On Sunday, March 7, 1965, in Selma, some 600 marchers lining up behind SNCC’s John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams did not seem to expect much violence despite the city’s notoriety for violence against the Civil Rights Movement. The group planned to march to the state capitol in Montgomery, 54 miles away, to protest of the February 26 murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson by police in nearby Marion, Alabama during a protest, and the denial of voting rights.
Earlier, SNCC had decided not to participate because it felt that such marches gained little and spilled too much blood. But it had also decided that those in SNCC who wished to participate could do so on a personal basis. Thus the presence of John Lewis, Bob Mants, and others from SNCC.
On the bridge that day, state troopers in gas masks and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark’s mounted posse were also gathered. State police confronted the marchers as they started across the bridge and ordered the marchers to halt. Instead they knelt. The troopers then fired tear gas as the posse charged into the ranks of the marchers swinging billy clubs and letting loose with rebel yells. Beaten marchers like Lewis crumpled; many fled as best they could. All of it was televised across the nation and became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
At Tuskegee Institute on the eastern side of Alabama’s Black Belt, student activist Gwen Patton and members of the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL) watched Bloody Sunday unfold on the dorm television. Their organization had been holding demonstrations and canvassing in Tuskegee, and SNCC had been supporting their efforts. “We’ve got to really gear up, get our stuff organized, organize the community, get cars,” Patton remembered the students responding, “We’re going to Montgomery!”
Meanwhile, a federal judge issued an injunction, preventing further marches until a court hearing could happen. Dr. Martin Luther King and SCLC were apprehensive about violating a court order and feared risking federal support for national voting rights if they did. So instead, they led flanks of marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge the following Tuesday, knelt in prayer, and turned around. The Tuskegee students were “mad as hell” at King’s decision on “Turnaround Tuesday” and made plans to march on the capitol the next day. Jim Forman who had been in the march agreed, and SNCC shifted its focus from Selma to demonstrations in Montgomery.
The next day, seven hundred Tuskegee students, carrying brown bag lunches packed by the cafeteria workers, caravanned to Montgomery to deliver their freedom petition to Alabama’s governor George Wallace. SNCC workers in overalls took over organizing the crowd that gathered six blocks from the capitol. “They’re directing people, they’re forming the perimeter … they’re trying to train [us] in nonviolent direct action even as we’re moving,” then Tuskegee professor, Jean Wiley, recalled. On Dexter Avenue, state troopers blocked the march, swinging billy clubs, which prompted the students to sit down in the street and begin singing freedom songs. George Wallace refused to meet with them, and when TIAL’s George Ware attempted to read the petition, he was arrested.
As the day wore on, state troopers refused to let the occupying protesters back in the ranks if they needed to use the bathroom. Jim Forman’s urging to “just do it here” earned the protest the name “the great pee-in.” Past midnight, heavy, cold rain forced the students to seek shelter in nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. SCLC’s Jim Bevel showed up the next morning to dissuade them from continuing protests because they were drawing attention away from the Selma campaign. As Jim Forman and others in SNCC angrily left the church to resume their demonstration, state troopers arrested them and beat other protestors back inside.
The following Monday, SNCC staffers resumed demonstrations with four hundred Alabama State University students. Law enforcement officials surrounded and beat the demonstrators. They also, unprovoked, beat local Black residents in the Black business district. At the march the next afternoon, television cameras recorded the sheriff’s mounted posse attacking the protesters with whips and lariats. “My ability to continue engaging in nonviolent direct action snapped that day,” Jim Forman explained, “and my anger at the executive branch of the federal government intensified.”
Forman’s anger came out later that night at an SCLC-sponsored rally at a Montgomery church. From the pulpit, he declared that President Lyndon Johnson was the only man with the power to stop George Wallace and the posse. “I said it today, and I will say it again,” he exclaimed, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the f*cking legs off!” He knew instantly that he had gone too far and apologized.
At this point, after more than four years of struggle across the South, Forman and many SNCC staffers no longer put their hope in the federal government. When the Selma to Montgomery march finally took place, “some SNCC people served as marshals,” Forman explained, “but we had generally washed our hands of the affair.”
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Washington, D.C.: Open Hand Pub., 1985), 441-442.
Frye Gaillard, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 254-255.
John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 334-341.
Jean Wiley, “Letter to My Adolescent Son,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 514-523.
Interview with Gwendolyn Patton by Joseph Mosnier, June 1, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.
Bruce Hartford, “1965: Selma & the March to Montgomery,” Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.