A Movement Led by Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King, who had been in Atlanta at the time of the attack in Selma, quickly made his way to Alabama and announced plans for a second march on the bridge. Legions of supporters appeared, and were ready to join him in another attempt to cross the bridge. But there were complications.
A federal judge had just ordered the demonstrators not to march; he needed time to study the case. This put Dr. King in an exquisitely difficult position. To call off the march entirely would have alienated countless supporters, many of whom had traveled to Selma for the express purpose of joining King in a march across the bridge. But to cross the bridge in defiance of a federal—rather than a state—court order would probably be a significant tactical error, given the larger goal of maintaining the support of the federal judiciary in the struggle for civil rights.
What's the Word?
The Black Power movement of the 1960s and early 1970s celebrated African American autonomy and emphasized exclusive roles for African Americans in civil rights agitation. The movement was generally more radical in outlook, and less media-friendly, than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s inclusive campaign of passive resistance.
Today, with hindsight and with knowledge of his later death by assassination, we may be tempted to think of Dr. King as an eternally inspired, even saintly figure. It's important to acknowledge, though, that he was a leader of men during a fateful and often chaotic time, and that he was consistently forced to make difficult choices. Selma was one of those choices. Rather than defy a federal judge, King chose to mount a symbolic effort—a march halfway across the bridge.
King Alienates the Political Left
What's the Word?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in the same room where Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, explicitly prohibited state disenfranchisement of African American voters. It was a triumph for Dr. King and the entire civil rights movement, probably the most influential and effective piece of civil rights legislation in the nation's history.
The younger demonstrators on the scene were furious. They accused King of selling out, of being an Uncle Tom, of letting the white man turn him around. It was an early indication of a fault line between the “freedom now” wing of the growing movement and what would come to be known as the Black Power wing.
King's “split-the-difference” approach led to an extremely awkward moment on the bridge, and it produced outrage from many of his followers, but it was soon overshadowed by events. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, and used the assault in Selma to underline Congress's moral duty to pass sweeping voting rights legislation. (It did—and the eventual result was the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
We Shall Overcome
On March 15, 1965, in the aftermath of the violence of Selma, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in support of voting rights legislation. The high point of the speech adopted the language of the anthem of the civil rights movement: “It is not just Negroes but all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
On March 17, the federal judge authorized the march from Selma to Montgomery; George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, had declared that he could not guarantee the safety of the protesters, thus clearing the way for an overwhelming display of federal force in support of the march. Demonstrators crossed the bridge in triumph, with King leading the way.
It was a victory like no other.
More on: Martin Luther King Day
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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