Legal Ethics

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Selma, Voting Rights Act, Memories

By William Wernz posted 03-03-2015 04:22 PM


From time to time, this blog departs from legal ethics and discusses broader subjects. This month I am writing about my experiences in the civil rights movement, including the march from Selma to Montgomery. It’s been fifty years!

But First, Two Announcements. Before addressing Selma, I wish to announce two publication events for Minnesota Legal Ethics.  First, a revised fourth edition of the treatise will be posted this week. The only revision is including the chapter on Rule 4.4, which was inadvertently omitted from the fourth edition.  Second, a new fifth edition will be posted approximately June 1.  The fifth edition will include updates from developments in 2014 and early 2015

1964, the Desire Street Housing Project, New Orleans. In the summer of 1964 I tutored in a black housing project in New Orleans. On March 24-25, 1965, I marched on the last legs of the Selma to Montgomery march. In the summer of 1966 I worked in Sumter County, South Carolina, in a voter registration project. I have become old enough to have my youthful experiences qualify as history.

How did I come to be involved in these endeavors? Several friends were involved in social service projects, from the Peace Corps to civil rights to The Catholic Worker. We encouraged one another. More specifically, my St. Thomas College friend and classmate, Joe Gaspar, told me about a project sponsored by Xavier University. An inter-racial group of students would do remedial education with kids in the Desire Street Housing Project. Joe was proud to be African-American, French-American, and New Orleanian.

In June 1964, just before my 20th birthday, I took a Greyhound bus from Winona, Minnesota, my home town, to New Orleans. About 24 hours later, as we entered Mississippi, it dawned on me that I was the only white person in the back of the bus. We stopped for breakfast at a small café, with clear and unforgettable signs — “WHITE ONLY” on the right, for food and lavatories, “NEGRO” on the left. I wondered what to do. It might have been an important decision. Two weeks later, three young men– James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—were murdered in Mississippi for challenging racial discrimination. I compromised—following the signs on the right, but returning to the back of the bus.

As we drove through the South, the isolation and poverty of the region were striking. Some farmers still used mules for plowing and moving produce to market. Telephones were rare in the countryside. Streets were often unpaved, even in some areas of cities. Farmhouses were often unpainted. If local blacks were to challenge racial discrimination, how would they enlist the support of the rest of the country?

In New Orleans, twenty students, black and white, lived and tutored in Desire Street. The families in the project welcomed us. Walking down the street, I would hear “Mr. Bill!” Evenings, we would play basketball with the kids on dirt courts. But when we went outside the black neighborhood, in mixed race groups, we were harassed sometimes. The New Orleans Times Picayune reported negatively on “race-mixers.” New Orleans, however, was not Mississippi. We felt little danger, so long as we didn’t provoke confrontations.

I learned more than I taught. There were no minorities in living in Winona, except a few students at the colleges, and there was no French Quarter. There is nothing like living and working together to teach what should be one of life’s basic lessons—our common humanity. When we talked about race, I learned from people who lived with race issues daily, not just for a summer or two.

After I returned to Minnesota, I paid close attention to the ongoing struggle for civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, outlawing discrimination in restaurants, hotels, etc. In early 1965, I began to read of marches in Selma, Alabama seeking voting rights.

The Selma Marches I. The Selma marches were the immediate cause of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In turn, the Voting Rights Act was the greatest single cause of African-Americans becoming empowered in the American South. How did these great events come about? The answer involves a powerful combination of forces.

The Selma movement involved a clear evil, a sharp focus on overcoming it, and a plan to seize and alter public opinion through dramatic confrontations. The evil was that, a century after the Civil War, Deep South states continued to deprive black people of voting rights. One example: In 1964, only 1% of the 15,000 blacks eligible to vote in Dallas County, Alabama were registered to vote.

For several years, the U.S. Department of Justice brought lawsuits to require voting rights, but local judges and voting registrars thwarted these efforts. Concurrently, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee worked with local black groups to promote voter registration. Again, local authorities were intransigent. However, blacks in the Selma area were becoming organized and unified, and  recognized a broader group and more dramatic tactics were needed.

Black Selmians invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Selma. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, arrived in Selma the next month and, within a few weeks, was in jail. When Dr. King, SCLC, and black Selmians began almost daily marches in Selma, all eyes were on a single prize—federally required and enforced voting rights.

Dr. King, the SCLC and other black leaders, especially John Lewis, provided inspiration, strategy, and leadership. When Dr. King was first arrested, he published in the New York Times an open letter, stating, “THERE ARE MORE NEGROES IN JAIL WITH ME THAN THERE ARE ON THE VOTING ROLLS.” Dr. King also provided star power—when he was arrested, or marched, or gave a speech, it was more likely to be reported, and featured, by the national media than similar activities by other civil rights leaders.

Black people and groups in Selma were a cornerstone of the movement. Thousands went to jail for marching for voter rights. All the black churches supported marches. Brown Chapel AME was the center for numerous mass rallies. On January 22, 1965, one-hundred-five black teachers marched together and were jailed. Students followed. These people risked not only their livelihoods but their lives.

The movement strategy shifted from converting local whites through non-violent suffering, to dramatic non-violent confrontations in which racist authorities would, predictably, display their violent opposition. Selma was chosen in part because a national audience could watch the local sheriff, Jim Clark, repel, beat, and arrest innocent would-be voters. The movement leaders had a remarkable sense of political theater.

Not by design, yet not by surprise, dramatic confrontations led to murders and martyrs. A state trooper shot to death a local black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson. Local thugs clubbed Rev. James Reeb, a Boston minister (and St. Olaf grad), to death. Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed a Detroit housewife and mother of five, Viola Liuzzo, who was transporting civil rights workers in her car.

As these killings occurred over a period of five weeks, the national outcry grew to stop the violence, and to protect voters and civil rights advocates. (The only homicide conviction for these murders was of an Alabama state trooper, who killed Jackson. In 2010, he pled guilty to manslaughter and received a six-month sentence. Two of Liuzzo’s killers received prison terms for unrelated civil rights violations.)

For the civil rights drama to be effective, media, audiences, and a central dramatic event were required. Marchers went to the courthouse many times in the first two months of 1965. Something new and dramatic was needed. On February 28, James Bevel, an MLK aide, proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 3, Dr. King approved and announced the march, to begin March 7. Alabama authorities seriously considered allowing the march, and blocking the highway to all vehicles, so that the march would fail for lack of logistical support. However, hotter heads prevailed.

On March 7, 1965, ABC interrupted its showing of the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” (about Nazi war crimes), to show 48 million viewers 15 minutes of footage of state troopers and a county posse attacking 600 unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, a police riot that became known as “Bloody Sunday." A national audience of citizens and politicians were riveted on Selma.

The federal government played essential roles in the Selma drama. Federal district court Judge Frank Johnson temporarily prohibited the Selma to Montgomery march. A week later, after an evidentiary hearing, Judge Johnson overturned Alabama state prohibitions on the march. Before this reversal, Judge Johnson demanded and received (on an ex parte basis, through Attorney General Katzenbach) LBJ’s assurance of federal protection for the marchers.

MLK repeatedly pressured LBJ to act. LBJ could justly claim great credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LBJ initially wished for some breathing space while that Act came to be enforced, before proposing a federal voting rights law. However, LBJ generally responded to the increasing pressure from MLK and the Selma movement by making voting rights legislation a priority.

On March 15, 1965, LBJ addressed Congress, announcing the Voting Rights Act. Seventy millions Americans watched on TV. The passion of Johnson’s speech—ending with “We Shall Overcome!”—left no doubt that he fully shared the Selma marchers’ commitment to voting rights. Lyndon Baines Johnson was essential to the Voting Rights Act.

LBJ provided troops under federal authority to guard marchers from Selma to Montgomery. Without this protection, there would have been more murders and possibly disruption or even termination of the march. The morning the march started, federal personnel dismantled three time bombs, one with 58 sticks of dynamite. A Boston College student, who wandered into an alley in Selma, had his face slashed with a razor.

However, the federal government’s role in Selma was mixed. Before the Voting Rights Act, some federal judges were segregationists and would not enforce voting rights. Others were slow and cautious. The Justice Department’s strategy to concentrate on courtroom enforcement was not successful.

The FBI attempted to destroy Dr. King's reputation and its role in the Selma events was shameful.

The Selma Marches II. How did I decide to go to Selma? On March 8, 1965, the day after Bloody Sunday, Dr. King called for the support of Northern clergy. Over 450 quickly came to Selma. One of them, Rev. James Reeb, was murdered within hours of his arrival. Political and public opinion pressure mounted, to do something about the violent repression of would-be voters. Dr. King called for more supporters to come to Selma, to march the 54 miles to the Alabama state capital, Montgomery, March 21 through 25.

Father Don Conroy, a priest at the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota, asked for volunteers to join him in going to Selma. We got two carloads together, including my friend from Winona, Bob Gilliam. We arrived in Selma on March 23 and went to a rally at Brown Chapel, and slept that night on the living room floor of a black family’s house.

On March 24, we marched about 16 miles on the Jefferson Davis Highway toward Montgomery. Approximately 4,000 troops, under federal command, protected the marchers. The number of marchers swelled to several thousand. We stopped for the night at St. Jude, a Catholic school property on Montgomery’s outskirts.

The muddy, cold school fields were crowded with marchers. Something like chaos reigned. However, food arrived, sleeping space on the ground was available, and a few tents were put up. Harry Belafonte organized a spectacular rally and songfest, with more singers to follow in Montgomery –Odetta, Johnny Mathis, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tony Bennett, to name a few. Nina Simone stole the show, singing “Mississippi Goddam!” The music didn't end until 2 AM. We caught a little sleep in a light rain, with sound of gunshots in the distance.

March 25 was a day of triumph—the march into Montgomery. The sidewalks were packed, with cheering African-Americans and often with jeering whites. Ariadne, a black girl perhaps 11 years old, asked to walk with us. My friend Bob held one of Ariadne’s hands and I held the other. Sometimes we lifted her, so she could see the whole marching group. The crowd swelled to 25,000.

On the lawn just below the capitol building, Dr. King spoke to us and to a live national TV audience. Dr. King recalled Alabama civil rights history, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the murder of four little girls in a church, in Birmingham. He summoned hymns, from memory and heart—“Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He gave new meaning to old words—“Be jubilant my feet / Our God is marching on / Glory, glory Hallelujah” To Dr. King’s calls came answers, in growing crescendos, “Yes Sir!” and “Tell ‘em now!” and “How long? Not long!” Voting rights now seemed assured, along with, we were confident, the conversion of many Americans to becoming civil rights supporters.

Spirits soaring, the crowd dispersed. We found Ariadne’s people, and we retrieved our cars. Around this time, Viola Liuzzo, was shot to death by Klan members. We heard the news as we headed north, well aware of our Minnesota plates.

“Selma” the Movie. Let me share a few thoughts about “Selma.” I found it immensely moving. The movie conveys an amazing amount of information, and includes many characters, without being didactic or school-like. David Oyelowo is excellent as MLK and should not be faulted for not embodying Dr. King’s full dramatic presence. By feature film standards, the movie has a very high degree of historical accuracy. I have only two questions about the movie.

What happened to the civil rights hymns? The civil rights movement was largely led by ministers, and organized in churches. The Birmingham church bombing that begins the movie happened because the Klu Klux Klan recognized that the churches were essential to the movement. The mass meetings in churches and the marches that followed featured almost non-stop singing. The civil rights anthems were stirring and unifying. Young secular members of the movement sang as fervently as anyone. “Glory” won an Oscar, but I wouldn’t have thought a civil rights movie could be made without “We Shall Overcome,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and other anthems.

What happened to LBJ? I spent a good deal of my youth protesting LBJ’s actions in Viet Nam, so coming to his defense is not instinctive. But LBJ was a civil rights hero. True, Dr. King repeatedly pushed LBJ to act sooner and more decisively, and LBJ pushed back. But LBJ did follow the rising tide of pressure to passionately champion a very strong Voting Rights Act. The movie’s strong suggestion that LBJ connived with J. Edgar Hoover, to attempt to destroy Dr. King, by sending tapes of MLK’s sexual activities to his wife, is, to the best of my knowledge, unwarranted and scurrilous.

South Carolina Voting Rights Project, 1966. In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law. The Act provided for federal personnel and agencies to become involved, and even take over, if local officials continued to discriminate against blacks or other minorities. Although the Act was a strong law, a great deal of local activism was required for the Act to become effective.

In the summer of 1966, I worked with an inter-racial group of college students in a voter registration project in Sumter County, South Carolina. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, was the main project sponsor. Our goal was to encourage and assist blacks in registering to vote. We walked down long country roads, met people at Saturday markets, spoke at Sunday services, canvassed black neighborhoods, provided rides to the registration office—whatever we could do to find and assist black voters.

I spoke at little black churches deep in the country on the reasons for voting. The minister would follow, with far more emotion and eloquence, followed by call and response from the congregation. Black farmers might say “Yassuh!” to whatever I said, but black students had moved forward on their own and were glad to have us join them.

Jeanne Nienaber Clarke, one of the other Sumter volunteers, has created a website, with pictures (see if you recognize me!), and descriptions of our project. Jeanne’s website describes some of the dangers we faced. One night a group of us escaped from a white mob, in a high speed auto chase. I was driving. The mob threw a piece of concrete through our rear window. We escaped to a police station, well aware that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been in police custody just before they were murdered.

The effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, and of efforts such as our Sumter project, can be demonstrated through one man, Ernest A. Finney, Jr.  

Finney was an African American civil rights lawyer in Sumter for years before our project in 1966. He helped sponsor our project and actively assisted us. As more blacks registered to vote, Finney was elected to four high offices in South Carolina: the House of Representatives (1972); Circuit Court judge (1976); Supreme Court (1985); and Supreme Court Chief Justice (1994).

Finney was recently a subject of a wonderful article in the Star Tribune and the New York Times. In 1961, Finney had represented nine black college students who were arrested and convicted for trying to integrate a lunch counter. In 2015, at age 83, he again represented them, in having their convictions vacated.

The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the status of black Southerners. The percentages of voting age blacks who were registered to vote in Alabama were 13% in 1962, 23% in 1964, and 51% in 1966. In these same years, in Mississippi, the percentages were 5%, 6% and 59%. Think of it—from 6% to 59% registration in two short years! White Southerners used to say, “Go slow, change will come in time.” But change came very quickly.

Because large percentages of the populations of Southern states were black, the greatly increased black electorate created black power. Black officials were elected to office. White officials had to appeal to the black electorate in close races. As we know all too well, much remains to be done, in the North as well as South, but the changes of the '60s were enormous.

Opponents of the civil rights laws used to say, “You can’t legislate morality.” But you can legislate power changes. When people are empowered, many others, though not all, begin to show respect. Showing respect is a basic part of morality.

Looking back fifty years, on the civil rights struggles of the '60s, it’s amazing to recall the open, militant, state-sponsored, violent racism that dominated the South. “Terrorism” is not an overstatement. Also amazing is the courage of black Southerners in rising up and producing basic change. They needed the support of the North and of the federal government, but they inspired that support through powerful moral witness.

I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to play a bit role on the stage of civil rights history. As those of us who lived in that era pass from history, I believe it is good to recall, to reflect, and to wonder.