II - The Clash of the Titans
Baker was a good and smart man, a worthy opponent to Dr. King. If we had faced him alone in Selma, it’s a fair guess that he would have routed us.
Baker would have beat the movement not with force, but with brains. He was a disciple of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, his counterpart in Albany, Georgia, who had outsmarted and outmaneuvered a vigorous protest campaign there three years earlier.
Albany’s movement had had everything: marches, protests, new freedom songs, and many arrests. Dr. King had come too, and even faced jail. But in the movement’s still-fresh folklore, Albany was the archetype of disaster.
This was because Laurie Pritchett had figured out how to handle the pack of Yankee reporters who showed up wherever Dr. King entered the fray. Told of a crisis bedewing, they swarmed into southern towns with their cameras, microphones, notebooks and expectations. Above all, they expected to see crude redneck cops and club-wielding sheriffs beating up and brutalizing peaceable, noble Negroes.
Pritchett understood the reporters’ stereotypes, and was careful not to reinforce them. Instead, he spoke politely to the reporters, and made sure that when his police arrested the marchers, they did so quietly and without fanfare. (There were, of course, stories of beatings inside the jail. But those happened out of sight; Pritchett stoutly denied them, and the allegations could not be confirmed.) Instead of officially-sponsored mayhem, what Pritchett served up looked like a model of seemingly civilized southern restraint, upholding law and order against a disorderly crowd of black insurgents.
Laurie Pritchett & Dr. King in Albany Georgia
Pritchett’s strategy succeeded brilliantly, on two fronts: with no exciting violence to film and write about, the Yankee reporters were thrown off-stride. They quickly became bored, and moved on to some other, more exciting event. As they did so, the divisions in the local black community – there were always divisions in local black communities – flared up into recriminations and sapped the movement’s morale and momentum.
The defeat of the Albany campaign made Pritchett something of a hero to many southern officials. He traveled the region giving speeches about how he had whipped the agitators and sent Dr. King packing.
Among his hearers, none had been more attentive than Selma’s Wilson Baker.
Baker had the Pritchett mild-mannered demeanor cold, right down to the non-threatening title of Public Safety Director he had chosen himself, and his civilian-style suit and fedora, which matched and blended with Dr. King’s typical attire.
As the march approached, it was evident that if King was now determined to get arrested, Baker was ready to accommodate him – but he would also make sure that the crowd of reporters hovering and getting chilled, saw nothing more exciting in the process than a lot of colored people milling around outside the back entrance to the three-story City Hall, where the city and county jails occupied the upstairs floors.
Yet Dr. King had learned from Albany too, and he planned both to outmaneuver Baker and use him at the same time. He wanted Baker to make the arrests, because King would feel safer in Baker’s city jail. And at the same time, Baker’s own restraint, however successful with the Yankee media, would work against him with a crucial local constituency.
Selma, fortunately for us, was not Albany. Here, for all his outward composure, Baker lacked Laurie Pritchett’s control of the situation in white Selma, as we knew well enough. In particular, Baker couldn’t afford to let us get past him to the courthouse, because his rival, Dallas County Sheriff, Jim Clark, was waiting there.
Wilson Baker & Jim Clark in Selma: colleagues and rivals
Sheriff Clark was a walking stereotype: a tough-talking, head-cracking Deep South lawman, who had no patience with civil rights protests, or with Baker’s “coddling” of agitators. Further, besides his deputies, Clark was backed by a volunteer posse. The posse had first earned notoriety for helping beat up and banish labor organizers in various parts of this so-called “right to work” state. Just the year before, they had been turned loose on earlier civil rights marches, with predictably bloody results. But Dr. King wasn’t there then, and the beatings attracted only minor outside notice.
All of us who were marching had seen the possemen on earlier days, hefting long unpainted homemade billy clubs, and looking anxious to get at us. Their uniform consisted mainly of various shades of ill-fitting khaki work clothes, and white plastic hard hats bearing small metallic foil “Posse” stickers. Most possemen also had a large pistol hanging from one hip, and an electric cattle prod dangling from the other. These latter were battery-filled cylinders, like overlong flashlights, with metal prongs at one end. The cattle prods produced a nasty shock; the longest ones were said to sear bare flesh.
No question about it: the posse looked feral and dangerous. Compared to them, Baker’s black-uniformed policemen seemed like pillars of professional restraint, protecting us from the sheriff’s troops more than they were protecting white Selma from us.
Possemen in Selma; if they don’t look dangerous, clean your glasses.
When Clark and the posse broke up the marches a year earlier, they had gotten away with it. Then in November, 1964 a young appliance salesman named Joe Smitherman won a very close mayoral election, promising to bring in new industries and jobs. But Northern companies weren’t interested in Clark’s version of law and order, so Smitherman hired Baker to polish up the town’s image.
Ever since, Baker and Clark had been jockeying for control of the city’s streets and image. When Dr. King announced his plans to come to Selma, their struggle was ratcheted up several notches.
With the usual retinue of reporters and cameras in his wake, Dr. King had been playing on this tension and planned to raise it carefully but relentlessly to a fever pitch. That struggle would keep the Yankee press interested, and maintain movement solidarity. The fact that on this February morning the tension between the two law enforcement units was almost palpable suggested that Dr. King’s plan was working at least as well as Baker’s
Our earlier marches had stayed on the sidewalks. This time, though, we were proceeding brazenly down the middle of Sylvan Street. That made us a parade, and a parade without a permit. Baker couldn’t ignore this challenge. It would look to Clark’s supporters as if he was giving in to the country’s most notorious agitator, and bolster the sheriff’s contention that white Selma was being sold out to lawless black invaders.
Baker followed the script, testily reminding Dr. King that he didn’t have a permit, and warned that if we didn’t return to the sidewalk immediately, he’d have to arrest us.
Taking his cue, Dr. King quietly demurred. Baker stepped aside, and we resumed walking. Two blocks up, we turned the corner at Alabama Avenue. Ahead lay City Hall, and a few blocks further south, the courthouse.
But this was as far as we could be allowed to go. Black-uniformed police fanned out across the street ahead of us, and Baker drove up, got out of his patrol car and announced our arrest.
Dr. King asked if we could pause for a prayer, and we all knelt on the cold, nubbly asphalt.
Everything was going like clockwork.