The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “BENDING TOWARD JUSTICE: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy” by Gary May from Chapter Four on page 85 and I quote: “Sunday, March 7, was a pleasant day for their journey: balmy with a brisk wind and no sign of the snow and rain that had pelted demonstrators earlier. Jonquils and forsythia were starting to bloom—a sign, perhaps, that winter might finally be over. Selma seemed quiet, almost deserted except for a few unhappy-looking people standing on street corners watching the throng pass by. “Black bitch. Got a white boy to play with, huh?” yelled one man at a young female marcher whose companion, Jim Bentson, was white. At Broad Street a white woman driving a pickup truck veered toward Bentson, but he jumped away before she hit him.
At about 4:00 p.m. The marchers came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general. They saw what John Lewis called “a vast sea of blue”: state troopers wearing blue uniforms and dark blue helmets bearing Confederate emblems, stretched shoulder to shoulder across the four-lane highway. Some sat atop horses that moved restlessly in place. Clark’s personal army, bearing nightsticks, whips, and electric cattle prods, were there too. They were wearing tattered khaki shirts, mismatched pants, and helmets better suited for football games or motorcycle rides than police action. Some were also on horseback, carrying clubs as big as baseball bats. One special deputy had wrapped barbed wire around a rubber hose.
The marchers could either turn around or, if need be, leap off the bridge and drop one hundred feet into the Alabama River. “Can you swim?” Hosea Williams asked John Lewis.
“No,” Lewis replied.
“Neither can I,” Williams said. “But we might have to.”
Instead, Lewis, Williams, and the others walked forward until they were about fifty feet from the troopers. They halted at the voice of the commanding officer coming through a bullhorn: “I am Major Cloud,” he said. “This is an unlawful assembly. This demonstration will not continue. You have been banned by the Governor. Your march is not conducive to the public safety. You are ordered to disperse and go back to your church or to your homes.” While he spoke, the troopers donned gas masks.
“Mr. Major, I would like to have a word,” said Hosea Williams, winner of the lucky coin toss.
“There is no word to be had,” replied Major Cloud.
Williams again asked politely if they could talk, and again Cloud said no, adding, “You have two minutes to turn around and go back to your church.”
There was a momentary silence. Lewis instructed the group to kneel and pray, but only a few got the message. Then, before the time ran out, Cloud yelled, “Troopers, advance.” Turning their nightsticks horizontally, they rushed into the crowd, knocking people over like bowling pins. People fell “to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying . . . packs and bags skittering,” noted Roy Reed of the New York Times. Whoops and cheers came from a crowd of white onlookers, who yelled, “Give it to the niggers.” John Lewis was one of the first to be hit. As he crouched on the ground, praying, a trooper struck him in the head, and he fell over. When he tried to rise he was hit again. “I’m gong to die here,” was he last thought before falling back to the ground. Marie Foster and Amelia Boynton were also struck in the head. Foster fell, but Boynton only staggered, so the trooper hit her again and she collapsed. The trooper continued to beat her unconscious body, screaming, “Get up, nigger! Get up and run.” Albert Turner, standing behind Lewis, also fell as bodies knocked him down. When someone called for an ambulance, Jim Clark said, “Let buzzards eat them”
Then came the men on horseback, troopers and posse men alike, swinging their clubs and ropes like cowboys driving cattle to market. Reporters heard rebel yells and Sheriff Clark screaming, “Get those God-damned niggers! And get those God-damned white niggers!” Suddenly there were sounds like gun shots. Troopers were firing and throwing canisters of highly noxious C-4 tear gas–”gas so thick you could almost reach up and grab it,” remembered one of the blinded and sickened victims. Forty canisters were used that day, causing gray clouds of tear gas to spew over the scene, thus preventing Reed and other newsmen and photographers from seeing clearly what was happening. When the haze parted momentarily, Reed saw troopers’ nightsticks raining down on the heads of the marchers. Standing nearby were two young FBI agents taking notes and filming the event. They never tried to stop it.
And so, coughing, choking, and vomiting, the marchers ran from the bridge back into the streets of Selma, hoping to find safety there. But there was none. Troopers and the posse on horses followed, clubbing them until they fell, then laughing with pure pleasure as they tried to get their horses to rear up and crush the fallen. “Bite the niggers,” one posse man told his horse. Clark’s men also followed in cars, and when they found their targets, they leaped out and whipped them. Still the marchers ran, knapsacks pulled over their heads for protection, trying to get to the First Baptist Church or Brown Chapel. Posse men, now led by Sheriff Clark himself, fired tear gas into First Baptist. Some entered the church, throwing one young man who was inside through a stained-glass window. Wilson Baker, who had jurisdiction over most of downtown Selma, tried to block Clark and his men. But Clark refused to leave. “I’ve already waited a month too damn long about moving in,” he yelled, pushing Baker aside.
The rampage continued. Troopers patrolled the streets, attacking any black citizens they could find. “Get the hell out of town!” they commanded “We want all niggers off the streets.” They entered the Carver housing project, chasing people and throwing tear gas canisters into buildings. More than 150 officers gathered near Brown Chapel, where a few were pelted with bricks and bottles. Charles Bonner, Lafayette’s young recruit, picked up a brick and was about to throw it at a posse man when Jim Bevel stopped him; “Look at this kid’s head bleeding,” he said. “Is that what you really want to do to that trooper?” Bonner dropped the brick and entered the church.
The Brown Chapel parsonage had become a sort of MASH unit staffed by volunteer members of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, an extraordinary group of doctors and nurses committed to treating those who had been injured while fighting for social justice. They cared for nearly one hundred marchers that day: people with cuts, bruises, lacerations, tear gas-related injuries, and fractured and broken arms and legs. Those who had more severe wounds were taken by ambulance to the black-run Good Samaritan Hospital, but that outflow of bodies did little to stem the tide of suffering at Brown Chapel. Somehow John Lewis got back to the church, where he found people on the floor or in pews, moaning and crying. Marie Foster and Amelia Boynton were there unconscious, barely breathing. Lewis had a terrible headache but refused to go to the hospital.
But it was the marchers’ anger as well as their pain that threatened to destroy the nonviolent movement. Running from the posse men or even throwing a few bricks simply wasn’t enough, many of the wounded believed. If Clark really wanted war, they should get guns and bring it to him. Andy Young was able to calm them down—not with King’s lofty claims about suffering and redemption, words now stained with the marchers’ blood, but rather by making them think about violence. “What kind of gun you got, .32, .38?” Young asked them. “How’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and their shotguns. . . . You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?” Forcing the marchers to consider “the specifics of violence,” Young thought, led them to conclude that a war against Clark’s overwhelming forces was madness.
Word of the tragedy on the Edmund Pettus Bridge reached King in Atlanta later on Sunday afternoon. He was grief stricken, feeling that he should have been with the marchers. Given recent events in Marion, he had thought Clark and Lingo would not dare repeat such an atrocity so soon. Their outbursts of violence, after all, severely damaged their cause while creating sympathy for King’s. And as long as they ignored that fact, King and the marchers had an advantage.
Consulting with his top advisers, King decided that there must be another march as soon as possible, perhaps on Tuesday, March 9, so as to give the marchers a day to recuperate and regroup. He also asked movement lawyers to seek an injunction from federal judge Frank M. Johnson, a fair, objective jurist, allowing them to march to Montgomery and prohibiting the Alabamians from violently interfering again.
Always respectful of the Selma activists who had fought alone for decades, King telephoned Frederick Reese, president of the Dallas County Voters League. “I understand you are having trouble over there,” said King with a touch of facetiousness that was meant to comfort the stricken Reese.
“Yeah, we do,” Reese replied, too exhausted to banter.
“Well,” King, said, all traces of humor gone, “I’m gonna put out a call for help.”
Ignoring his injuries, Lewis called for a mass meeting that night at Brown Chapel to rally and reunite their forces. Hosea Williams, who had escaped injury by outrunning the troopers and hiding in the home of a friendly bystander, spoke first. “I fought in World War II and I once was captured by the German army and I want to tell you that the Germans never were as inhuman as the state troopers of Alabama.”
Lewis, still wearing his blood- and mud-stained raincoat, electrified the crowd with his unprepared remarks, “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. . . and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama,” he said.
“Tell it,” the church roared.
“Next time we march, we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington.”
“Amen!” and “Yes!” cried his audience. Their show of resiliency seemed to settle something for Lewis. When he finished speaking he finally agreed to go to the hospital.”
(THE FIRST BATTLE TOOK PLACE JUST BEFORE THEY CROSSED THE EDMUND PETTUS BRIDGE ON THEIR 54-MILE MARCH FROM SELMA, ALABAMA TO MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA. GRANTED, PRESDIENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN HAD FREED THE SLAVES ABOUT 100 YEARS BEFORE THAT BUT REALLY A LOT NEVER CHANGED, PARTICULARLY IN THE SOUTHERN STATES. DR. KING’S DEATH THREATS KEPT GONG UP BUT SINCE HE WAS SO EFFECTIVE AS A MINISTER AND A GREAT ORATOR, A PEACEFUL MARCH BEING MORE EFFECTIVE THAN MILITARY DICTATORSHIP, HE KNEW EVENTUALLY, THE MASSES WOULD WIN, JUST LIKE MAHATMA GHANDI DID IN INDIA. THE RIGHT TO VOTE SHOULD BE SACRED IN EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, IF YOU ARE EVER GOING TO END WORLD WARS, AS WELL AS CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS WARS. WHEN WARS START AND THEY CAN’T BE SOLVED THROUGH THE BALLOT BOX, THEN EVERYONE LOSES. HOPEFULLY, EVERYONE ELECTED TO OFFICE IS A PACIFIST AND RATHER THAN PROMOTING WARS, TALKS AOBUT HOW THEY ARE GOING TO BE PREVENTED, RATHER THAN THIS GROWING CLASS WAR WHERE I HEARD THE OTHER DAY THAT THE SPREAD BETWEEN THE RICHEST and THE POOREST IS THE WORST IT HAS EVER BEEN IN THE LAST 100 YEARS.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer & Public Citizen & AARP Members