Henry Hampton in Selma

7 Mar

March 7, 2013 marks the 5oth anniversary of  Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. This past week there was a celebration and march with Vice President Joe Biden, and Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the organizers of the original marches. Lewis spoke at the event which occurred a few days after the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb's memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb’s memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

On March 7, 1965 civil rights activists first attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama but were met with brutal resistance from state troopers and deputized citizens on the Edmud Pettus Bridge. This confrontation had been brewing for some time as members of various civil rights groups attempted to register African Americans to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. Local organizers including Amelia Boynton Robinson worked with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help people to register to vote.

Resistance to African Americans registering to vote throughout the South has existed for decades and in 1961 out of 15,000 eligible African American only 130 were registered to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. In Amelia Boynton Robinson’s interview for Eyes on the Prize, she talks about the arduous process people were forced to go through to register,

At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people…and we would show them how to fill out these blanks, how to present themselves when they went down to the registration office. At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).

In the fall of 1964 and early part of 1965 as more African Americans attempted to register to vote in Dallas County they were met with resistance and violence culminating in an incident on February 18, 1965 when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in a cafe after a protest by Corporal James Bonard Fowler. Jackson died eight days later and was the inspiration for the original march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers, with John Lewis and Hosea Williams at the front of the line, set out on March 7. They were met by a line of state troopers and numerous men who had been hastily deputized by Sheriff Jim Clark. Commanding officer John Cloud spoke briefly to Lewis and Williams and then the troopers attacked the marchers.

Alabama state troopers attack protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge,  Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Alabama state troopers attack protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. (John Lewis can be seen on the right wearing a back pack.)

Amelia Boynton Robinson was also in this march and described her experience in her interview for Eyes on the Prize,

And the men came from the right side, from the left side from in front of us. They came upon us and started beating us with their nightsticks. They started cattle prodding us. They started gassing us with gas. The helicopters were ahead of us, and I said to the lady who was with me, “What in the world do these people mean?” And I remember having seen a horse, a white horse, and then I saw several other horses. One of the officers came to me, state trooper, and he hit me across the back of my neck. And I made a slight turn and he hit me again, and I remember having fallen to the ground. From that, I don’t remember anything else, except the pictures that I saw and what was told to me. And that was this, that every person, every black person they saw, they started beating on them. They tried to run the horses over some of them, and the horses would not step on them. But they took their nightsticks and they gassed them, and I was gassed. And I saw the picture where I was lying on the ground and this gas was being pumped over me, possibly thinking that, this is the leader, if we get them we will destroy the movement. I understand that someone said, “Get out of the road.” The officers came out and said, “Get out.” And realizing that I could not move somebody said, “She’s dead.” “Well,” he said, “if she’s dead just pull her on the side and let the buzzards eat her.” Some of the people on the other side of the bridge, said to Clark, “Jim Clark, send an ambulance over there. Somebody is dead and some people are hurt badly.” And he said, “I’m not going to send any ambulance over there. Let them do the best they can.” Someone else said to him, “If you don’t send an ambulance over there you’re going to [have] chaos on your hands because these people are going to be angry enough to tear this town up.” Then he permitted the ambulance to come.

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).

That same night ABC broke into its scheduled film Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast images of violence from Selma. A small Southern town became the focus of the entire nation and after the images of the brutalized marchers were broadcast Martin Luther King issued a call for civil rights activists to come to Selma to help continue the march. A young Henry Hampton, originally from St. Louis but working for the Unitarian Universalists in Boston, was among the people who arrived to support the marchers. He was a firsthand witness to the events in Selma during the march on Turnaround Tuesday and later spoke about what he experienced there during an interview,

I was in Selma, and it was a story that at that point—literally it was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic—it was a moment when we were standing there on the bridge, the Pettus Bridge, in Selma. There were cameras buzzing overhead…the president and federal government in all its power was there. We had terrific villains. There was a man named Al Lingo, who was the head of the Alabama State Police, that most don’t remember. They remember George Wallace but together they were a formidable opposition who were literally killing people, and I looked around and said to myself, not being a native Southerner, I looked around and said, ‘This could make a terrific movie,’ and put the idea away for twelve or fifteen years. When someone asked me the question, if you had your absolute druthers and the money, what would you do? Ten seconds it came back, it would be the television history of the civil rights movement…something fundamental changed in the country on that bridge and rarely do you get that kind of visual moment that confirms this massive shift in the way that people are going to feel about each other. It doesn’t mean that everyone loved everyone but it meant, I think, that America was no longer going to step backwards. It was going to step forward and these are important moments.”

–An interview with Henry Hampton. Conducted by Chris Lydon, 3/31/94

Hampton was a witness to the tumultuous days that followed, including the murder of the Unitarian minister James Reeb, and his funeral. The marchers were only able to begin the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21 as 8,000 people set out to cover the fifty-four miles to Montgomery to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace.  At the end of the march 25,000 people joined in to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his speech Our God is Marching On on the steps of the Capitol building. It would take Hampton more than twenty years to fulfill his dream of a televised history of the civil rights movement. Eyes on the Prize debuted on PBS in 1987 attracting millions of viewers, and the series has become the definitive documentary program on the subject of civil rights.

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