On this weekend when we’re beginning the work of marking the passing of John Lewis, civil rights icon and longtime Congressman, it may interest some readers to review this account of my last visit to Selma, Alabama This is only one of the cities where John Lewis nearly was killed. It was also where I played my bit part in the 1965 movement drama there.
Below is a news photo from late February, 1965. It turned up a few years back (hat tip to the sharp-eyed Lewis Lewis): it was taken on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, when John Lewis (center-left, with a tie) announced the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery.
The goal of the march was winning voting rights for southern Blacks; but the plan was sparked by the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. I’m at the far right, behind Andrew Young (who is also in a tie).
We don’t have a picture of John Jeffress, at least I haven’t found one. Same for personal background: where he was from, when he was born. We only have a report about his end, which came on this date, August 25, 100 years ago.
This report was published in several papers on August 26, 1920:
Where did Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable vocal power come from?
I glimpsed a big part of the answer one summer night in 1968.
It was Friday, June 21, in Washington DC: Leaders of the Poor Peoples Campaign, trying to fulfill Dr. King’s last dream, had built a shantytown, called Resurrection City, on the national mall. But the camp, and the campaign, were mired in various difficulties. Yet on that Friday evening, some participants got a welcome, memorable spell of relief. I was there with a tape recorder, and this is the heart of what I saw and heard:
From Uncertain Resurrection, the Poor Peoples Washington Campaign;
Friday night a Campaign mass meeting was held at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, where the church was full and the crowd unusually boisterous. The featured preacher of the evening was Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit. Rev. Franklin is the father of Miss Aretha Franklin, a very successful soul singer, and he was an old friend of Dr. King.
Some Folks aren’t satisfied with killing people of color; they want to kill the memory of these murders too.
Take Emmett Till, Kidnapped & murdered in Mississippi in 1955, after someone said the 14 year-old may have whistled at a white woman. His tortured and body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River days later; it took a jury one hour to acquit the men charged with the killing. Outrage generated by the case gave a boost to civil rights struggles.
In 2007, county leaders established the Emmett Till Interpretive Center to memorialize Till and remember the case and what it represented. The center erected a sign in a rural area near the bank of the river where Till’s body was recovered. But that sign was soon stolen and never recovered.
A second sign was put up. before long, it was full of bullet holes.
This sign was eventually moved inside the Center, itself becoming an object for reflection. And not long ago, a new sign was put up.
The new sign is now collecting bullet holes. This image is only a few days old.
Such posthumous assaults are not limited to Mississippi. In February, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson of Marion, Alabama, who was unarmed, was shot by a state trooper in an attack on a night march during the historic voting rights campaign based in nearby Selma,.
Jackson was buried in a small cemetery near Alabama Highway 14 on the outskirts of Marion. His large headstone is impressively carved with a figure of Jesus keeping vigil.
It too has been hit by numerous bullets. One knocked a chunk off the top, and seven or eight more are visible on close examination, in this 2015 photo.
Emmett Till’s killers walked completely free. The Alabama trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Fowler, shot and killed a second unarmed young black man in 1966. But forty-five years later, Fowler was convicted of manslaughter, and served several months in jail, before being released due to ill health.
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center, located in Sumner, Mississippi, has plans to expand its facility and programs, and upgrade security.
Memories aren’t bulletproof. But they don’t die easily.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.
This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.
This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands.
I won’t try to predict who will be nominated for Anthony Kennedy’s seat. I only vaguely recall the list of names that was floated before the 2016 election; the ones I recognized ranged from the outrageous to unthinkable.
I didn’t recognize Gorsuch then; but now we know that anything is possible, and lily Tomlin was RIGHT:
I can’t deny it: I’m feeling conflicted about the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders (hereafter SHS) from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington Virginia this weekend.
On the one hand, the report of it sets off alarms and bring back vivid memories from my young activist years. Then most restaurants, especially in the South, were racially segregated. And it took long hard months of protests (that had really started on a small scale years earlier) to begin to break through and open up this part of public space to nonwhite Americans.
Driving up Interstate 95 on the evening of May 19, a few miles north of Fayetteville, North Carolina I spotted this billboard, which I had not seen before. It seemed worth documenting, so I made a U-turn at the next exit and was soon aiming the phone camera at it.
But before I got there I stopped a few miles farther south on 95, where the nearest example of this campaign stands.
On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,
I’ll be among those. But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired in Memphis.
At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.
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 mwere evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.
One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights activists. 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 in the photo, 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 in 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. Still, 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 then 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 morning 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.