Selma's Painful Progress

Civil rights marchers recall a notorious anniversary

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had targeted Selma, Ala., for a voter- registration drive. Although the city had 15,100 black residents, its voting rolls were 99% white. Dallas County Sheriff James Clark and his deputies arrested some 2,000 blacks trying to register, many merely for entering the whites-only front door of the courthouse. King on March 5, 1965, asked his followers to march 54 miles from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to dramatize the injustice. "I can't promise that you won't get beaten," he warned. "But we must stand up for what is right."

Selma (pop. 27,260) has a restful Southern ambience these days, its broad streets and white houses with their screened verandas suggesting the setting of a Carson McCullers novel. (A movie based on her book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was, in fact, filmed there.) Edwin Moss, 69, was an Army combat veteran and one of the few blacks who was registered to vote in the town 20 years ago. Have things changed? "You're looking at one change," said Moss. He was the first black ever appointed as a registrar in Dallas County. Though the totals are distorted because people who have died or moved away have not been removed from the rolls, by last November Selma had 10,096 registered blacks, almost catching up to the 12,137 white voters.

John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Hosea Williams, a King deputy, rallied 600 blacks and a few whites outside the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sunday, March 7. They would march despite an order from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had earlier declared that mass demonstrations "led by career and professional agitators" would not be permitted. Selma Mayor Joe T. Smitherman also opposed the march. The crowd at the church included Jesse Jackson.

As both sides seemed to anticipate, the Selma march would become a turning point in the civil rights movement, prompting Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, eliminating literacy tests and leading to the end of poll taxes, + which discriminated against blacks.

Last week a crowd of some 1,800 people, mostly black, gathered in front of the same church to reenact the march. Nattily dressed in a blue blazer, Jackson noted some changes: "Twenty years ago, we could not drink water from a fountain when we were thirsty. We could not use the rest room when we had the urge." Yet, Jackson declared, "we stand here today because of unfinished business." Wilbert Thigman, a municipal worker who bears a scar on his arm as a result of the 1965 march, said conditions in Selma are much better now. A job then, he recalled, meant "50 cents a day and ten hours a day. You can get a lot more money now." Selma was once almost totally dependent on agriculture, mostly cotton. Now, observed Smitherman, still the mayor 20 years later, "there are 65 different sorts of manufacturing operations here." But Dallas County suffers a 15% unemployment rate; knowledgeable sources estimate the adult black unemployment rate at about 30%. The marchers formed two lines and moved toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Sixty state troopers were massed on the other side, blocking all four lanes of U.S. Highway 80. Sheriff Clark and his men, some on horses, waited nearby. Dale Ross, 10, watched as his father joined Clark's mounted possemen.

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