I - Blocking the View, Blocking the Road
That morning, I was too tense to eat. Keyed up and ready, my thoughts were full of armies marching to battle.
It was February 1, 1965. I was part of a nonviolent “army” – or at least a battalion – set to march in Selma, Alabama that day. Our objective, the territory we hoped to occupy, was downtown, the Dallas County jail; we planned to capture it by getting arrested.
I had been in Selma less than a month. Perhaps because I was raised on military bases, comparing the movement to an army was came easily to me: Dr. King was the general; I, white and fresh from college in Colorado, was a private, a grunt.
Although our commander had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his ragtag force was ready for combat and bent on conquest. For us, victory meant nothing less than the overthrow of centuries of black exclusion from public office, the ballot, and the jury box in most of the American South.
Of course, the military parallel is wildly inexact: for one thing, we aimed at a bloodless coup; more mundanely, even in 1965 a real army private earned considerably more than my pittance of $25 per week. One didn’t join the movement to carry a gun, or get rich.
On the other hand, the comparison was not wholly fanciful; after all, both groups demanded real discipline, and suffered real casualties.
Our ostensible destination that morning was the Dallas County Courthouse downtown, to renew a demand that the county voting rolls be opened to all its citizens. No one expected to get that far, however. Everybody knew we wanted to provoke arrests: the staff knew it, black Selmians knew it.
Dr. King’s Alabama mugshot & rap sheet.
The cops knew it too; and presumably the Klan, along with some of the people who kept sending Dr. King death threats, threats that came in practically every day, by mail, phone, and other media. I had seen a few of the threatening letters, and knew that many of them were quite credible.
In the years since Dr. King’s murder, I have been bemusedly tolerant of the plethora of conspiracy theories offered in explanation, tending to believe and disbelieve them all, in equal measure. The CIA? The Klan? The Mafia? A redneck hit squad? A lone bigot? All are plausible. Yet I’m evenhandedly skeptical too, because while one of the conspiracies finally succeeded, I know well enough that there were numerous others which were foiled only by chance, by timely police intervention, or –
– or, well, because someone like me was walking near Dr. King at just the right moment, and blocked a sniper’s aim.
That was one of my early tasks as a rookie civil rights worker: to stay close to Dr. King when we filed through the Selma streets. There were three or four of us who shared this duty, and we kept him pretty much surrounded.
We were the point men, his bodyguards. Unarmed, of course, and in my case at least, no great physical threat to any direct assailant. But without weapons and muscle, how were we supposed to provide protection?
Simple: our bodies were visual obstructions, blocking the aim of any sniper crouched on nearby rooftops, trying to draw a bead on Dr. King through the scope of a high-powered rifle.
The job was explained to me by big James Orange, who had been around the movement a lot longer. I grasped its function at once. But I also had a question: What if the sniper fired anyway, hoping for a lucky shot, and hit me instead?
James Orange answered my query first with a characteristically broad, hearty grin. Then he shrugged, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, don’t worry about it, Chuck. If you get killed, we promise – Dr. King will preach at your funeral!”
“ Hey, thanks, Jim,” I retorted, “that makes me feel so much better.” But the comeback took a couple seconds longer to come up with than I wanted.
(Five years later, researching my book Selma 1965, I found references to a police report which said that on one of our marches there very likely was a rifleman on a rooftop, poised to do just what I was there to prevent. Dr. King, it turned out, learned of this much sooner; he had spoken calmly about it to reporters a few days later. Reading in a quiet library about the report made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But I wasn’t really surprised.)
Barely nibbling breakfast that morning, frightened and exhilarated at the same time, I donned my movement uniform: still-stiff denim overalls, a matching jacket and, incongruously, a yarmulke. Another staff member, who understood the importance of Jewish support to the movement, had passed them out to us not long before. Knowing little about either Judaism or black Baptist Christianity, it was all the same to me. Properly decked out, I headed across town for Brown Chapel AME Church.
Brown Chapel was red brick, with two squat steeples. It sat on Sylvan Street in the middle of the George Washington Carver Homes, Selma’s neat, generally well-kept black housing project. People were milling around on the steps, and inside the benches were full.
There was a “mass meeting” underway, led by various key staffers, to get everybody into the right frame of mind for the day’s events. Even at that early hour of the morning, the crowd was ready; and the intensity and fervor of such meetings are beyond my powers to describe.
The elements were basic and familiar: preaching, praying, singing, clapping; but the combination, in those days, in that place, produced an uplifting energy that was unique, unforgettable, and overwhelming. I have known nothing quite like it, before or since.
Our marching orders were boomed from the pulpit, along with reminders of the need for strict nonviolent discipline, and reassurances that going to jail or being hurt in the cause of justice was nothing to be ashamed of. There was tension in the church, because we knew anything could happen; but there wasn’t the cold fear I knew on other days, when violence hung in the air like heavy mist.
After a concluding prayer and a round of “We Shall Overcome,” we were soon lining up outside, watching our breath in the chilly morning air, then stepping off, clapping and singing, headed up Sylvan Street toward the courthouse, about ten blocks away.
As planned, I ended up near Dr. King, at the head of the column. We hadn’t gone far, barely a block, before we were stopped by a white man in a light raincoat and a fedora hat, standing in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets.
This was Wilson Baker, Selma’s Public Safety Director.
Next: The Clash of the Titans