his every word. “I got up on stage in front of a crowd of scared Negroes,” he later wrote. “They needed some courage. Courage to go out and buck the system, courage to let their children demonstrate, courage to stand up and be counted…” He tried to supply that courage. First, he attacked Clark and his men, calling them “the idiots who do all the dirty work.” The audience cheered; never had a Black man dared publicly to talk about a white man that way, let alone a county sheriff or state trooper. All Southern whites had to give themselves pride, he said further, was “a drinking fountain, a toilet, and the right to call me n—–.” “Every white man in America knows we are Americans, knows we are Negroes, and some of them know us by our names. So when he calls us a n—–, he is calling us something we are not, something that exists only in his mind. So if the n—– exists only in his mind, who’s the n—–?”

“You tell ’em, brother,” someone called out and the rest laughed.

Go out and support the kids, Gregory urged. Register! Vote! And “freedom will run all over this town.”

Thunderous applause followed and when it subsided, Jim Forman took the stage. “Go through the phone book,” he instructed. “You’ll know who’s Negro, because they won’t have a Mr. or Mrs. in front of their names. You got to get on the phone tonight and call these people and tell them to come down to the courthouse tomorrow, that it’s Freedom Day. You take a baloney sandwich and a glass of cool water and go down there and stay all day. Now get on that phone tonight. Who’ll take the letter ‘A’…” They would use the “ten and ten system:” one person would call ten and each would call ten more.

Finally, Betty Mae Fikes, 15, led her fellow high school students—the Selma Freedom Chorus—in their celebrated rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” everyone joining in except the police. Then the audience, estimated in the hundreds, filed slowly out of the church, walked past the squad cars and went home.

Forman hurried to the home of Amelia Boynton, the Movement’s leader in Selma, where he was expecting the arrival of James Baldwin and his brother Daniel. Although it was well past midnight, he planned to brief them about Selma, a town totally foreign to both men and “to prepare [James] for what Monday [Freedom Day] would be like.” “In that, he completely failed,” Baldwin later said. “No one could have prepared me…” for Freedom Day.

When the Baldwins arrived at 1:30 a.m., they found Forman in the kitchen “expertly scrambling eggs” and chatting with Howard Zinn, a historian at Spellman College who was writing a history of SNCC, and Prathia Hall, daughter of a Baptist minister who had joined SNCC after graduating from Temple University. A month earlier she was grazed by a bullet while working on voter registration in Terrell County, Georgia. Now she was working in Selma, where the police had issued a warrant for her arrest.

After eating, they moved to the living room where, Zinn later wrote, the group “waited for Baldwin to say something.” Smiling, the writer told them to go ahead and talk: “I’m new here. I’m trying to find out what’s happening.” Forman gave the group a brief history of SNCC’s efforts to win the vote for Selma’s citizens. The first SNCC field workers became known as “the 12 High” because they were always high. The second organizer was arrested and then fled. During the past decade only 75 Black people—28 of them college graduates—had tried to register and all had failed.

One of his best lieutenants, Bernard Lafayette, had spent almost a year there working with the Dallas County Voters League whose leader, Amelia Boynton, had been struggling for decades. He attracted a small group of college students who helped him to organize rallies, which were meeting almost weekly and numbered in the hundreds. He recalled the time, not too many years earlier, when SNCC wrote off Selma. Now he was a bit more optimistic.

Tomorrow they would lead a march on the Dallas County courthouse where the Board of Registrars was located. It was open 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, some with doctorates, could pass them. Their favorite oral question was, “Summarize the Constitution of the United States.” And if that failed to dissuade black applicants, intimidation and violence were used against them.

Violence and intimidation were the province of Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies. Equally deadly was a 300-man army called Clark’s posse, who were permitted to enforce the law as they saw fit. You could spot them by their orange and green helmets. They would see Clark and the others tomorrow. He was unmistakable at six feet tall with a belly that protruded over his belt. His uniform bore a large gold star and a helmet stamped with the Confederate flag. At his side, he wore a gun, a club, and an electric cattle prod. Avoid him if they could, Forman suggested. He had wired the Justice Department asking them to send U.S. Marshals to Selma but, so far, he had not received a reply.

Then a car drove by, its lights illuminating the room and Forman stopped talking. Baldwin realized that everyone was thinking the same thought: what comes next—“bullets or a bomb?” When the car passed, Forman went to look out the window, but saw nothing. The conversation resumed and the phone rang. Ms. Hall answered it and everyone could hear her end of the conversation:

“What happened there? How are your wife and children? Did you know who they were?” she asked. Later, they would learn that the caller was a man named Porter who reported that he and his family were awakened by the sound of their dog barking and had also heard the car. He found two white men under his house tampering with his gas pipe and he ran them off. (The next day Porter discovered that they had returned later that night and killed his dog.) It had grown very late so the party soon broke up. It was nearly Freedom Day.

Jim Forman awoke early that morning—Monday, Oct. 7. He was tired and tense, worried about what was to come that day. Before leaving for Mrs. Boynton’s office, he pocketed a bottle of Maalox tablets to sooth his bleeding ulcer. The first signs were good—there were about 125 people lined up at the courthouse by 9:00 a.m., according to FBI estimates. They were older men and women, dressed neatly. By 10:00, there were 175, the line beginning to snake around the corner. Sheriff Clark, gold star pinned prominently to his chest, and wearing a green helmet emblazoned with the Confederate flag, had arrived and was surveying the scene. He was supported by 50 state troopers and 40 posse men, armed with guns, cattle prods, and night sticks, who walked along the sidewalk close to the line of waiting people.

About a half hour later, Forman met up with the Baldwin brothers and Howard Zinn. Forman happily greeted those in line: “Now you just [wait] here,” he said, “…and get some sunshine.” Behind him were two posse men and when Forman stopped momentarily, one ordered him to “get goin’! You’re blockin’ the sidewalk.” By noon there were 300 waiting to enter the courthouse—and only 12 had actually gone in and applied. Those who entered had their pictures taken by Clark’s men, another deterrent to registering. Those outside knew they would probably not be among the lucky ones today and they were growing hungry and thirsty but still they waited.

Across the street, on the steps of the Federal Building stood two SNCC workers holding signs that read “Register To Vote,” and “Register Now for Freedom Now.” When Sheriff Clark saw them, he and three deputies rushed over. The deputies encircled the two and grabbed their signs, while Clark bellowed, “You’re under arrest for unlawful assembly.” They were cheered by a couple of white observers who yelled, “Get ’em, Big Jim! Get ’em!” As two FBI agents and two Justice Department lawyers stood silently by, they were taken to a waiting police car and driven away.

Forman feared that the police assault would cause the voters’ line to break, but it not only held, it grew longer as the afternoon waned.

Forman’s next challenge was how to feed those in line, which had now grown to 350. Clark’s men had told them that if they left to eat, drink, or relieve themselves they might as well not return. Forman, chewing Maalox tablets, joined Mrs. Boynton to discuss this problem with Sheriff Clark. Howard Zinn came along to record their conversation. “We’d like to bring food to these people on line. They’ve been waiting all day,” Forman told Clark.

“They will not be molested in any way,” an angry Clark replied.

“Does giving them food mean molesting them?” Mrs. Boynton asked.

“They will not be molested in any way,” Clark repeated. “If you do, you’ll be arrested.”

Forman tried another approach: “They’re standing on line to register to vote, and we’d like to explain registration procedure to them.” It was his right, he said.

“Your civil rights be damned,” Clark said. “They will not be molested in any way, and that includes talking to them… If you talk to them, you’ll be arrested.

Zinn conferred with Dick Wasserstrom, a Justice Department lawyer. It was now 2 p.m., hunger and especially thirst under a hot sun was growing greater by the moment. Surely the federal government would rescue the folks surrounded by Clark’s posse. “Is there any reason why a representative of the Justice Department can’t go over and talk to the state troopers and say these people are entitled to food and water?” Zinn asked. The question clearly bothered the lawyer and he took a moment to reply. “I won’t do it,” Wasserstrom said. “I believe they do have the right to receive food and water. But I won’t do it.”

It was after two o’clock that Forman, out of options, decided to bring food to the line, knowing what that would cause. At first, he offered to do it himself, but the Baldwin brothers said he would be jailed and, since he was their leader, they needed him. So his aides Carver “Chico” Neblett and Alvery Williams became that day’s sacrificial lambs. “Let’s go, man,” Neblett told Williams and the pair, carrying sandwiches and voter applications, set out for the courthouse. As they approached the line, Major Joe Smelley, leading the state troopers, yelled, “Move on!” When they didn’t, Smelley shouted to his troopers, “Get ’em out of here, they are just trying to cause trouble.” When a trooper pushed Neblett, he dropped to the ground to protect himself. Williams joined him. “Let me at ’em,” cried several deputies and a dozen state troopers quickly surrounded Neblett and Williams and beat them with billy clubs. At least one jabbed Neblett with a cattle prod—Zinn saw his body convulse.

Photographers moved in and the sound of their flashbulbs popping covered the men’s cries. “Get in front of those cameramen,” Smelley yelled and the troopers first blocked them, then attacked them. One tried to strike CBS News’ Wendell Hoffman in the groin, but Hoffman used his camera to deflect the blow. A reporter from the Montgomery Reporter wasn’t as lucky—a posse man smacked him in the mouth. Neblett and Williams were dragged away and thrown on a bus. Avery Williams stood up but was knocked down again by a deputy who then let a group of angry bystanders come aboard. “Where are you n—–s from?” one asked.

“I’m from Illinois,” Neblett replied.

“You better get back there then,” the stranger said. “If I see you on the street at night then I’m going to kill you.”

Then the bus took off. “Somebody give me a gun,” said the man, “I’m gonna shoot the n—– now.” But nobody did. The beatings resumed when they got to jail where they were charged with “criminal provocation” and “resisting arrest.”

Forman feared that the police assault would cause the voters’ line to break, but it not only held, it grew longer as the afternoon waned. The registrar’s office closed at 4:30 p.m., and it was only then that the people, some of whom had waited more than seven hours, dispersed. “Those people should be given medals,” said one observer, a black lawyer from Detroit named John Conyers, the future congressman and founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The day ended with a jubilant rally at the Baptist Tabernacle Church. Six hundred people attended and while three city patrol cars were stationed outside, and one sheriff’s car drove around the black from time to time, this night not a single policeman or state trooper entered the sanctuary.

“We ought to be happy today,” Jim Forman said, “because we did something great. Jim Clark never saw that many n—–s down there!” The crowd laughed and applauded. “Yeah, there was Jim Clark, rubbin’ his head and his big, fat belly; he was shufflin’ today like we used to. He never thought we could get that many people to the courthouse to register. Well, the white man has had us shuffling for 300 years,” he concluded. “We’re going to catch up with him and he knows it.”

John Lewis had sensed it and later called Freedom Day “the turning point in the right to vote.”

Looking back at the day’s events 22 years later, Jim Forman wrote, “There would be other events called Freedom Day in various parts of the South. But there would never be one like the first Freedom Day: the day when a century of Southern fear and terror—of night riding Klansmen, of the smooth talking but equally murderous White Citizens’ Council, of the vicious George Wallaces—when all these forces had not been able to stop the forward thrust of a people determined by any means to be free.”

An exaggeration, of course. A century’s fear did not disappear so easily or so quickly nor did the terror cease, but there was also truth in Forman’s remarks. Something had changed within Selma’s black community. John Lewis had sensed it and later called Freedom Day “the turning point in the right to vote.” So had Howard Zinn. Speaking with a 73-year-old veteran of World War I, he asked if he had ever seen “any activity by Selma Negroes” like what had occurred that day? Shaking his head, he replied, “Nothing like this ever happened to Selma. Nothing, until SNCC came here.” John Herbers of The New York Times also recognized that something was different. “This kind of talk before a mass meeting, with the doors wide open, is something new and startling for Selma, which has long considered itself impregnable to the social revolutions sweeping the nation,” he later told his readers.

James Forman would return to Selma on March 25, 1965 to join King and the others who eventually marched from Selma to Montgomery, this time under the protection of U.S. troops sent by President Lyndon Johnson and federalized Alabama National Guardsmen. Less than six months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. It was renewed four times—in 1970, 1975, 1982, and in 2006 by a unanimous vote of the Senate. President George W. Bush “proudly” signed it into law, extending its life for 25 years.

Seven years later, on June 26, 2013, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court profoundly weakened the act, and it is again before the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule again, finally destroying it, although efforts to suppress African American voting remain prevalent. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King said in 1965, “but it bends toward justice.” James Forman thought the struggle for justice was endless. Time has proven him correct.