Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by David J. Garrow *****

protestatselmaThis newly released digital version of Garrow’s outstanding, comprehensive recounting and analysis of the famous Selma demonstrations carried out by Martin Luther King Junior, other civil rights leaders, along with masses of African-American civil rights activists could not be more timely. In 2013, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 after a lot of effort and sacrifice was gutted. The US criminal “justice” system has drawn the eyes of the world, and they aren’t friendly eyes. Thank you, and thank you once more to Net Galley and Open Road Media for making the DRC available for me to read, and for publishing this excellent book digitally for you to access also.
Please be aware that this is not a popular biography of the struggle, but a scholarly one, and will be most appreciated by those who, like your reviewer, have a strong interest in the topic, or who are doing research. In that spirit, I encourage those who also read it to access the endnotes. Garrow has some really interesting remarks, and his references and cross-references will make any researcher bow in awe.
Many people don’t know that Dr. King entered the struggle as a civil rights novice, newly out of graduate school and just 26 years old. (Open Road has also just released the digital version of Garrow’s Pulitzer-winning biography, which I have also reviewed.) Initially his hope was to shame segregationists into integrating schools and providing equal services to Black Southerners. The failure of the movement to make any in-roads in Albany, Georgia convinced King and other leaders that this method would not work. Instead, the eyes of the nation must be made to witness the injustices being meted out in Dixie. For the media, both print and television, a relatively recent mass media source, to pick up events there, they needed to demonstrate in a nonviolent fashion, not back down, and do so in a place where a nasty, violent response on the part of Caucasian cops could be counted upon. In other words, no change could take place without confronting Black America’s worst nightmares head on and intentionally.
Birmingham was the first place this was attempted. Bull Connor was known for gratuitous violence, and the footage of some really ugly aggression, especially the widely-circulated photo of the cop holding an unarmed demonstrator in place while siccing a huge German Shepherd on him, prodded the consciences of Caucasian viewers in the North. (Many Northerners of color were already funding the movement; musician Harry Mancini was one important fundraiser.)
But the attempt of Birmingham demonstrators to effect change was limited. Although it drew international attention, the Kennedy administration seemed more intent on finding ways to shut King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference down than they were on creating adherence to Federal laws that gave Black folks equality.
Garrow reminds us (or informs us, depending on the reader’s age) that in the late 1960’s, one in three white Americans polled said they would not want to sit next to a Black person on a train or bus, and similar figures also showed that they didn’t want African-Americans living near them, at their kids’ schools, or even trying on the same outfits in department stores that they themselves might later try on.
Young people that are tired of hearing the Dream speech and watching Eyes on the Prize footage (for which Garrow also receives a portion of the credit) don’t seem to understand exactly how brave these people were. My own father told me, when I asked about the footage on television, that the policemen on the evening news were just doing their jobs. He shook with rage as he pointed at the screen and told me, “These people are breaking the law!” I was six years old at the time.
So some people up North needed to either change their minds, or be so repelled by the violence being done to innocent people who obviously wanted something reasonable that they would insist that the right thing be done. And although the movement never did change my father, it changed the thinking of a lot of people.
Birmingham failed to do the job for two reasons, says Garrow . First, they were not able to maintain a completely nonviolent atmosphere on the part of the Black participants. While demonstrators were nonviolent, thousands of African-Americans, some of whom dared not demonstrate actively lest they lose their jobs, became enraged at the maltreatment of the demonstrators; some threw pieces of bricks, concrete, and bottles at the cops from the sidelines.
When I think about this, it doesn’t seem like an even contest to me. Swarms of cops in riot gear; huge attack dogs; fire hoses; lethal weaponry of just about everything except tanks and missiles were accessed by the cops. And a few locals pitched a few bottles. Big damn deal.
But media loves to try to portray both sides of an issue, however uneven they may be. My own years spent participating in, organizing, and sometimes leading demonstrations taught me that if one demonstrator or supposed supporter shows aggression and can gain the media’s attention, the demonstration will magically turn into a “riot” on the news the next day. Or a “conflict”. We can find synonyms all day long, but you get the picture. When there are ten thousand peaceful demonstrators and ten people that break windows, the evening news will give as much time, or more, to the window breakers as the ten thousand. If a member of the lunatic fringe shows up with a forty-foot bloody cross, they’ll goddamn interview the nut and the demonstration’s goals may not get any time at all.
But the people that trained me in struggle were largely educated by their own participation in the Civil Rights movement. The methods of the Civil Rights movement would become valuable lessons for those that led the movement against the Vietnam War. The SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and other organizations that led this movement had to invent most of it, or at least Americanize it; many of the basic tenets were borrowed from Gandhi when he led the movement to kick Britain out of India.
So, there were a few folks that were not strictly nonviolent in Birmingham; the other problem, says Garrow, is that there was no one, clear goal in Birmingham. So much was so wrong that they went in with a laundry list. When it got into the news, it seemed muddy. Those who loved justice could see what was wrong; but every struggle needs a single, clear demand in order to start those waters of justice rolling. In Birmingham, it wasn’t plain what they were there to do.
Selma was the tipping point. All those lessons came into play. The single goal, one that the Democratic administration had pledged (privately of course) to support, was for Black folks to be able to walk into the courthouse and register to vote. No literacy tests; no poll fees; no goddamn alley entrance for people of color. Just walk through the front door; register; and vote.
This time discipline was perfect; the marchers were absolutely, completely nonviolent. Sheriff Clark, the mad dog that the movement sought to bring out of his ugly hole snarling and swinging, did not disappoint. People were sent to the hospital, and a Caucasian clergyman who answered Dr. King’s call to come support the Civil Rights of Southern Blacks was killed by the cops. This time it was clear what the goal was, clear who was wrong and who was right. And the telegrams (an ancient technology since replaced by e-mail) rolled into the Capitol.
Black intelligentsia and working class, I; crazy Southern Bubbas, 0.
President Lyndon Johnson was a crafty old bastard, a politician who knew what side his bread was buttered on. At first he too sought to shut the whole thing down, get people out of the streets and home to their own hearths. But when events unfolded and it became clear that a sea change was occurring, he got on television and gave the best damn speech possibly since the days of Lincoln. Garrow reprints the entire masterpiece. It was viewed by seventy million Americans.
If you are still with me—and my five star reviews are almost never brief—then you may also have sufficient interest to read Garrow’s history of the movement and particularly of Selma, Alabama and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His research is impeccable, his organization easy to follow (or to access a portion of, for those doing research of their own), and his narrative is really compelling.
Once you are done, I hope you will give some time and attention to the new Civil Rights Movement unfolding before us right now. It’s everyone’s job to be sure everyone can vote. And until African-American men and teenagers can drive, walk, and work without harassment or violence from cops and vigilantes, #ICAN’TBREATHE.