In 1962, Bernard Lafayette Jr., a slim, erudite, 21-year-old civil rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was looking for a new assignment. He’d just finished exams at Nashville’s Fisk University, where he was one of a pioneering group of students who had desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters during the sit-ins and integrated interstate bus travel with the Freedom Rides. During the latter mission, Lafayette was beaten in Birmingham and arrested in Jackson, and he narrowly escaped death when his bus was attacked by white supremacists in Montgomery.
In the summer of 1962, Lafayette visited SNCC’s headquarters in Atlanta. SNCC executive secretary James Forman showed him a large map with tacks in places where the group was active. One place—Selma, Alabama—had a large X over it. SNCC had abandoned the city, Forman told Lafayette, because the organizing work was “too hard.” Only 156 of its 15,000 eligible black residents were registered to vote. “During the past decade,” writes Gary May in Bending Toward Justice, the first history of the Voting Rights Act’s passage in 1965, “only seventy-five blacks—twenty-eight of them college graduates—had tried to register, and all had failed.” Lafayette, one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, departed for Selma that fall.
He encountered a city that Andrew Young, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., called the “most oppressive” in the South. It had been a major slave-trading port in the Black Belt and an important manufacturing center for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The city was ransacked by the Union in 1865 and occupied during Reconstruction, when Selma briefly elected black congressmen, city councilmen, county commissioners and state legislators. That era officially ended in 1901, when Alabama passed a new constitution that effectively denied black suffrage and black voter registration in the county plunged to less than 1 percent. Selma became the state headquarters of the White Citizens’ Council, known as the “KKK in suits.”
The city was ruled by a tyrannical segregationist, Sheriff Jim Clark, who fashioned himself after Gen. George S. Patton, as well as by a board of registrars that implemented a literacy test requiring black voters to name all sixty-seven county judges in Alabama in order to get on the rolls. (Most whites, of course, never faced this test.) On June 12, 1963—the same day Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi—Lafayette was nearly beaten to death by white supremacists across from his home when he went to help the driver of a broken-down car. He wore the bloodstained shirt for almost a month afterward, to show the black residents of Selma not to be afraid.
Lafayette taught residents to pass the county’s literacy test and helped to organize the Dallas County Voters League, but blacks remained disenfranchised. During a Freedom Day march on October 7, 1963, when 350 African-Americans assembled at the county courthouse to register to vote, Clark’s police assaulted demonstrators in front of two Justice Department lawyers and two FBI agents, who stood idly by. Between 1963 and 1965, when Lafayette was in Selma, the Justice Department filed four lawsuits against discriminatory voting laws in the county, but the number of black registered voters increased from 156 to a mere 383.
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At the beginning of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., fresh from being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, arrived in Selma on the 102nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to spearhead “a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama.” There were demonstrations nearly every day, but Clark and the board of registrars didn’t budge. On February 1, King and 770 others were thrown in jail. “This is Selma, Alabama,” he wrote in The New York Times from his cell. “There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” The turning point in the fight for voting rights came on March 7, when King aide Hosea Williams and SNCC chairman John Lewis, Lafayette’s former college roommate in Nashville, led a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of unarmed civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by the police in nearby Marion.