The Mighty Walk
On January 14, 1963, newly elected Alabama governor George Wallace spoke his inaugural address in the front of the Alabama state capitol, and said:
“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done. . . . In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”
On March 25, 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the following in front of that same Alabama state capitol, with the Confederate flag flying over top of the United States flag:
“Last Sunday, more than 8,000 of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. . . . They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’
Let us step back and give some historical perspective to all this: since early in 1963, Black residents of Selma and Marion, Alabama, had been trying to register to vote in an organized fashion, after decades of being refused. The Selma voting rights movement officially began in January 1965, when King addressed a mass meeting in Selma’s Brown Chapel. On February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old deacon of a Black Baptist church, was shot by a state trooper after a civil rights demonstration in Marion; Jackson died eight days later.
On March 7, 1965, the first Selma-to-Montgomery march began and ended with the events of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 civil rights marchers, asking for the right of Black Alabama residents to register to vote, were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas just outside Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march was led by James Bevel, John Lewis (now a congressman representing Georgia), and Hosea Williams.
On March 9, 1965, another march of about 2,500 marchers, including many who had come from other parts of the country, was led by Martin Luther King and others to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a court order prevented them from going all the way to Montgomery. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis spoke that day:
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that ‘patience’ is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now… In the struggle, we must seek more than civil rights, we must work for the community of love, peace, and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people.”
After the marchers returned to Selma, James Reeb, a White minister from Boston, was beaten severely. He died on March 11, 1965. National attention was now focused on Selma. Finally, federal district court judge Frank Johnson, Jr., ruled that the march could proceed and, on March 21, 1965, the four-night march began in Selma. Protected by more than 4,000 federal troops and agents, 8,000 started the march but only 300 were allowed to make the entire 54-mile trek to Montgomery. More would have marched, but the judge limited the number for safety reasons. But thousands of others were allowed to join the last steps from outside Montgomery into the downtown, where the Alabama state capitol awaited them on March 25, 1965.
Among those who joined were six young African-American college students from Oakwood College, a Black Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama, who had driven down to the capital to be a part of this event and show their support. They were Neal Arthur, Harvey Holland, Ben McAdoo, Maceo McGoodwin, Don Monroe, and Russ Nelson. Although threatened with expulsion from school if they participated (supposedly, and probably, for their own protection), these six made the trip anyway to be a part of this historic moment. On their way south they had been stopped by state troopers and told not to go to Montgomery, a warning they did not heed.
Also in the crowd was a White college senior from Duke University who had driven a mixed group of marchers from Durham to Montgomery to be a part of this movement. On the drive over, this group was followed on Alabama highways but never stopped, and came into Montgomery early in the morning to see a city inhabited by federal troops at every corner, bayonets fixed.
The march into the city was on streets lined by locals taunting and cursing with racial epithets, but the crowd of marchers dominated the city that day and made its presence felt not only to the local populace and state leaders but also to the nation as a whole. The national press decided to cover this whole event (some claimed it was only because a White minister had been killed). More than 25,000 marchers heard the speakers ask for the right to vote for all citizens of Alabama. Best known of those speeches was certainly the one by Martin Luther King, sometimes referred to as the “How Long, Not Long” or the “Our God Is Marching On” speech. Among the highlights of that speech are these words:
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.”
“Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing until Negroes and Whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing.”
“Let us march on poverty until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded. Let us march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”
“Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer but the order of the day on every legislative agenda. Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.”
“I know there is a cry today in Alabama, we see it in numerous editorials: ‘When will . . . these civil rights agitators . . . get out of our community and let Alabama return to normalcy?’ But I have a message that I would like to leave with Alabama this evening. . . . It was normalcy in Marion that led to the brutal murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. It was normalcy in Birmingham that led to the murder on Sunday morning of four beautiful, unoffending, innocent girls. It was normalcy on Highway 80 that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. It was normalcy by a café in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.”
“It is normalcy all over Alabama that prevents the Negro from becoming a registered voter. No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy.”
“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”
“Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the White man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the White man, not of the Black man. That will be a day of man as man.”
After the march and the rally at the capitol steps, the six Oakwood students found their car and began the journey home. But on the way their car stalled and broke down. Two tried to get help in a streetside eatery but were told they couldn’t even use the telephone and that the tow truck parked nearby was “broke down.” In the corner were threatening White faces whom they would later see on the highway. After the two returned to their friends, Klan members drove by and warned them “to get outta here or you’re dead.”
Just as Klan members were exiting from trucks across the road—with weapons in hand—the six flagged down the Duke student who was traveling north to Kentucky, alone in his car, as his previous passengers were going in other directions. He had already been denied service at a local restaurant because he was easily recognized as an outsider. He stopped; the six climbed in and told him to “get out of here!” They didn’t stop again until they reached the safety of Oakwood. Later they all learned of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a White housewife from Michigan who was killed by the Klan while carrying marchers back to their colleges and homes.
That White Duke student spent the night in the dorm, integrated the shower room the next morning, had breakfast, and headed north to his home in Louisville, Kentucky. None of the seven thought to exchange full names, telephone numbers, or any means of contacting each other again. I know this story because I am that former Duke student who had the honor to attend the march and rally in Montgomery and to hear Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the good fortune to meet my six new friends on the highway. Fate brought us together that day.
As my first epilogue to this story, two years later, when I was a law student at the University of Louisville, Martin Luther King accepted our student invitation and addressed us at 11:00 a.m. on March 30, 1967, in the courtroom. It is important to remember, or to learn, what was going on in the civil rights movement, both nationally and in Louisville and what public opinion was about King.
Nationally, Martin Luther King and the movement were constantly subjected to FBI wiretapping, investigation, and infiltration. This had been true for years, largely because of the alleged Communist affiliation of King and his followers, but became even more intense as King entered the area of anti-Vietnam protesting. Let’s just say J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King were not on the same page. King was coming under great criticism within the movement for supporting the peace movement and had marched on March 25 in Chicago with Dr. Benjamin Spock and spoken against the war. He and President Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed the voting rights act as a result of Selma, now had a very cool relationship. Other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were worried that fund-raising would be hurt greatly for a movement that barely got by in normal circumstances. Hosea Williams and Stanley Levinson tried unsuccessfully to stop King from joining James Bevel in the antiwar movement. On the very day he spoke to us in this room, SCLC leaders were imploring him to refrain from active support. But on April 4, just five days after speaking at the University of Louisville, he gave his famous antiwar speech at Riverside church in New York. While he was in Louisville he met with Muhammad Ali about his decision to defy a draft order. At the same time, he was being maligned from the left by those such as the Black Panthers, who thought he was too nice, too easy on Whites, and too nonviolent. King and the Black Nation of Islam were never friendly and never agreed on tactics, or even goals.
Gallup polls showed a consistent decline in King’s popularity from the time in 1963 around his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. In 1963 his unfavorable rating was 46 percent; in 1965, it was 51 percent; and in 1966 it was up to 68 percent. The striking figures showed that he was ranked at the very bottom of a 10-place system in those polls: 25 percent in 1963, 30 percent in 1965, and 41 percent in 1966 ranked him as someone they disliked very much. As King moved north with his demands and moved left on the war, his popularity declined even more. After his death, this all changed. By 1987 his favorable rating was 76 percent, and by 2011 it had risen to 94 percent. Support for a King national holiday found opposition from many. Arizona refused to recognize it and lost the 1993 Super Bowl for its resistance. While Congress passed the federal holiday in 1983, against the wishes of President Reagan, who signed the act reluctantly, it was not until 2000 that the last state, South Carolina, observed the day as a state holiday.
Back to March of 1967: in Louisville at this time, segregated housing was the issue of the day. Efforts to pass an open housing ordinance had been under way for some time, but were reaching a boiling point in March. Threats against the Kentucky Derby had been made. In fact, the Pegasus Parade and other Derby Festival events were canceled that spring. Black demonstrators marched in White neighborhoods, and counterdemonstrations were frequent. Arrests and violence occurred on the steps of city hall. On the night of his speech here, King led a march and rally with more than 400 people participating. He, on another visit just before the derby, finally brokered a deal to allow the derby to proceed without interruption.
So his visit here was in the midst of national and local turmoil, of questioning of his leadership and popularity, and of a possible turning point in the whole civil rights movement. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend about 20 minutes with him and our small committee before his speech. We talked about my experience in Montgomery, but what I remember most about him, besides his obvious intelligence and brilliant oratory, was that he spent the whole time asking us about ourselves and our futures. To a packed house, with students hanging from the windows outside, he spoke his message of peace, of brotherhood, and the necessary perseverance to ensure justice for all. In the midst of what must have been a tumultuous time for him, he was calm, together, peaceful and loving, but forceful and determined.
As a second epilogue, 44 years after the Montgomery march, with help from President Delbert Baker of now Oakwood University, I was able to reconnect with my friends from Oakwood. The alumni office found everyone, and a reunion was held on April 9 and 10, 2009, at Oakwood, culminating in front of hundreds at an annual meeting of the United Negro College Fund. After I spoke to that group recounting our experience, a very distinguished, elderly, White gentleman came up to me and thanked me for coming to Alabama. I thought he meant that night at that dinner, but he quickly said:
“Oh no, I don’t mean coming here tonight. I mean thank you for coming to Alabama in 1965. You see, I was a young lawyer back then. I hated you and all your comrades for coming to Montgomery that week. I would never have engaged in violence against you, but I didn’t criticize or stop those who would. I thought it was our way of life, our heritage, our right as White folk. We wanted our normalcy. I hated that you embarrassed us and threatened our way of life. I hated all of you probably because you exposed us to the world. But years later I realized that we in Alabama needed you to come and tell us what is right, what is constitutional, what is American, and what is the word and desire of my Lord. We still have a long way to go, but we will get there, and get there together, thanks to being taught what love and justice are all about.”
Now, finally, let us return to March 25, 1965, and hear some of Martin Luther King’s final words that day:
“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’. . . I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ . . . How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Article Author: Stephen T. Porter
Stephen T. Porter writes from Louisville, Kentucky.