The todayness of Selma, USA, 1965

March 8, 2015

From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters


Editor’s note: As a part of acquainting readers with coverage of the forces of revolution in News & Letters over its first 60 years, we here reprint from February 1965 “Continuing Magnolia Jungle terror exposes reality of ‘Great Society’” by Charles Denby, founding editor and Worker’s Journal columnist until his death in 1983. He wrote this in the midst of the bloody campaign for voter registration in Selma, Alabama.

by Charles Denby

The arrest of over 3,500 Negroes in Selma, Ala., in three weeks just because they tried to vote, the sight of a Negro woman pinned to the ground by three fat deputies of Sheriff James Clark while Clark beat her face in with his billy club, the sight of a long line of Negro high school and grade school boys and girls who demonstrated in support of their parents’ right to register and then were forced to run three miles with police billy clubs and electric cattle prods jabbed into their backs and ribs—these things expose the great lie of President Johnson’s Great Society for all the world to see.

During the [1964] election campaign, Negroes were yelled at by everybody, especially their own leadership, to stop their demonstrations and to give the administration and the Civil Rights Bill a chance to work out the issues. Just a week before the Selma demonstrations broke out, Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, said on a nationwide TV interview that he did not think Negroes would demonstrate in 1965. He said the Negroes would wait to see what the government would do in enforcing the Civil Rights Bill, and if it did nothing that it would catch hell in 1966 demonstrations.


Charles Denby. Photo by Allen Willis (John Alan) for News & Letters.

Charles Denby. Photo by Allen Willis (John Alan) for News & Letters.

What Wilkins could not see was perfectly clear to the Negroes. The Johnson Administration had already been openly exposed by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party when they challenged the official white Mississippi Democrats who had supported Goldwater—and the majority in the Great Society’s Congress supported those race haters.

There is also the question of the tests the Negroes must pass to be eligible to vote. After many of the leading law brains in Detroit took the test, 95% of them failed it, even Detroit’s anti-Negro prosecutor Olsen. It would not be surprising if LBJ failed the test—and yet they say anyone with a sixth-grade education should be qualified to vote in the South.


Since the demonstrations President Johnson was forced to declare at a press conference that every citizen in the country should be allowed to vote, and that this even included those in Selma. But every Negro in the South knows that there is a wide space between words and actions. While the President was saying it, the U.S. District Judge in Mobile, Ala., issued an order which was described as one that would “speed up” registration of Negroes. In reality he was turning down the appeal by the Selma Negroes for an order compelling the Dallas County Board of Registrars to meet more often than two days a month.

When we think of any Negro mass movement in Alabama, we must also think of Governor Wallace. In every city, large or small, he has a Bull Connor at the head of his law enforcement who does not care one bit about human rights or the Federal Constitution. The only language he knows is his own law and disorder.

Selma’s Bull Connor is Sheriff Clark. And if Sheriff Clark ordered those Negroes trying to register to vote to jump into the Alabama River that practically runs through Selma, and they refused, this would be refusing to obey law and order.

When the ruling came down from the Federal judge ordering Sheriff Clark not to interfere with those trying to register to vote, the joke was that at the same time it gave Sheriff Clark the right to keep “law and order” at the county courthouse, so that he and his deputies had a clear hand to do as they pleased.

It gave him the right to force the Negroes to go in the back door of the Court House to try to register. It was after the ruling that he beat the Negro woman in the face, grabbed another woman by the back of the neck and rushed her that way for a whole block, and threw her in a patrol car, kept arrested Negroes in an open compound in a cold rain, and poked cattle prods in the ribs, backs and heads of adults and youngsters.

All of this was done in the presence of federal officers who are supposed to see to it that people are treated justly. These federal officers across the street taking notes, what are they writing down? If they took their pencils and wrote down one word on every page, they would have the issue at stake. That word is freedom.

To Sheriff Clark, Governor Wallace and the race haters in Selma, the fact is simple. In Dallas County, where Selma is the county seat, there are 15,000 Negroes of voting age and 14,440 whites. There are only 355 Negroes registered so far, compared to 9,543 whites.

Senators Eastland and Stennis, Democrats from Mississippi, blame “Communist forces” inside and outside the U.S. for hoping to fan the fire of racial hatred in the Southern states. They never mention the KKK, White Citizens Councils or Birchites as the fomenters of racial hatred. To them any Negroes trying to register to vote in the South must be subversive because they know that when the Negroes get the vote, Eastland and Stennis will not be allowed to sit in Washington to continue spreading slander about the inferiority of Negroes in relation to whites.


The Negro Revolution has made some greatly needed progress when it has hit a place like Tuscaloosa, Ala., the home of the University of Alabama, and the birthplace of the KKK in the state. When the revolutionaries there meet little or no opposition in desegregating restaurants, that is a new chapter in history.

This movement in Selma has also had a big impact on Negro teachers. It has given them the courage to join in the struggle. Ever since the Supreme Court decision outlawing separate but equal education in the South, Negro teachers have been the target of pressure by the white-controlled school boards. Hundreds and thousands have been fired from their jobs for having membership in the NAACP, a much lesser crime in the South than registering to vote.

But this year, practically every Negro teacher in Selma, and there are no white teachers in a Negro school there, joined in the registration battle. Over 100 marched to the courthouse together and were arrested while they were cheered for their actions by their students and the parents of the students. They even marched at night to show that night-time registration is needed.

They are making revolutionary changes all over the state. A Negro teacher in Lowndes County—which is almost all rural and has a population of 15,447, 80.7% of which is Negro, with not one registered to vote—said, ”We’re next, and all of us are anxious to get going.” She said there is not the slightest bit of fear among any of the Negroes, even though it has been predicted that the whites in Lowndes County will react violently to the Negroes. “We feel that freedom is something worth dying for,” she said. “Because even if some get killed, others will carry on until we achieve full human dignity.”

One teacher in Selma said that what amazed her was the fact that even some local whites took part in the demonstrations. She wrote News & Letters that the day after the order was given to Clark not to interfere, some white youth standing on the corner yelled to the Negroes marching to the courthouse to “Keep on going, you have your rights.” They were the first ones that Sheriff Clark arrested, she said.


Nothing anybody can say or do can stop the forward march of the Negroes. Even the Negro leaders cannot stop it. They seem to sit on the fence until the struggle is in high gear, and then jump off running so they can say, “We were there too.” The Congressmen that went to Selma made their position clear before they left. One of them, from California, said they were not going to “test” anything. They were not even going to stay overnight, they were just going to see for themselves what was going on, as though they did not know.

What is happening in Selma is felt all over the country. In the factories of Detroit, Negro and white workers feel it, but they do not talk to each other about it. There is a block. Reuther and the UAW leadership have not taken an open stand on what is going on down South, or in the North. But what Reuther does is say what the federal government ought to do, not what the union ought to do. He doesn’t commit either the union or himself. He says the federal government should supervise the registrations down South.

Even though the Negroes do not have the support of many people that are in positions of power to help them, like the labor leaders, and still keep on their fight to get their freedom against the power of the segregationist South, something is still very much in need. The point just can’t be to fill up the jails. They have been filled before and are being filled now as the Negroes fight for their freedom. Filling jails is not the goal.

What is needed now is a philosophy of freedom, a total view, to give all of these actions some meaningful direction. Without a view that can bring these forces working for freedom together, white and Negro, youth and workers, to help them move together in a way that will get their freedom, jails will be filled for nothing.

All the changes that have been won in race relations in the past three years—and they are greater than anything that has happened in the South, and in the North, for 100 years in this country—can all be lost.The battle of the Negroes in the South is not just a question of the right to vote, but a question of making this country a better place for every human being. It is a question of individual freedom and human justice for all people, not some abstract slogan called the Great Society. A great society can be reached all right, but it will only come when all of the forces moving for freedom come together and move together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *