Bridge to Freedom in Selma, Alabama

9 Jan

Selma, a new film about the civil rights campaign, directed by Ava DuVernay is opening this weekend. The pivotal voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama also inspired Bridge to Freedom, the sixth episode in Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize. Hampton chose this campaign to end the first part of Eyes on the Prize because it was a culmination of the movement but also a turning point. Hampton’s original goal with the series was to tell the story through the words and stories of the people who made up the movement, as opposed to focusing on the leaders. Bob Hohler, Hampton’s friend and colleague, described Hampton’s approach in this way,

Henry and his staff discussed possibilities and he proposed a series on the civil rights movement. He told them of his Selma experience, of walking across that bridge and thinking what a great, dramatic film it would make. Telling the story through the eyes of the people who lived it. In fact, telling the entire story of the civil rights movement from their point of view.

–Bob Hohler (University Libraries National Council Meeting, Washington University in St. Louis, September 20, 2002)

Hampton interviewed numerous people who had participated in the Selma campaign, those who had orchestrated the violent response, and journalists who witnessed it and then publicized the extraordinary events through the national media. All of these primary source interviews can be found at the Eyes on the Prize Interview: The Complete Series, a project which made all the interviews from Eyes on the Prize I and II available as transcripts online.

One of the on-the-ground organizers in Selma was Amelia Boynton Robinson who, along with her husband, had led the drive to register African-Americans to vote in Dallas County. She was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. She describe the scene in vivid detail for her interview in Eyes on the Prize,

Our objective was to see the governor and let the governor know that we were demanding that we become registered voters being American citizens. We did not know that he was in cahoots with the state troopers who lined the both sides of the road while we were en route to see him…When we got to the first light across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was a wall of officers right across the street that we were going to march on. And we were told to stop. Don’t go any farther. Jose Williams [sic aka Hosea Williams], who was at the head said, “May I have something to say?” And through the bullhorn that was, “No, you cannot have anything to say. Charge on them, men.” 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?”  —Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson

Blackside also interviewed several of the law enforcement officers and public officials who were in charge and directed the actions against the protestors including Gov. George Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark, and Mayor Joseph Smitherman. Smitherman, who was considered more moderate than Clark, described they dynamics of Selma and the campaign, as he saw them,

Joseph  Smitherman in "Eyes on the Prize"

Joseph Smitherman in “Eyes on the Prize”

They picked Selma just like a movie producer would pick a set. You had the right ingredients, I mean you would have to have seen Clark in his day, he had a helmet liner like General Patton, he had the clothes, the Eisenhower jacket and swagger stick and then Baker [Wilson Baker, Director of Public Safety] was very impressive, and I guess I was the least of all, I was 145 pounds and a crew cut and big ears. So you had a young mayor with no background or experience..and you had Sheriff Clark, that was a military figure, and you know that’s quite a scene. And you had the old South, an example of the old South. —Interview with Joseph Smitherman


Two of the youngest participants in the Selma campaign where Rachel West Nelson and Sheyann Webb (pictured above). Webb described being present on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the attack by state troopers on Bloody Sunday,

And I remember as we approached the bridge, I was getting frightened more and more, and as we got to the top of the bridge I could see hundreds of policemen, state troopers, billy clubs, dogs and horses and I began to just cry. And I remember the ministers who were at the front of the line saying, “Kneel down to pray.” And I knelt down and I said to myself, “Lord, help me.” And once we had gotten up, all I could remember was outbursts of tear gas, and I saw people being beaten and I began to just try to run home as fast as I could. And as I began to run home, I saw horses behind me, and I will never forget a Freedom Fighter picked me up, Hosea Williams, and I told him to put me down he wasn’t running fast enough. And I ran, and I ran and I ran. It was like I was running for my life. — Interview with Sheyann Webb

Andrew Young in "Eyes on the Prize"

Andrew Young in “Eyes on the Prize”

Rev. Andrew Young, a key aide to Dr. King was also interviewed and explained Selma’s importance in the civil rights movement,

Bloody Sunday was… one of the incidents that made the Civil Rights Movement. It was also one of the things that not only did we not plan the way it happened. We were trying to call it off right up to the last minute. Dr. King had decided that we would move the movement from Selma to Montgomery and that we would march to Selma, from Selma to Montgomery, but we really didn’t set a particular date. And Albert Turner, who was our field secretary in Marion, Alabama, figured the best day to do it was a Sunday. It turned out that that was the Men’s Day in Dr. King’s church, and he had to be in Atlanta, because he pastored his church and he went back to preach just about every Sunday, wherever he was, and so we were all back in Atlanta when people began showing up in Selma to march from Selma to Montgomery. So they called me about 9:00 o’clock in the morning, and I jumped on a plane and went to Selma. And when I got to Selma, I saw, driving in from Montgomery, I saw all of the State Troopers on horseback, and I saw them with their teargas masks, but they were all standing around. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, and they were all standing around, you know, in a very relaxed sort of manner, not looking menacing at all. And so when I went across the bridge going to the church, they didn’t bother me and I didn’t stop and bother them. But we called Dr. King, and we—he had asked us to call off the march. And we persuaded him that since there were about three hundred people there, maybe they could go ahead and march, that they weren’t going to get far anyway. That we had seen the State Troopers and they were going to probably stop them and turn them around, or maybe they would—people would get arrested. So he said, “Well, OK, go ahead and march,” he said, “but don’t you all go to jail.” And we thought that what was going to happen was that we would march over there and everybody would be arrested. So, John Lewis and Hosea Williams and I, and James Bevel decided that only two should go. Well, John said, “Well, I represent SNCC, so I’ll go, and one of you all decide which one will go.” So we played odd man, and we flipped a coin and the odd man got to march, and the odd man was Hosea Williams. And…but nobody anticipated the kind of savagery and brutality that occurred. When the…when we heard the shots, the shots of the teargas canisters, I mean, you almost can’t tell from a distance, they sound like gunshots, and it sounded like somebody had opened fire on people, and then we saw people coming back screaming. We were about two blocks away from the bridge, and we went back to try to help people back, but the police were riding along on horseback beating people, and the teargas was so thick you couldn’t get to where people were in need of help, and people, I mean really three hundred people being tear gassed unexpectedly panicked. Teargas not only burns your eyes, it upsets your stomach,  and it was a kind of a combination of teargas and the same sort of nausea gases that they were using in Vietnam, and people were just wrenching and totally panicked. And so we really had to turn the church into a hospital just to get people back to their senses. And it was a horrible two or three hours. Fortunately, I don’t think there were any bones broken and not too many permanent injuries, but there was a tremendous amount of shock. And it panicked the demonstrators, but it also panicked the nation. That happened to occur right in the afternoon, right after the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” on the Nuremberg trials, and people saw what happened in Nazi Germany side-by-side with what was happening in America in Selma, and they made the connection, and it was shortly after that that Lyndon Johnson made his famous “We shall overcome” speech. —Interview with Andrew Young













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