Today the children and grandchildren of Bloody Sunday marchers walked hand-in-hand across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the march of April, 1963, that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
I remember that day and the march. I lived about one hundred miles north in Gadsden, Alabama. We heard the news, then watched the TV coverage as it played and replayed. Like many Alabamians, I watched in disbelief, horrified at the beatings, angry that this was happening in my state. I paced and wrung my hands. I did a lot of hand wringing that next year.
Last week I talked with a man who was there on Bloody Sunday. Like me, he was an onlooker. He was a young teen, white, who lived in Selma and was curious. He knew the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery, so he stood on a sidewalk close enough to see but far enough away not to be caught up in it. He didn’t expect the violence and even today when he speaks about it, his face contorts in revulsion.
Jim Smitherman was mayor of Selma then and for many years afterward. He didn’t expect the attack on the marchers either, at least that was what he said some years later. I was in Selma with a group sometime before Smitherman died in 2005, and he told a version of the story I hadn’t heard.
Selma was not supposed to happen, at least not in Selma. Smitherman said he had assurances from his friend, Gov. George Wallace, that the marchers would be allowed to march from Selma without a confrontation. He didn’t oppose them, and he surely didn’t want anything to stain Selma’s name.
What he didn’t consider is that the city limits of Selma is just across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That is where Al Lingo, head of the state troopers, met the marchers with billy clubs and ran them down with horses as the marchers retreated.
That’s what the young boy saw and what haunts him still. But he remembers Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies bashing heads, bloodying children as they ran, and this in Selma.
Smitherman did a turn around during a long political career, as did George Wallace. I repeat his story. I don’t doubt that he had an agreement with Gov. Wallace.
Despite his effort, Selma is tarnished with the memory of Bloody Sunday.