It was March 7, 1965.
They walked, two by two, from the relative safety of the red bricked Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma up to Water Avenue, where they turned right and marched to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The road over the high-arch of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was clear but the long column of marchers didn’t want to give the troopers and the possemen waiting on the other side, an excuse so they marched on the sidewalk two-by-two.
John Lewis – later a congressmen from Georgia – was at the head of the line, next to him, Hosea Williams. Behind them were Bob Mants and Albert Turner. Near the front were Marie Foster and Amelia Boyton. Foster – who was 47 – would be beaten badly, injuring her knees. Boyton was beaten and had a tear gas canister shoved in her unconscious face. In the pictures from that day, she looks like she’d been killed.
The protests were part of the larger Voting Rights Movement. They wanted to end a century of Jim Crow laws designed to keep black people from their Constitutional rights. They wanted to end laws designed to keep black people out of power and under control. But beyond that, they were protesting the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who’d been murdered in the dark by a state trooper after his grandfather was beaten in nearby Marion, Alabama. Jackson’s killer, state trooper James Fowler, admitted his guilt in 2005. He was indicted in 2007 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010. He served six months in prison.
The original idea was to carry Jackson’s body the 50-plus miles to Montgomery and lay him on the steps of the statehouse. They had settled for something less, continuing their campaign of civil disobedience designed to draw attention to their plight and provoke Dallas County’s hot-headed Sheriff Jim Clark into making headlines and newscasts across the country.
Standing atop the bridge 40 years later, Lewis told me and a handful of U.S. Congressmen touring Civil Rights locations in the south that he didn’t expect to walk to Montgomery that day. The marchers weren’t equipped or prepared for a three-day march. Lewis expected to be stopped, maybe arrested or turned around and sent back.
He was carrying a backpack with some books and something to eat if they locked him up at the jail.
On the other side of the bridge, Lewis and the marchers met the law enforcement, state troopers and Clark’s deputies and collection of possemen. Clark had ordered all white men over the age of 21 to report to the courthouse and be deputized.
The marchers were ordered to turn around. Williams asked for a word with the leader of the troopers. He was told there would be no word.
Lewis asked for time to pray and knelt onto both knees. That’s when the trooper cracked his skull with a billy club and all hell broke loose. The people – who had marched across the bridge in orderly fashion – now ran back across fearing for their lives. The deputies and troopers beat unarmed men and women with clubs, tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd and mounted deputies rode into the fray, using their massive horses to knock the frightened marchers to the ground, or kick them.
Blood flowed freely and the people of Selma were chased back to the refuge of Brown Chapel AME Church.
With the exception of Lewis, the people who marched on Bloody Sunday were not the lions and lionesses of the movement. They’re not the one remembered in the history books.
Many, like Williams, Foster, Boyton and Turner led long, productive lives of leadership but outside of South Alabama, their names are mostly unknown.
I spent a few years, early in my professional career in Selma, opening my eyes to the smaller pieces of history often unseen in the larger mosaic. We remember the great sacrifice of Martin Luther King and, sometimes, the legacy of his work. But great painting of history isn’t made simply with wide, sweeping brush strokes.
It’s made of the legacies of everyday people like Dr. F.D. Reese, a teacher who challenged Clark as he stood on the steps of the courthouse, denying entrance to a citizen of the community. Clark – barely holding his famed temper – used two hands on his nightstick to back Reese back down the steps. When Clark turned around and walked back up to his place, Reese did the same, essentially daring the racist lawman to do more.
It’s in the foundation of history you’ll find people like Lucile Hunter. Her husband J.D. joined Reese as a member of the Courageous 8, a group of Selmians who defied a decree of Gov. George Wallace and met in secret to plan their peaceful protests.
After Mr. Hunter died, Mrs. Hunter came to me to tell his story.
As the head of the local NAACP, J.D. Hunter was a local leader. Before Brown Vs. Board of Education, he filed a petition to integrate the schools with the school board. White people called his house and threatened his family, if he did not take his name off.
“My husband said he’d die with his name on that petition,” Lucile said.
They didn’t kill him. Instead, they blacklisted him. He and several others who signed the petition lost their jobs.
“It was kind of awful during that time,” Lucile said. “My children, they all were small. My husband couldn’t have a job.”
He couldn’t get a job or a loan and the electricity would be cut off for months at a time.
He got around town on a bicycle. He sold insurance for black-owned and operated insurance companies.
He formed newspapers, ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The Citizen’ and had the kids help deliver them.
He sold items at curb markets.
Lucile said the family was poor, but the children never went without.
“We never went hungry a day in our lives, we always had something to eat because we had gardens,” she said. “They may not never have had money but our children felt right. They always was clean, they always looked nice when they went out.”
Lucile made sure they never went without.
A nurse on the night shift at the old Baptist Hospital, Lucile also tended the garden and later sold peas to help keep the family fed.
As the movement picked up speed, the establishment tried to beat it back.
Sheriff Jim Clarke told J.D. the NAACP had been outlawed.
Their children became involved in the movement as well. Joshua was hit in the head with a bat in front Swift Drugs on Broad Street for trying to get a hamburger at the food counter, Lucile said.
Jacquelyn had her 16th birthday on the March to Montgomery and Lucile said Phillip was tear-gassed on ‘Bloody Sunday.’
“Phillip was up there near the front when they tear gassed them. He couldn’t see and he liked to went over in the river,” she said. “Phillip was more into it than any of the children during that time. It was pretty rough.”
But following J.D’s lead, Lucile never held hatred for those who threatened her and her family.
“I never had been able to hold hatred or meanness or madness,” Lucile said. “Hatred will eat your soul up. My momma always said, ‘There’s something good in everybody.’”
But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t prepared to do what was necessary.
“They would call and say, ‘Is your husband getting his name off that petition?’ I’d say no and they’d say ‘We’re coming to get you tonight,’” she told me. “I’d say, ‘You’d better bring enough to take care of us.’”
“I remember a time or two, I called some of the people like Mrs. (Amelia) Boynton and I’d say, ‘We just got a call, they may destroy us tonight,’ I said. ‘(But) we’re all going down together.’”
“I had a .22 rifle. I had went and bought a whole lot of cartridges. It would shoot one time and you’d have to reload it. I said, ‘I’m going to be the one to shoot.’ They had to come over a little hill, I said, ‘I see anybody come over the hill and I’m going to start shootin.’”
I think about Mrs. Hunter quite often. It was the people like her who made the historic events of the Civil Rights Movement happen, as much as Dr. King, it was the foot soldiers who put their lives on the line.
Two days after the Bloody Sunday March, King and some of his lieutenants organized a second march. After some courtroom and backroom negotiations, 2,500 marched to the crest of the bridge, prayed and, this time, turned around.
That night, the Rev. James Reeb - a white Unitarian minister from Boston who’d heeded King’s call for clergy to come to Selma – was attacked with two friends and beaten with an ax handle. He died from his injuries on Thursday. The men who killed him were found not guilty at trial.
A week later, on March 17, a federal judge ruled in favor of the protestors clearing the way for the three-day March to Montgomery. The march itself started on Sunday, March 21 and culminated with 25,000 – not all of whom started in Selma – marched to the state capitol where King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech.
“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... 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,” he said.
That night, a white Unitarian woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo was driving marchers back from Montgomery to Selma. She stopped in Wilcox County for gas and four Ku Klux Klan members, including one who was an FBI informant; saw her with Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American in the car. The KKK members chased Liuzzo’s car, trying to force it off the road. They shot into the car, hitting the mother of five twice in the head.
The car crashed and Moton, covered in blood, pretended to be dead as the men got out of their car to check their work. He fooled them and survived.
Three of the men, not the FBI informant, were convicted by an all-white jury, not of murder but of attempting to intimidate African Americans.