50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Bending Toward JusticeMarch 7 marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day Civil Rights marchers were beaten by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This weekend thousands will converge on Selma for commemorative events. Historian Gary May, author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, has been writing frequently about the momentous year of 1965. He is quoted in articles about the Selma march in the Montgomery Advertiser and on CNN. May believes reaction to the violence led President Johnson to his “finest hour,” his speech to Congress urging them to pass the Voting Rights Act. Below we share an excerpt from Bending Toward Justice about how Americans learned about Bloody Sunday and how it changed popular opinion about Civil Rights.

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bridgeAmericans were not immediately aware of what occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Sunday. In 1965 the age of instant communication was still a long way off. Newsmen from ABC, NBC, and CBS who were on the scene that day were uncertain whether their cameras had captured anything, as the film would have to be processed before being shown. Nelson Benton, CBS’s correspondent, felt lucky that he had one of the best cameramen in the business, Laurens Pierce, a fearless Alabamian who loved to cover the most dangerous events, his half glasses pushed up on his head, eye pressed firmly against the lens. But Pierce had the defects of his virtues. His cameras were often held together with tape and chewing gum, and he worried constantly about the quality of his product, often saying, “I think I got it. I mean I hope I got it. I feel like I got it.” That day, he did. And his footage would prove indispensable to Martin Luther King at a critical moment.

policeHoping that their cameras had recorded the most dramatic incident in the history of the civil rights movement, Benton and his competitors drove hurriedly to Montgomery, where technicians at the local affiliates gave the stock a chemical bath to develop the film. Then the  correspondents put their bagged film canisters aboard a plane bound for Atlanta, where they would be switched to a flight to New York. There, film editors and producers who had been hastily summoned to the networks’ headquarters would decide what could be shown and when.

King did not yet know that television would soon transform a local event in Selma into a national crisis, but he was well aware of the fundamental power of the media. For years King and his top aides had understood that television, which fed on drama, was the only vehicle that could bring the plight of black Americans into every home in the country. The SCLC’s leaders even timed demonstrations so that they could be shown on the evening news. Young, who had once worked in media, became King’s chief television adviser, urging him to prepare simple messages that would fulfill television’s insatiable need for sound bites. King’s media savviness even affected how he chose cities for new campaigns. Each location had to have the personalities necessary to create a morality play. Bull Connor in Birmingham and Jim Clark in Selma were the perfect antagonists, villains the audience would love to hate. Arouse the conscience of the nation, King believed, and the government would be forced to act. Images rather than words were becoming critical in shaping public opinion.

King’s strategy was confirmed that Sunday evening. CBS and NBC aired short segments on their West Coast six o’clock evening news shows, but ironically the network that reached the largest audience was ABC News, the third broadcaster to air the fifteen-minute footage from Selma. An estimated forty-eight million people watched ABC’s coverage, although many had not planned to do so. ABC executives, after studying the raw film, had decided to interrupt its Sunday night movie, Stanley Kramer’s critically acclaimed 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg, at a little after 9:00 p.m. (EST) to run its footage. Viewers were suddenly transported from the Nuremberg Trials of 1948 to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Introduced by Frank Reynolds, the segment had no narration and ran for fifteen minutes. “Unhuman,” the journalist George B. Leonard later called what he saw on television. “The bleeding, broken and unconscious passed across the screen, some of them limping alone, others supported on either side, still others carried in arms or on stretchers. It was at this point that my wife, sobbing, turned and walked away, saying, ‘I can’t look any more.’”

Some who saw the horrific scenes in the midst of watching a film about Nazi atrocities now wondered if America suffered from its own native fascism. Father James Carroll had been a student in Germany in the 1930s, and the sound of Jim Clark’s voice saying, “Get those God-damned Niggers,” took him back to that earlier time. “I remembered my apartment in Berlin, the Jewish family with whom I lived, the steel that was to be used to bar the front door when ‘they’ came; the bottle of cyanide in the medicine cabinet—everybody knew why it was there,” he later told Leonard. “Could this be happening here?”

Others who saw the pictures on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times the next day had similar reactions: horror, shame, and an overwhelming desire to do something about the atrocities taking place in the Deep South. Leonard spoke for many when he wrote, “I was not aware that at the same moment people . . . were feeling what my wife and I felt . . . [and] that [they] would drop whatever they were doing . . . leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, over-draw their checking accounts, board planes, buses, trains, cars, travel thousands of miles with no luggage . . . to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on tele vision.” They may not have known how widely their concern was shared, but many Americans did indeed drop everything and rush southward to help.

Over the next several days thousands poured into Selma. Some came in response to telegrams King sent to America’s religious leaders, asking them to join him in “a ministers’ march to Montgomery” on Tuesday, March 9. “No American is without responsibility,” King wrote. “All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.” Many religious leaders responded. By Tuesday, March 9, more than 450 clergy, both black and white, had come to Selma—ministers, priests, nuns, and rabbis. For the first time in the history of the movement Catholics were well represented. Heretofore their bishops had prohibited them from participating in civil rights marches. Now, however, that ban was lifted in many places. Later more volunteers would come from everywhere and from all walks of life: teachers, lawyers, labor leaders, college professors, homemakers, entertainers, laborers, civil rights activists bloodied in other southern states, and wives and children of Washington officialdom.16

Those who could not go south demonstrated in their own communities, from Maine to Hawaii. “Rarely has public opinion reacted so spontaneously and with such fury,” Time magazine observed. In Detroit, Mayor Jerome Cavenaugh and Governor George Romney led ten thousand people in a march demanding federal intervention to protect civil rights workers. Among them was a thirty-nine-year-old homemaker, mother of five, and part-time college student named Viola Liuzzo. The events of Bloody Sunday caused her to break down and cry. A few weeks later she left her family and classes at Wayne State University to go to Selma.

There were also demonstrations in eighty other cities, including Boston, Joliet, Ann Arbor, Kansas City, and San Diego. Four hundred people blocked the entrance and exits at the Los Angeles Federal Building and were arrested for obstructing justice. In Philadelphia college students mounted a sit-in at the Liberty Bell, while in Texas black ministers marched on the Alamo. Statements of support came from state legislatures, labor unions, universities, and chambers of commerce. “The mournful, determined tones of ‘We Shall Overcome’ rang out from Miami to Seattle,” noted the New York Times.

Gary May is Professor of History at the University of Delaware. Order Bending Toward Justice at a 30% discount by calling 888-651-0122 and mentioning coupon code E15MAY.

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