Posts Tagged ‘Wilson Baker’

Eating Dr. King’s Dinner: Part Two

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

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.

Albany, Georgia 1962: Laurie Pritchett outwits Dr. King.
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 and Jim Clark, Selma Alabama 1965.
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.

The Posse in Selma; if they don't look dangerous, clean your glasses.
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.

Next: The First “Quaker-Type” Meeting

Eating Dr. King’s Dinner: Part Three

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

III - The First “Quaker-Type” Meeting

There were about 250 of us in the march, and it took hours to book us. The police herded us into the parking lot behind City Hall, and we stood there shivering in the cold, waiting our turn to go inside.

Eventually I was led in, fingerprinted and had a mug shot taken. Then I filed upstairs to the third floor, to what I now learned was the county jail. The city jail, too small to hold us all, was on the second floor.

Here the cells ran along two walls; above them, out of reach, was a row of small windows. Across from the cell block was a large day room, bare except for a couple of steel tables bolted to the floor, and a toilet in the corner. The marchers were crowded in the day room, and I moved in to join them.

There wasn’t much for us to do but mill around, talk, and try to rest on the steel floor. We were all waiting for Dr. King to arrive, and tell us what to do next.

My mugshot, Selma Alabama 1965
Busted: The author’s Selma mugshot

Finally, after what seemed hours, he and his right hand man, Ralph Abernathy, appeared. Later we found out that Wilson Baker had kept them till last, hoping they would decide not to be arrested after all. We greeted Dr. King with applause, expecting something like a resumption of the mass meetings at Brown Chapel.

But Dr. King was very subdued. He told us he was feeling hoarse, and would rather not preach. He suggested, instead, that we have “a Quaker-type meeting,” in which people would speak simply “as the spirit moved,” and he would listen along with the rest.

This was the first “Quaker-type meeting” I was ever part of, and it was like none of the thousand-plus Friends meetings I have attended since becoming involved with Quakers a year or so later.

It was, for one thing, much noisier. The spirit not only moved some of us to preach that afternoon; it also moved all of us to sing, several times, both freedom songs which I knew and gospel hymns which I didn’t.

Being in jail added a special intensity to our voices and rhythmic accompaniment; the result was more than just music. Those of us pressed up against the walls soon found that if we slapped them in rhythm, they resounded like muffled calypso drums. When enough of us did it, the whole floor began to vibrate, as if the building itself was rocking and reverberating in time with us. And perhaps it was, because through the walls we soon heard an answering chorus from the other end of the third floor, where the women were being held. How I wish someone had recorded us!

Another intriguing feature of this meeting was that, notwithstanding Dr. King’s invitation to anyone so moved to speak, the spirit nonetheless seemed to move rather directly and carefully down the local status hierarchy, until all the local dignitaries and preachers among us had had their say. Finally ordinary folks chimed in, and I even spoke up at one point, though I can’t recall my message.

This meeting also went on longer than any “regular” Quaker meeting; two to three hours, it seemed. But finally, after one more heartfelt chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” sung in muffled, echoed harmony with the women in their cell block, the meeting finally broke up, and we sank into a happy, exhausted disorder within the confines of our pen. Glancing up, I noticed that the windows above us had all been steamed over by our lusty exhalations.

As the group relaxed, Dr. King reverted to his pastoral role, and began moving along the edges of the day room, speaking through the bars to the regular county prisoners in their cells. Our coming had deprived them of access to the day room and the little chance to stretch that they had. Dr. King talked with each of them, listening sympathetically to their tales of woe and injustice, which carried a special poignancy on this afternoon.

He was still, I think, making these rounds when there was a clanging at the far end of the cell block, and the heavy barred door suddenly rolled back a few feet. We turned at the noise, and recognized Sheriff Clark’s grim visage.

Sheriff Jim Clark

His eyes swept over the group, and then he began pointing and calling out: “You – King. Abernathy. Over here.”

He peered some more and pointed again, first at another staff worker. Then he pointed at me. “You.”

All at once I felt cold. It was safe in that crowded day room. Where would they take us now? We had all heard stories of people who disappeared from southern jails, never to be seen again, unless to turn up floating in the river.

I moved reluctantly toward the door, aware of the suddenly sober expressions on the faces of the men I passed.

Next: What’s Gandhi Got To Do With It?