It was the spring of 1965. I was a junior at Columbia, preparing for the tennis season, where I had the opportunity to play number 1 singles. But as exciting as that prospect was, because i was an activist as much as an athlete, I was deeply concerned about two high profile political issues- the bombing of North Vietnam and the failure of President Johnson to move aggressively to secure voting rights for African Americans in Southern States. I found myself wondering- would the emerging conflict in Vietnam distract the President from undertaking the most important remaining civil rights initiative still left- making sure that every American, including Blacks living in the Deep South states, could go to the polls and vote their conscience without risking their lives?
Apparently, Dr. Martin Luther King had the same concerns, because he launched a high profile, high risk effort to force President Johnson to act on voting rights. His target city was 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, and so doing create a set of embarrassing images, broadcast around the world, that would force the president to act. But to do this, King had to persuade a large number of people to take the same kind of risk of beatings, and jailings and shootings and bombings that demonstrators in Birmingham faced, at a time when more and more Black people were getting fed up with non violence and were ready to fight back. This time, fearing that he might not get enough protesters from Selma alone, he encouraged protesters 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, an embittered outpost of the Old South which saw itself invaded by an occupying army. The resentment was directed at white supporters from outside the city as much as local Black demonstrators and the rage spilled over not only into fierce attacks on protesters, marked by clubs and tear gas, but the murder of two white activists who came to support the protests, Rev James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo.
King’s strategy ultimately worked, as he entered into high wire negotiations with both the President and local officials which produced a peaceful march to from Selma to Montgomery. But the violence and brutality against the protests was the thing that ultimately turned the tide, forcing the President into a dramatic step he had never anticipated- putting a Voting Rights Act before Congress that would send federal registrars into the South wherever there was evidence of discrimination at the polls. What forced him to take this step, ironically, may have been the very Cold War logic that led the President to launch military action in Vietnam, forcing him to realize that what King had created through this protest gave the Communist enemy so much ammunition that the nation had to act to secure its global position and keep credibility with developing nations.
In any case, King’s gamble led to Black Southerners gaining the untrammeled right to vote for the first time since Reconstruction. But it also left a legacy of bitterness at white brutality, and presidential cynicism, that further eroded the African American communities already weakening commitment to non-violence.