Remembering John Lewis: Out of the barbarity of Alabama 1965 came new forms of revolt

July 29, 2020

Editor’s note: After the March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, where the recently deceased John Lewis was one of the freedom marchers clubbed and beaten, came the March 14 attempt to complete the march that had been broken up by police violence. News & Letters sent out this “Special Letter to Subscribers” titled, “Selma, Alabama—from Sunday, March 7 to Sunday, March 14, 1965—Where Now?” The principal author was Raya Dunayevskaya. It can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #6561, at #6746-48.

Dear Readers:

The barbarism which passes for civilization in South USA reached such a stage of savagery on Sunday, March 7, with the gassing and clubbing of unarmed Negroes—men, women and children—that it set into motion thousands of new forces for the freedom movement. Many had never before been roused to action, even by the brutal murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman in Mississippi last summer.[1] But those who had kept their eyes closed to Magnolia Jungle justice by blaming it on “individuals” found they could no longer do so, when the storm troopers, under direct order of Alabama Governor George Wallace, displayed their bestiality as the arm of “the law.” Coming directly after the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson, shot in the stomach by one of these storm troopers, the March 7 atrocity became the act that aroused the conscience of the nation. The courage and determination of John Lewis, SNCC Chairman and leader of the march, who had been clubbed and beaten and yet rose to ask for another march, became a crucible out of which were forged new forces for the Freedom Movement Now.

At the same time counter forces were at work. We do not mean the openly counter-revolutionary actions of Gov. Wallace, who had planned the Selma outrage. We refer to the many ways in which the Washington administration began its attempts “to correct the American image” abroad by try “to stop bloodshed.” This did not mean trying to stop the storm troopers who were shedding it, but the non-violent masses whose blood was being shed as they fought for their elemental rights. Thus, first the administration advised against a new demonstration; then it inspired the federal court order to stop it; then there was an open appeal from President Lyndon Johnson; and when it became quite clear that nothing could stop the newly mobilized forces and that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead a new march of 2,500, the administration persuaded Rev. King to follow a federal plan—an agreement unknown to most of the demonstrators who had flocked to Selma to continue the struggle.[2]

When Rev. James Reeb was clubbed to death, from behind, by white racists after the peaceful march, the great new demonstrations that followed across the land were in large measure unled. New forms were spontaneously evolved—such as the sit-in at the White House, the lay-down on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the all-night vigils in such widely separated places as Selma, Alabama, in the streets in front of Brown’s Chapel, which lasted for five long days and nights, and in Los Angeles before the Federal Building. These demonstrations also revealed that the violence of “law and order” is very little different North or South.

The yellow roses from the President, and the crocodile tears from Selma’s City Council to the widow of the murdered Rev. James Reeb, cannot becloud the urgency for the civil rights movement to evaluate the new stage the freedom struggles have reached, and the ever-renewed pressure of the Administration to channelize them into legal traps. There have been too many martyrs, too many memorials, there has been too much achieved in daring, self-activity and momentum, for the movement to entangle itself once again in legalisms. Rev. King is tied up in a court case at the very moment when, from below, there are both mass outpourings, and smaller vigils which demonstrate the unflagging determination of the ranks to continue. In Selma, freedom fighters have spent days and nights out in bitter rain on hard sidewalks, surrounded not only by armed police, but by what they immediately named “the Berlin rope,”[3] strung up by Selma’s “Public Safety Director” to keep them in one single place. Throughout the country the ranks are devising new forms of revolt—while the administration keeps trying to divert everything to the enactment of still one more bill.

The pattern is all too familiar now. After Bull Connor’s display of brutality, use of fire-hoses, vicious police dogs and cattle prods against the mass demonstrators in Birmingham in 1963, we got the Civil Rights Bill passed in 1964.[4] This was deemed sufficient for some civil rights leaders to call off mass demonstrations and to concentrate on “voting for Johnson.” But the counter-revolution did not stop for a single instant in its concerted attempt to turn back the clock of history. Though the Mississippi murders might horrify others, they knew the killers would be acquitted by federal district judges on the fantastic ground that the heinous crimes were state, not federal, violations. Now the Alabama storm troopers and possemen, led by Al Lingo and Sheriff Clark,[5] have unloosed, against unarmed Negro men, women and children, gas which has left serious chemical burns, bullwhips which beat them as they ran back, clubs which beat them as they fell, and horses which trampled them into the ground. And the governor who created this new bloodshed, not only dared ask the president to stop the civil rights “agitators” from interfering with his “law and order,” but after meeting with the president, dared continue with his ordered defiance—and called the shots against the very same type of police brutality in the North.

The revulsion against the latest outrages has forced even the moderate Roy Wilkins[6] to state that there is a limit to patience and non-violence, that if the administration can’t establish order, the Negro will have to, for it is “American to protect oneself when attacked.” But—now that the president has spoken out “strongly” and presented us with still one more bill on voting (nearly a century after the 14th and 15th amendments, following a civil war, had already established that elementary right)—the question is: will the movement which demands freedom now once again be diverted?

This is the turning point which must become a point of departure for weighing carefully and elaborating daringly, not ways to pause, but ways to unite thought with action, to work out a theory of liberation which will meet the challenge of the movement from below, from the actual struggles for freedom.

The proof that this is what the movement is searching for is that so many youth, South and North, are not waiting for any leadership to call for some specific act before embarking on it themselves. This weekend saw mass demonstrations which reached more and more thousands in more and more cities across the country: and alongside these mass outpourings have appeared smaller groups who have devised new ways of continuous challenge, not only to state but to federal authorities, acting on their own rather than under any established civil rights leadership. From Selma to Los Angeles, from Washington D.C. to Wisconsin, they are continuing the struggle with or without official sanction—and they are continuing discussion as well, not only in meeting halls, but in small huddles on all-night vigils.

The fact that not only the civil rights movement, but the general public feels that legalisms are insufficient, is proved by their near-disregard of the Supreme Court decision which has just struck down Louisiana literacy laws as “a trap.” A decade ago the Supreme Court decision on desegregation in the schools was hailed as a “milestone.” Today, the new “historic” decision brought hardly a notice from anyone. The administration is well aware of the public feeling that one more law means only one more loophole for the Southern lawyers. That is why the administration is trying to present the new bill as something self-triggering—but it cannot trigger any new social order in South USA, since the South is, in fact, the material product of Northern capital.

The leadership of the civil rights movement may think that it is only by not facing that fact that they have attracted the new allies who have turned out by the thousands. In part this is true, but only in part. The greater truth is that this numerically highest point is, at the same time, a turning point for the civil rights movement, which is now faced with possible isolation from its own militant ranks and those outside who are taking independent action, as well as carrying on discussion on various theories of liberation. Unless the leadership listens to these new voices and recognizes that the momentum of the movement will not allow for any retreat to legalism; unless it becomes a participant in the elaboration of an underlying philosophy instead of merely using it as a slogan, the leadership itself will be left by the wayside. What is needed now is a unity of theory and practice in which the masses are not only participants in action, but in thought. Instead of a never-ending dialogue with the administration, it is time that the leadership of the civil rights movement started one with its own ranks.

The dialogue must no longer be put off on the grounds that “we are an activity organization.” Thinking, too, is an activity. And awareness of the significance of an action is itself a step toward total freedom. It is imperative that what has been implicit in the freedom struggles all along, now become explicit. Dialogue with the ranks involved in direct actions can make it so. Nothing else will fully arm them in the struggle against the forces of reaction. Nothing else will transform the goal of freedom into a reality.


[1] James Chaney was a 21-year-old Black activist from Meridian, Miss. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were students from New York City who were helping to register Black voters in Neshoba County, Miss., during Freedom Summer 1964. They were murdered after being stopped for speeding; their bodies were found months later in an earthen dam. The perpetrators, associated with White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, were tried years later and given light sentences. Only in 2005 was one person convicted of manslaughter.

[2] Rev. King wrote in his autobiography: “Just as we started to march, Governor [LeRoy] Collins [from President Johnson’s administration] rushed to me and said that he felt everything would be all right. He gave me a small piece of paper indicating a route that I assumed Mr. Baker, public safety director of Selma, wanted us to follow. It was the same route that had been taken the previous Sunday. The press, reporting the detail, gave the impression that Governor Collins and I had sat down and worked out some compromise. There were no talks or agreement between Governor Collins and me beyond the discussions have just described. I held on to my decision to march despite the fact that many people in the line were concerned about breaking the court injunction issued by one of the strongest and best judges in the South. I felt that we had to march at least to the point where the troopers had brutalized the people, even if it meant a recurrence of violence, arrest, or even death. As a nonviolent leader, I could not advocate breaking through a human wall set up by the policemen.”

[3] A reference to the Berlin Wall, erected by Communist East Germany to separate the people of East and West Berlin from 1961-1989, when masses on both sides tore it down as the Russian empire crumbled.

[4] Staunch segregationist Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner. More reports and discussion can be found in the May 1963 issue of News & Letters

[5] Al Lingo, a Klan sympathizer and reportedly a member, was Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety. James Gardner Clark Jr. was sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, who had recruited a Klan posse in response to SNCC’s voting drive in Dallas County.

[6] Roy Wilkins was Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

2 thoughts on “Remembering John Lewis: Out of the barbarity of Alabama 1965 came new forms of revolt

  1. John Lewis, the young advocate of direct action to achieve social gains, had little in common with the Congressman Lewis became. His 1963 speech at the March on Washington was harsh in its criticism of the Kennedy administration, and march leaders forced Lewis to tone it down. Once part of the Beltway establishment, Lewis was often on the wrong side of issues central to Black liberation. See Black Agenda Report on the www.

  2. Although John Lewis was not the same as a politician as he had been as a revolutionary activist. It’s pretty well known that his 1963 speech was modified by march leaders. Nevertheless his death represented, emotionally, the end of the Civil Rights era of freedom struggles, a grim milestone for many in the Black community. The governmental and national response was as dignified as it was under the influence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, a recollection of a high point in Black liberation (Selma, 1965) and the potential power today to deepen that movement

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