50th Anniversary of Selma Marches

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The 50th anniversary of the three civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is coming up. The marches led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. Matthew Whitaker, an Arizona State University foundation professor of history and founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, will discuss the marches, along with retired Air Force Colonel and pilot Richard “Dick” Toliver, who was active in the civil rights community in Selma at the time of the marches.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to this special Martin Luther King Day edition of Arizona Horizon. I'm Ted Simons. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led three marches from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest for voting rights. The violent reaction from Alabama state troopers and sheriff's officials as the marchers tried to cross the Edmund-Pettus bridge caused a national outrage. Later that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1965 voting rights act. The events of the times are portrayed in the film, Selma, which was recently released. Here now to talk about the marches and the movie is Dr. Matthew Whitaker, an Arizona State University foundation professor of history and founding director of ASU's center for the study of race and democracy, and also joining us is retired air force colonel and pilot Richard "dick" Toliver, who was active in the community in Selma at the time of the marches. Good to have you here. Thank you very much for joining us. Matthew, let's start on this. Give us a background of the marches and why they happened and where they happened.

Matthew Whitaker: At this time, in 1965, the activists had become very frustrated. When you come off the Euphoria of the 1963 March on Washington, the you're -- euphoria, many believed that change on the impound would happen quicker than it was. They were faced with the fact that there was still tremendous barriers, particularly barriers to voting, and in Alabama, which was the cradle of the confederacy in many ways, many people argued that this was the epicenter. This is where many of the injustices happened, this is where the tide was going to be turned. So there was a very vibrant movement on the ground in Alabama. Very vibrant activists on the ground in Alabama. And after the murder of Jackson, just preceding the March 1965, people decided that they needed to do something very, very aggressive. And they reached out to folks at the national level, King and Abernathy and the SCLC, they came together with local groups involved in Alabama in all of this converged in Selma.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask, Selma was just literally the spot where it was the hottest? Was it the most active, most vocal?

Matthew Whitaker: It was in many ways. And many things came together in Selma, as well. And that, together, was sort of a powder keg that was going -- something had to give at that point.

Ted Simons: And you were in Selma at this time. Did you hear about -- there were three marches, we'll get to all three of them. The first one, did you hear about it beforehand? How electric and there was no Facebook or Twitter back then, so how did people know about this?

Richard Toliver: We did not know that the March itself would take place, but the activities, as Dr. Whitaker said, there was much activity, and one of the reasons there was so much activity is that in Dallas County where Selma was the center, there was like 30,000 people, and only a handful were registered voters. So, they actually started a voters' rights movement there, and so all throughout the community, they were trying to petition to get into the local downtown office to get the people registered to vote. And it was just impossible for them, and that was the thing that really stimulated the activity, and so the idea of a march, well, they were marching as it was, they were marching throughout the city. The young man that -- Dr. Matthew Whitaker spoke of, Jimmy Lee Jackson had been murdered by a local, state policeman, in Marion, Alabama, which was 20 miles away, and it was on a March that they were involved in there to go and get registration and so on. So, the impetus was really to get people voting, and that just mushroomed more and more, so the people were creative. How can we get our voices raised because there was violence at the voting rights' offices. There were people that had been beaten down, the local sheriff had, basically, brutally knocked a woman to the ground. It was all over the news, and people were being beaten for just attempting to vote. Register and so on, so that was the catalyst that started the movement, itself.

Ted Simons: And Dr. King's involvement here, how did he become involved and talk about the impact of his involvement on the marches, one, two, and three.

Matthew Whitaker: And that's a complicated history, in part because a lot of what was already going on, on the ground, in Selma, just like it was in communities around the country, and Dr. King, at a certain point in his organization, more importantly, were asked to come in for support, for guidance, for input, but what many people interpreted when he arrived was King arriving in an authoritarian role so Selma is when you, actually, start to see some of the beginning of the breakages between younger, more assertive and militant members of the movement, who wanted to direct action now, and Dr. King, in his group, all ministers, who were a bit more controlling and had more connections, who were having conversations with the Federal Government about whether to march or not, and when many of the younger people in the community, who live there, had already made the decisions about marching. So those things came to a head.

Richard Toliver: And let me say that Dr. King was not initially to be involved locally, it was locally done by the organization, called sncc, student non violent coordinating committee, and core, the other, so they had people on the ground months before they first attempted to go across the bridge. And it was a great cataclysmic event on the bridge when Dr. King then was sought to come to Selma because he was not going to be there. He had other priorities and other things going on. But, with the total failure and the carnage that took place, that Sunday, March 7th, 1965, in the afternoon on Sunday afternoon, that was the thing that ultimately, led him to come to Selma.

Ted Simons: Before we get to bloody Sunday, the first March, real quickly, we think of Dr. King in a certain way now. There are folks who have been born after his assassination. For those of us who remember Dr. King at the height of his importance and prominence, at this march, was Dr. King the Dr. King we think of now, or was he just a national name, or a bigger name than others? You mentioned there was a bit of, you know, not fight be but --

Richard Toliver: I think the -- yes, by now, he was well-known. It was after the March of 1963, in August. With that, that brought him to the height of his recognition. And it was following that, that he got the Nobel Peace Prize. So he's now an international figure, but he was still embracing, and he was very dedicated to the nonviolent protests for change. He was really an ambassador for that, and he held that all the way through, and so he was now a national and international figure, and the groups there on the ground were now trying to get him --

Ted Simons: Ok, so he was Dr. King back then.

Matthew Whitaker: He was Dr. King, and he brought the media, wherever he went, he brought international attention.

Ted Simons: All right. So, we have got the March. It is set to go. And they tried to cross the bridge. And my goodness, the news release show just mayhem. What happened?

Matthew Whitaker: Just the ugliest face of white supremacy and racism you can possibly imagine, and we were just saying earlier, when we were chatting, lots of young people right now can't even fathom the brutality. One of the things that I appreciated that they showed in the film was that the bats with the barbed wire around them, the horses kicking people, the batons with women and many folks, were essentially kids. It was very, very brutal, and only by exposing that type of brutality to the rest of the world could the activists get most people who were in their living rooms in Iowa, or in Seattle, couldn't begin to appreciate what they were dealing with every day.

Richard Toliver: But first, they were -- they had to disobey a local ordinance passed in Selma, in Dallas County, and the city hastily passed a law that says, no more than two blacks could be on the streets of Selma at any one time. That meant if you had a family of four, you couldn't go downtown. You couldn't be seen on the street. You could not walk the streets. And that was known, and people got arrested for being on the street. Supposedly they said if you were more than two, you were inciting a riot, and therefore we are going to arrest you. And that went all the way out to the Air Force base. We had some issues out there. Two airmen coming from the base could not be more than two could not approach the town. Not only that, you couldn't go to the town unless you were in uniform, and that's a whole story behind that. So, there was an ordinance that says if you get stopped on the streets of Selma, and there are three of you black people, you are going to go to jail for inciting a riot. And then, of course, that was backed up by Governor Wallace, who says that it was against the law to have protests in the streets of his city, so they were, in fact, protesting that, in a nonviolent way, and they attempted then to make that plunge onto the bridge, and they were very peacefully coming across the bridge, but the state troopers and the sheriff at the time had barricaded the pathway and had authorized his people on his signal to wave up into the crowd and brutally beat them back. The news had also gone out into the community that any white folk who agreed with Clark could come to wherever, when the signal was given, come to where we are, and then you can wait up and you can be part of the melee.

Ted Simons: You mentioned reaction from people in Iowa, from people around the country. Everywhere. What was the reaction and how did that impact the second march, which I believe was two days later, correct?

Matthew Whitaker: For the most part, people were shocked. And mortified. Many were inspired. You had people like Viola Liuzzo, who was a white Italian American activist who felt so moved about what she saw, that she got in her car and went down to Alabama just to help organize and participate. So, it also motivated people to come down there and assist and to help because it was -- this is at the same time that the United States is trying very hard to present itself as a beacon of light with regard to issues of democracy and freedom, that you are seeing these images of the antithesis of that, so many were motivated to help.

Ted Simons: So the second March, not as violent, but there was still violence associated with it?

Richard Toliver: Well, the second March, the one that was successfully started and continued on to Montgomery, and two weeks later, when Dr. King got down there, and others, as Dr. Matthew Whitaker was saying, came down from the north, and by then, of course, the minister from Boston had been killed on the streets, had been bludgeoned to death, so we had two deaths already by the time the marches came about. Jimmy Lee Jackson and minister Reed, and so Miss Liuzzo and others came, thousands came, about 3,000, actually, descended upon Selma.

Matthew Whitaker: She was killed, too.

Richard Toliver: She was killed on the day the March was successfully completed. We had white people. We had Hispanics, we had Jews, Gentiles, Catholics. We had people from all kinds of faiths, that centered upon Selma because the call was made, come to Selma to join us in this trek to Montgomery. So when they started then, and by now there was a great interaction going on between Dr. King and the people in Selma and President Johnson. There was a tug-of-war because the President had asked for the naturalization of the naturalized, federalized, rather, of the state troopers. And the state -- the air National Guard, or the army guard, and so the President finally federalized the same people who had been on the opposite side of the issue, so now, they had Federal troops in protection of them when they started the second march across the bridge on the way to Montgomery.

Ted Simons: Was that now the second -- the third March -- there were a ton of Federal troops, at least enough to get more protection. Were the Federal troops and the Federal state troopers and such, were they there in the second march, as well? My impression was the third one was when that kicked in.

Matthew Whitaker: For the most part, yes. Certainly not the numbers that you find in the second march. The third march, you had more. You had more of those troopers there. But, I think one of the interesting things that I would like to emphasize, too, with regard to people that were coming down to help, answering the call, coming to Selma, many of them literally dropped what they were doing to go. They did not have places to stay. Many of them didn't -- they had enough transportation, we're talking about young people, and there were ministers like our local Dr. Paul Epiger who heads up the interfaith movement who marched with King. They had Congregations that they were leaving. It was so important to them, that they dropped it and went, and the wonderful story is all of the people who embraced them when they got there. Because this is their home, you know. So, they opened their doors to these strangers that they had never met who answered the call to come down to help.

Ted Simons: Talk to us about that dynamic, that interaction. What was it like down there? People from out of town or, people from out of town, you need to get used to them a little bit but how did that play down there?

Richard Toliver: The local people, very generous people, and they were willing to accept any help that they could get. They were so hungry for change and for the rights, the civil rights and so forth, so anybody who came showed up, and they were welcomed with open arms. It was like you are family. You showed up. And not only do you embrace the family, and God will love you, and so on, now, that was -- those coming into the black community, the white community, on the other hand, was violently opposed to it, and they were very vicious in their behavior and activities and so on, so you got a real violent kick back from the local white people that lived in the area.

Ted Simons: What was going on at the military base?

Richard Toliver: I am glad you asked that question because I happen to have been the only African-American officer on the base out of some 300 students who were trying to get the pilot wings. We had such violent activities coming onto the base from the local community, plus, we had young men who were from the deep south, on the base, who were -- who I encountered that made my life as a student very difficult, and certainly, with some of the instructors, as well. But, there was an incident that took place, and there was a student from Ecuador, from a high ranking official in Ecuador in our class. But he attempted to date one of the girls downtown, and he went missing for a few days. When they found him, he had been in jail and badly beaten up because he was looked upon as a Hispanic but actually, Ecuadoran. When the news come to Washington through the council that the council that we had a foreign student that had been so mishandled, then the Air Force sent a general officer down to investigate the matter. Well, I had already petitioned some of the issues that I was dealing with, and I was not given an opportunity to live on the base when I arrived. They said you can't live on the base it's for staff only, and so I had to find a place, basically rent a room or two to bring my wife and my children down. One night the clan burned the cross on the lawn where we were staying. So now we were faced with get out of Selma or get off the base, and that attitude was pervasive on the base. But when the general came to us we were all called together, all of the blacks on the base, and said here's the deal, I've worked out a situation to where you can go off base, but you've got to be in uniform, pay attention to the curfew, and you cannot go and attempt to do anything, participate in any activities and so on and so forth, and if you do, then the bet is off and you are on your own.

Ted Simons: My goodness.

Matthew Whitaker: Well, when I stood up assess the only officer, and demanded a transfer, that day I was given an opportunity, well, we are not going to transfer you. We will move you on-base. I discovered that there was several students in my class that were living on the base for six months. And I had been denied an opportunity to live on the base. But, I had participated in holding the party for the children in Selma for Christmas, the little black kids, and I became involved in that activity, and that puts the spotlight on one lieutenant, and that's what caused some of the consternation that I faced.

Ted Simons: We have got the three marches now, the third one successful. We should mention Selma to Montgomery is no Sunday stroll, a 54-mile walk, and you have 25,000 winding up at the capitol building, and LBJ winds up signing the voting rights' act, and talk about LBJ, because I know the film, there is controversy regarding -- there is always -- there is controversy regarding his will. It sounds as though he had the war on poverty. He was very big on the war on poverty, and he was afraid all of this was going to either supersede or be slowed. Talk about that.

Matthew Whitaker: He had a strained relationship with King. For a while, he looked at King as someone who he sort of oddly admired because of his spunk, his tenacity. LBJ, as one author wrote, was the big daddy. He had this big personality. But as things became intense, he started referring to King as that blankety blank Negro preacher. I can't appreciate the first part on the air.

Ted Simons: I appreciate that.

Matthew Whitaker: He felt as though that activity was threatening to derail his great society programs. And the tragedy of that, and what King was trying to get to, was that they are not antithetical. Those two efforts are inextricably linked. The great society, the war on poverty. And fighting for civil rights. And so it became a very tense thing. LBJ, the controversy around LBJ, many are arguing that, he played a bigger role in the passage of the voting rights' act than the film is depicting, which many people take issue with because Selma, out of all of the protests, was by and large, and for the most part, framed, organized and executed by African-Americans. If you are talking about other efforts, that was more diverse, and so people take issue with it because of the historical films. Mississippi Burning and others. The white leaders end up being the primary protagonist. It was driven by African-Americans, so, I think that that's at the root of some of the consternation.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, you have seen the film. What do you think of the film?

Richard Toliver: I think the film is very accurate of the events that took place down there, I have seen many films, you know, we talked about Malcolm X, and we have seen other war films, and I have seen those, and I have seen that, and I think that this film is more accurately -- more accurately portrays the things that really took place there. I think that the storylines are accurate. I think the scenes that were played out, particularly on the bridge scene, I thought that that was exceedingly accurate because it showed what really took place, you know, the men on the horses, the beating of the people, John Lewis, the iconic picture of the young man trampled and beaten to the ground. The only part that they did not show is that they continued those horses into some of the homes. They chased the them back to the church and rode the churches into the -- rode the horses into the churches and all of that. The movie, itself, it got so real at one point that I really had to excuse myself because it was -- I live now 50 years, and 50 years have made a difference in looking backwards in terms of the harshness of the time. Life does that, and that's a good thing. And so over the years, I have survived Selma, but I have lived a whole life, and so when I see these things, I am looking at them now through the life that I have been blessed to live, but I didn't expect to be so emotionally disturbed until I saw that scene on the bridge, and that was when I knew that there is still a pain of recollection. I have never forgotten that scene, and in fact, I know today the scene that I saw on that day in Selma was absolutely the most horrific scene I have ever seen in my life. I have seen a few. I've been in wars, you know, from my other times and all of that, but I have never seen, held in my mind the scene I saw that Sunday afternoon.

Ted Simons: Those kinds of passions and emotions from someone who was there says a lot about this film. What else do -- we have a couple minutes left. Your thoughts on the film, historical accuracy, the impact, what it says? What we learn?

Matthew Whitaker: I think it reaffirms the power of history to be able to contextualize through -- through images, right. Through acting, through depictions. What, actually, happened. It can be done. If it's done well, you take your time to do it, and it can help to re-educate different generations of people. We have got to keep telling the stories, less we forget.

Ted Simons: Do you find kids these days don't quite get it?

Matthew Whitaker: I think they want to. And I think it behooves us, as leaders, to provide it to them. I was telling Mr. Toliver about this. I think sometimes we are embellishing because in many ways, it's a different world. And we need folks to say, yes, this is what human beings are capable of. If we don't educate and embrace each other, so I think it's powerful.

Richard Toliver: And the positive part of this day and being able to depict that is the young people today are very attuned to all the graphics, and they believe that is a reality. So in that sense that's a positive side. When the stories are really told accurately, the amazing thing is people recognize the truth of it, and then they sense that they are part of it.

Ted Simons: Gentlemen, it was a pleasure and an honor to have you here. Thank you both so much for joining us on this special Martin Luther King Day edition of Arizona Horizon. Thank you very much.

Matthew Whitaker: Thank you very much.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

Dr. Matthew Whitaker:ASU Foundation Professor of History and Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University; Richard "Dick" Toliver:Retired Colonel and Pilot, United States Air Force;

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