Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
by Bob Dorsett
Now it seems far longer than 50 years ago when I sat in a Selma, Alabama, jail talking with the alleged murderer of one of my fellow protesters. Meanwhile, the decisive action that would result in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was taking place nearby.
I did not know at the time Elmer Cook would be acquitted of the killing. And I could not foresee Dr. Martin Luther King’s later martyrdom in Memphis.
All I did know then was: I, a career journalist (and white social activist in off-hours) had in March 1965, answered the call for help raised by the people of Selma against a brutal segregationist power structure.
For thousands such as myself, Selma began with the “Bloody Sunday,” March 7 telecast of the melee that was the first march from Selma to Montgomery. My wife and I watched TV in our suburban Chicago home. We had just seen “Judgment at Nuremburg,” a movie with the moral: when one person is denied his freedom, all inevitably may expect to lose theirs. Then came the newscast, showing Selma blacks being clubbed, tear-gassed, ridden down by horsemen swinging chains.
By late Monday evening, I was flying to Atlanta as one of hundreds committed to marching with Dr. King, along with two white ministers and a black friend, all representing the West Side Organization for Full Employment in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. From Atlanta I traveled by bus to Selma.
On March 9 I went to a recreational area near Brown AME Chapel, the church command post for the voter registration campaign. It was an odd combination of the solemn and the social, involving an estimated 2500 persons from all over the United States, many of them top theological leaders.
Dr. King spoke to groups on the fringes of the field. Then he moved off past the chapel, and each group fell into line behind him, this time in foursomes. In many instances, though not instructed to do so, whites put themselves on the outside ranks that would pass nearest troopers or irritated southerners.
In our foursome, I was on the outside, with a parish worker from Massachusetts next to me, and adjacent to her, two newly-met black friends. I carried my zipper bag with change of clothing and shaving gear, and the parish worker’s large purse. She held my arm. Burdened with baggage, we often nervously lagged a few feet from the rank in front of us.
The marching group was quiet, composed. We passed by several ambulances, brought in by the demonstrating forces along with doctors and nurses. Fortunately, none were needed during the afternoon. That night an ultimately fatal assault on the Rev. James Reeb of Boston required their use for the first time.
We headed east to go up the Edmund Pettus Bridge over Alabama River, a high arching structure. It looked like we were traveling straight into heaven, four by four, similar to the animal kingdom moving into the Ark.
From the highest point on the bridge, we stared down on the marchers approaching a line of troopers about four deep across the highway. Immediately to our left, every 15 feet, troopers in hard hats stood with legs apart, billy clubs held horizontally in front. On the far side of the highway other identically spaced troopers stood ready.
Mostly I chose to gaze straight ahead. But once I found a trooper hate-staring me, and being human, it’s possible I reciprocated. Nothing happened and we walked forward.
Eventually, we came to a stop as Dr. King and front-line leaders representing major faiths halted before the trooper barrier.
We saw the group in front kneel in prayer, and ripple-like, we knelt ourselves. Those leading stood, and we heard a cheer. Later I learned this was because the troopers had opened their ranks to clear the highway after Dr. King said we would return to Brown Chapel. For a minute we thought we’d made it through, and this was a good feeling. But we had protested peacefully and we returned behind Dr. King.
To go back to Brown Chapel, each of us walked to the point of Sunday’s blood-letting, turned left, and walked along the right-of-way next to silent troopers toward Selma. Disappointed, we faced derision from bystanders at an agricultural machinery sales office adjacent to the highway, with men taking photographs of us as we went by. The troopers gave us no trouble. We provoked none.
My parish-worker companion and I joined the crowds around Brown Chapel to listen to comments by the Reverends King, Shuttlesworth and Abernathy, all close associates in Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). Dr. King lauded our “victory:” an entirely black group making the march Sunday had been set upon by Alabama lawmen. However, the March 9 group of integrated marchers traveled the same route and were untouched, which clearly showed, Dr. King said, the racial nature of the problem. Later our march came to be known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”
Dr. King spoke from a top step in front of the chapel. He impressed me in his conservative dark suit and wing-tip shoes as a neat man, one of obvious charisma.
At sundown we went to a nearby church for fried chicken and fixings. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other militant civil rightists discussed the afternoon. Some felt betrayed by Dr. King’s action, charging that he had arranged beforehand to lead demonstrators to the trooper line and return, never really intending to make a serious effort to march to Montgomery, despite his announcement.
The objective the next morning was Dallas County Courthouse, for weeks a daily routine march where black voters attempted to register with minimum success. We formed a line of eight abreast, half a block deep, counting small children, mothers, clergy, and laymen of both races.
Suddenly, we found 15 or so police officers filling up the street a short way from the chapel. In front of the cars city police troopers stood, with Sheriff Jim Clark, Public Safety Commissioner Baker, and the mayor of Selma telling us to disperse. We did not.
At the request of Andrew Young, an inconspicuous group of us gathered in the main floor of the chapel for instructions on a new strategy. In small numbers we were to walk to the Dallas County courthouse, to combine there for a protest and registration demonstration on the courthouse steps, then return to the chapel.
However, troopers intercepted me and took me to a captain who, hearing my story, commanded: “Take him to Dallas County Jail” in Selma. The troopers were courteous and delivered me to the second floor of the jail, where I filled out a form, was fingerprinted and photographed as a vagrant, since I had decided to keep no money on me.
My fellow inmates, all white, turned out to be likeable southerners. We talked. They asked me where I was from. I told them I was a demonstrator.
Later the door clanged open and Elmer Cook, charged with the assault on Reverend Reeb of Boston, came in. At the time Reeb was still alive. Later in my cell, Cook and others and I talked.
Cook had lived on Chicago’s South Side for six months and didn’t like it. We talked about race and housing values. He mentioned a friend who sold a house for $12,000 after it had been appraised at three to four times that amount. Cook’s reason for the lower price: the appearance of a black in the neighborhood.
Cook asked why should a person build up a business, put his time, his money and energy into it, only to have blacks walk in, sit down and cause a boycott by whites, destroying the business. I responded that if this business were lost, it was unfortunate but it seemed to be a matter of faulty attitude, not lack of business know-how; changed attitudes could save the business.
Cook was later released on $30,000 bond. We didn’t say goodbye. Next day a guard called out my name and opened the cell door. At the end of the corridor were a friend from Chicago and a bail bondsman who had me sign for $350 bond before leaving jail. I got in a car with several others from the North and drove back to Brown Chapel.
A day later I got into a car with minister friends bound for the Montgomery Airport. Airport employees did not show us any hostility that Friday as we boarded our plane for the Windy City.