Memories of Selma: Tragedy and Triumph

by Todd Jagerson and Jennifer Dunning

This month marks the 50th anniversary of two civil rights marches that changed America. On March 7, 1965, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, some 600 men and women set out to walk from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, to push for voting rights then denied to black Southerners. National activists and even braver locals, they were brutally pushed back as local and state police met them at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

A wearying 10 years had passed since the start of the modern-day movement, but this time it would be different. Protests were increasingly newsworthy. Shocking images of the attack galvanized mainstream America and, two weeks later, 4,000 people headed to Selma to complete the march. By its end five days later, on March 25, the crowd had grown to 25,000, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King and other activists, religious leaders, and celebrities. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Todd Jagerson and I, longtime Roosevelt Island residents, participated in the protests, which were not only historical, but central in our own white lives. Jagerson was stationed at the Air Force training base in Selma when he found himself catapulted into Bloody Sunday with his wife Sherry and friend Brett. As news of a second march spread, I, then a young New York secretary, hopped a Greyhound bus to Montgomery for the last days of the second march, which traveled the full 54 miles.

Jagerson, raised in California, had arrived in Selma in 1964. “I had just graduated from the Air Force Academy, and the gathering storm was about to burst over the precise spot where I had been sent to learn how to fly,” he writes in his autobiography, Last Leather Helmets. “The place was Selma, Alabama, a dusty little backwater town in central Alabama, whose name would, within six months, become infamous throughout the nation, and much of the world.”

There was no housing available on the base, so Jagerson and Sherry rented a small house in town. “Selma was not Southern California, and the differences were disturbing to us both. Most obviously, the black poverty and the horrid ‘separate but equal’ black schools. And most distressing, the eyes-averted, cringing fear of any black when speaking to any white person.”

He and Brett were puttering with an old car when “Sherry pulled up on our Vespa motor scooter to announce there was some kind of demonstration going on at the black church downtown – Brown’s Chapel – and we should take a look. So the three of us squeezed onto the scooter, and when we arrived downtown we found total confusion: 600 mostly black kids were singing and marching in a raggedy line down the street. And an even larger crowd of whites, young and old, were shouting racial insults and threats from the sidewalks.

“In our confusion, we followed along on the scooter behind the line of marching black kids, and we kept following when they turned to go over the wide bridge across the Alabama River. There were whites up on the bridge watching, and as we reached the top, a nicely-dressed, middle-aged white woman leaned over and said to me in a pleasant voice, ‘You don’t want to follow them niggers, son, they ’bout to get whooped with an ugly stick.’ But the scene below had already stopped us.

“The black kids were still marching down the far side of the bridge. Up ahead, across the road, 500 yards in front of them, was a solid human barricade across the highway. It was a frightening sight, dozens of police cars side-by-side in an arch across the highway, surrounded by dozens of uniformed state troopers and other rough-looking men – who were the scariest.

“When an emergency occurs in this part of the country, the local sheriff is empowered to deputize civilians to help. On this day, the deputies were easy to spot, usually in beer-stained T-shirts over protruding bellies, but mostly by the hardhats and axe handles they had been issued by the police. Some had also brought their own equipment, including snarling dogs and bullwhips they kept cracking while shouting hog calls – Sooie! – and waving rebel flags. All of them – troopers, deputies, and other white spectators – were shouting with fists and fingers raised at the approaching line of scrawny, now terrified black marchers. They were so loud that we almost didn’t hear the state trooper at the top of the bridge order us to turn around:

“‘Get ya Yankee asses offa this here f*ckin’ bridge!’ he shouted.

“We turned back, but we were already too caught up to walk away. So we rushed upriver a half-mile, where we left the scooter and scrambled across an old railway bridge. Then we began running across an empty cotton field to where the black kids were just about to reach the troopers. As we approached, the kids had stopped at the wall of police cars and knelt down, and began prayng and singing religious songs. They were now almost entirely surrounded by white people – troopers, deputies, and fellow citizens – who continued to shout and spit at them.

“We kept running across the cotton field until we were within 50 yards of the singing, praying marchers. Then bam! bam! bam! A series of loud explosions sounded amid the kneeling black kids, and a thick cloud of tear gas welled up to obscure the carnage as troopers, deputies, and attack dogs waded into the kneeling kids. With the tear gas explosions, we stopped, frozen. Then, out of the thick cloud came a hoard of screaming, blood-covered black kids, desperate to escape, and running straight at us three pink-cheeked pieces of white bread. We were already backing away, and when the hoard emerged from the cloud – a vision seen in many nightmares since – we turned and ran like hell.

“I have two vivid memories of what happened next.

“When we turned and ran like hell, we thought we were fleeing the screaming black hoard – until we heard and then saw the fastest of the kids starting to pass us. It was in that moment that I turned to the black kid coming on my left and exchanged a poignant, long-remembered look. We were both terrified, but in that moment, there was something else as well, something ironic, as if he were asking me, ‘So how do you like it, whitey?’

“The other memory of that day comes from only a few minutes later. We had made it back across the cotton field and the railroad bridge, but in our panic to get away we couldn’t get the damned Vespa started. Just then a car, also desperate to escape, came up behind us. We were blocking the only escape route, and while Brett and I fumbled frantically to get the scooter started, Sherry, in a fit of nerves and terror, began laughing hysterically.

“The car was driven by a black man and was packed full of his family, the back seat filled with a half-dozen kids, all screaming and crying. I will never forget that man’s face. He was middle-aged and panicked. When he saw Sherry laughing – and misinterpreted it as contempt – his fear became anger and he went berserk, pounding and stomping, his eyes wet with tears of rage. Then, just as he jumped out of his car and started running toward us, the scooter started and we made our escape.

“When it was safe, we stopped. The three of us sat there on the scooter in silence, stunned, wordless. In all of our time in Selma, none of us had ever seen a black person get angry, talk back, or even give a white person a dirty look – regardless of the level of insult or provocation. Despite the non-violence preached by Dr. King, this man, in his fear, humiliation, and anger, had crossed a line. I didn’t blame him – for a moment, I was him – but as a portent of things to come, it was chilling. In the difficult period ahead, that angry man’s tears of rage stayed with me for decades.

“What was different about this ‘small protest march’ that got ruthlessly squashed?” Jagerson writes. “What made little Selma so special, such a turning point?

“If God exists, he certainly works in mysterious ways. And this one was a pip. On that day, God snuck a Life Magazine photographer named Charles Moore into the crowd. Moore captured the whole ugly mess on film, which appeared in a six-page Life cover story on March 19, 1965.

“The cat was out of the bag. After centuries of brutality and thousands of lynchings in the South, most Americans were finally disgusted and angry enough to do something about it.

“In just two weeks, another Selma march took place, lasting five days, with 25,000 black and white marchers from throughout the country. It was led by King (and every liberal politician and entertainer who could get there), protected by thousands of National Guardsmen, and covered by every news media outlet on the planet, especially those new-fangled TV people – who had just discovered how to transmit local events nationwide (good timing, God).

“Sherry and I were there watching that second march along with the locals – who were still screaming, cursing, and spitting at the marchers. We weren’t allowed to march ourselves, but I was required to remain in military uniform at all times to help establish ‘a Federal presence’ – and to serve as targets for still-outraged locals shouting insults and throwing garbage at us.”

The Jagersons saw Rev. King go by on that second march. I did not. It didn’t matter.... change was possible. I had grown up, in part, in segregated Washington, D.C., haunted by half-understood events and the stories my mother told, bemusedly. Years later, I had returned for the 1963 March on Washington. It was not possible not to be in Selma.

The formidably well-organized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had a small desk in the dark lobby of an office building on lower Fifth Avenue where you could sign up to join the march. At the Montgomery bus station, there were cars waiting to drive late arrivers to a meeting in a basement office. There, young organizers talked of how to avoid and respond to violence, interrupted at one point by a rock hurled through a window at us. But the most frightening thing was to see young whites, clearly not locals, ostentatiously hugging young blacks of the opposite sex outside the office. People had been killed for less here.

Then we were driven to the places where we would stay overnight. Mine was a small rural church, with sleeping bags filling the cleared worship space. The others were my age, in their mid-20’s and mostly white, and a small skinny local black boy about eight years old. He and I had come alone and so we hooked up, sleeping next to each other on the worn wooden floor. Smart, curious, and assertive, he badly wanted to go to New York. I still think of him, and imagine that today he must be either in prison or a CEO.

Early the next morning, the frightened elderly black pastor and his wife brought in huge trays of home-cooked breakfast – plates filled with biscuits, eggs, and meat. But the other marchers refused the food. They were on a hunger strike, they said. “Do you like to eat?” I asked my small buddy. Yes, he did. So we tore into the food, trying hard to be appreciative for everyone.

The march that day could not have been as long or the tarmac as dusty as I remember, as we walked five or six abreast in a ragged line that stretched endlessly ahead and eventually halted. The speakers’ voices drifted back. I don’t remember any words, just the exotic cadences of black preaching. Could I have heard Rev. King? But the familiar, beloved songs we sang said it all. We were trees standing in the water. We would not be moved.

Soon after, I heard that a man on crutches, so poignant (and photogenic) an image as he marched up front, was a raving anti-Semite. So much for an end to bigotry. But there was little sense of individuals. We seemed to press forward slowly as a single, tired, ordinary person until there was no room ahead on that narrow road lined with tired-looking trees.

After a while, a black woman ahead of me, my age and build, sank to the ground just as I did and we sat back to back, wearily propping each other up. And that is what has stayed most vividly in my memory: two curving backs, sharing wordless peace and comfort as unambiguous as the struggle.

Racism has turned out to be so much more complicated and deep-rooted than most of us could have suspected. But one thing is clear and incontrovertible. “Just four decades after joining those black kids escaping across the cotton fields in Alabama,” Jagerson writes, “in 2008, my children, and the children of that angry black man, together, elected our first black President.”

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