When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.
Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.
One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color.
That second march, by the way, is still going on.
I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.
But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.
Let me explain.
In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.
And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.
“Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”
Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned.
“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”
His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”
“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.
I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.
Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops.
The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.
That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.
Several years later, while doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis.
All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.
This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.
But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.
I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.
On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?
Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.
When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:
On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.
At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.
Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.
One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.
There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)
Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective. Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.
The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.
The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.
But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.
More about my time in the movement is in this book, available here.