CSU Archives/Everett Collection
A marcher braves the maelstrom of the civil rights movement.
When the wind was right, a peculiar odor spread over the towns that lay near the great crematoria at Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau. The good people who lived there learned to ignore the stench They ate, drank, sang, prayed, gave moral instruction to their children. To deny reality, however, is no simple act. Conversation becomes conspiracy. Reality, though denied, always waits nearby, a silent intruder on every group around the fire, every child’s bedtime story, every scene of love. In the end, even the senses them-selves must join the conspiracy. The people who lived near the gas ovens taught their noses to lie.
Americans, too, have learned to deceive their senses. Sermons have been preached, crusades launched, books on ethics written, systems of morality devised, with no men-tion whatsoever of how American Negroes are treated. When the senses lie, the con-science is sure to sleep. The chief function, then, of the current Negro movement has been to awaken a nation’s conscience, which is to say its ability to smell, see, hear and feel.
Such an awakening is painful. It may take years to peel away the layers of self-deception that shut out reality. But there are moments during this process when the senses of an entire nation become suddenly sharper, when pain pours in and the result-ing outrage turns to action. One of these moments came, not on Sunday, March 7, when a group of Negroes at Selma were gassed, clubbed and trampled by horses, but on the following day when films of the event appeared on national television.
The pictures were not particularly good. With the cameras rather far removed from the action and the skies partly overcast everything that happened took on the quality of an old newsreel. Yet this very quality, vague and half-silhouetted, gave, the scene the ve-hemence and immediacy of a dream. The TV screen showed a column of Negroes strid-ing along a highway. A force of Alabama state troopers blocked their way. As the Ne-groes drew to a halt, a toneless voice drawled an order from a loudspeaker. In the inter-ests of “public safety,” the marchers were being told to turn back. A few moments passed, measured out in silence, as some of the troopers covered their faces with gas masks. There was a lurching movement on the left side of the screen, a heavy phalanx of troopers charged straight into the column, bowling the marchers over.
A shrill cry of terror, unlike any sound that had passed through a TV set, rose up as the troopers lumbered forward, stumbling sometimes on the fallen bodies. The scene cut to charging horses, their hoofs flashing over the fallen. Another quick cut, a cloud of tear gas billowed over the highway. Periodically the top of a helmeted head emerged from the cloud, followed by a club on the upswing. The club and the head would disappear into the cloud of gas and another club would bob up and down.