Protestors March in Spite of Authorities, is History Repeating Itself?
"I saw those state troopers with their billy clubs. They took one end of the billy club in one hand and began to beat heads. I saw blood flowing. I heard pandemonium break out as they lobbed gas canisters over in the crowd."
That was March 7, 1965. The civil rights movement in the United States had made a lot of progress since the 1950s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, one of the highlights of the March on Washington, painted a clear picture of the kind of America the movement hoped to birth.
Decades of segregation were ended when "Jim Crow" laws were shattered by federal legislation. And even the Civil Rights Act of 1960 was signed. And yet, the issue of the right to vote for all Americans was still being contested -- even to the point of bloodshed.
Selma, Alabama had a long history of hindering the registration of African-American voters. Out of a population of 15,000 voting age blacks, fewer than 300 were on the voting rolls.
Dr. Frederick D. Reese was president of both the Dallas County Voter's League and the Selma Teachers Association. By early 1965, he realized that the best way to fight was to encourage teachers to make the voting rights issue their own.
On January 22nd of that year, Reese led the teachers out of Clark Elementary school and down to the Dallas County Courthouse.
The Sheriff at that time was Jim Clark -- considered vicious by some and a symbol of resistance in the south.
Clark stood at the courthouse and asked the teachers to get off the steps that led to the door of the courthouse. If they refused, he said he would move them himself.
And that is what he did, using his Billy club.
The teachers left the courthouse, proceeded back to Browns Chapel Church, and received a sort of a hero's welcome.
The teachers marched, and because of their influence, other groups began to march with them.
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined the student nonviolent coordinating committee. They helped organize the citizens of Selma to pursue the right to vote.
At that time mass meetings were held in churches. All mass meetings began with prayer, Scriptures, and songs of praise to God. In all marches, the participants would sometimes stop and kneel on the sidewalk, even when on the way to the jailhouse.
"When you went on a march, you did not know what type of violence you might encounter or what would be the experience," Reese remembers. "The Lord reminded me 'greater is He that is in you then he that is in the world'."
"The same God who freed me from spiritual shackles, who brought me from the dungeon of sin, and gave me salvation -- that same God that is in me -- I looked to that same God for deliverance."
It wasn't long before the movement experienced a devastating loss when a man named Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and killed by state troopers. He was on his way to check up on his mother who was participating in a night march in the nearby town of Marion, Alabama.
He became the first martyr for the civil rights/voting rights movement.
This incident evolved into a plan for a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to highlight the issue of voting rights. The protest was scheduled for March 7, 1965. Because of a court injunction against the march, state troopers were waiting on the other side of the bridge leading out of town.
"On the apex of that bridge," Reese recalls, "the Edmund Pettus Bridge, all you could see was a sea of blue."
Blue state troopers' cars were parked parallel on Highway 80 East across that bridge. And state troopers had gas masks on and held their Billy clubs. The marchers were ordered to turn back.
The marchers decided they would not move unless they were physically moved. The order was given for the state troopers to move in on the marchers.
The troopers took the Billy clubs and began to beat heads. Reese said he saw blood flowing. Pandemonium broke out as police lobbed the gas canisters out into the crowd. The marchers had to move out in order to catch their breath.
After 30 minutes, the tear gas cleared and the marchers returned to the bridge. The state troopers had formed a gauntlet that the marchers had to walk through to return to Selma. They were allowed to pass through peacefully only to face another threat.
There were men on horseback. They had the long Billy clubs and they pursued the marchers back across the bridge back to the church.
In the sanctuary, Reese prayed, read Scripture, and tried to offer comfort. He looked into the eyes of the marchers and could see a question. They wondered whether or not they should continue to pursue the nonviolent method.
Then the phone rang in the pastor's study. It was King calling. He said, "I understand that you all had a little bit of trouble down there in Selma."
Reese responded, "'Dr. King, that's an understatement you're making.' I said we had a lot of trouble here in Selma." King said that he had sent out a call across the nation inviting people to come to lend their bodies and their assistance to the people of Selma. That night a large group came from New Jersey.
With national attention now focused on Selma, Reese and the other organizers planned an even larger event. When the injunction lifted, the march from Selma to Montgomery got under way March 21, 1965.
The march took three days to complete. When they arrived in Montgomery, the marchers were 50,000 people strong.
"It was a feeling of great triumph and victory after having gone through the suffering and all of the indignities," Reese explains. "It all seemed now worth it. For now we truly had overcome by reaching that point, that destination. From that particular march it moved the members of Congress to really pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act that guaranteed voting rights for all Americans."
"The fight was not only for African-Americans, it was really for all Americans," Reese declares.
He has been the pastor of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama since 1965. Whenever he is given the opportunity, he is eager to tell everyone where true freedom lies -- in this life and in the life to come.
"Freedom, really, in the final analysis, can only be found in Jesus. That's what freedom is. That's what peace is -- tranquility," Reese explains.
"Freedom is all in Jesus. Understanding that helps you to put your trust in Him. He knows the end, even at the beginning. Anyone who knows the end at the beginning, that's the person you ought to trust."
"And then we can join in with Him in saying 'Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, we're Free at Last'. Knowing that in Jesus, there is liberty, there is freedom."