By Mark Naison
Spring, 1965. A junior at Columbia, I joyously prepared for the tennis season, which offered me the opportunity to play number-one singles. Two high-profile political issues deeply troubled me: the bombing of North Vietnam and President Johnson’s unwillingness to move aggressively to secure voting rights for African Americans in Southern States. I wondered whether or not the controversy surrounding his course of action in Vietnam would distract LBJ from undertaking the most important remaining civil rights initiative: guaranteeing the right to vote for every American — including Blacks living in the Deep South — without placing their lives at risk.
Dr. Martin Luther King shared that concern and launched a high-profile, high-risk effort to force President Johnson to act on voting rights. He targeted Selma, Alabama, where he knew that the local sheriff, Jim Clark, would use the same brutal tactics against non-violent protesters that Bull Connor did in Birmingham.
King needed to persuade a large number of people to take the same kind of risk of beatings, imprisonment, shootings, and bombings that demonstrators in Birmingham faced, at a time when many Black people seemed to be fed up with non-violence and wanted to fight back. Fearing that he might not get enough protesters from Selma alone, he encouraged supporters from all over the country to descend on Selma, including White labor activists, and Black and White clergy.
King’s strategy turned Selma into a tinderbox, a poisoned outpost of the Old South that saw itself being invaded by an occupying army. The residents directed their disgust at White supporters from outside the city as much as they did at local Black demonstrators and launched vicious assaults on the marchers, marked by clubs and tear gas.
King’s strategy worked and he entered into high-wire negotiations with both the President and local officials, which resulted in a peaceful march to from Selma to Montgomery. The violence and brutality turned the tide, forcing the President into a dramatic step: supporting a Voting Rights Act in Congress that would send federal registrars into the South to respond to evidence of discrimination at the polls. Ironically, LBJ’s Cold War mind set probably led him to the realization the horrifying images emanating from Selma gave the Communist enemy a major source of propaganda to use against the United States in developing nations.
King’s gamble gave Black Southerners the unrestricted right to vote for the first time since Reconstruction. It also left a legacy of bitterness against White brutality and presidential cynicism that further eroded the African-American community’s commitment to non-violence.
(Originally published at BK Nation)