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Midnight Plane to Alabama | The Nation

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Midnight Plane to Alabama

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CSU Archives/Everett CollectionDemonstrators lock arms in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama. Sheriff Jim Clark had them all arrested.

About the Author

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.

Unhuman. No other word can describe the motions. The picture shifted quickly to a Ne-gro church. The bleeding, broken and unconscious passed across the screen, some of them limping alone, others supported on either side, still others carried in arms or on stretchers. It was at this point that my wife, sobbing, turned and walked away, saying, "I can't look any more."

We were in our living room in San Francisco watching the 6pm news. I was not aware that at the same moment people all up and down the West Coast were feeling what my wife and I felt, that at various times all over the country that day and up past 11pm Pa-cific Time that night hundreds of these people would drop whatever they were doing; that some of them would leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, over-draw their checking accounts, board planes, buses, trains, cars, travel thousands of miles with no luggage, get speeding tickets, hitch-hike, hire horse-drawn wagons, that these people, mostly unknown to one another, would move for a single purpose to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on television.

Within the next several hours I was to meet many of these travelers and we were to pass the time telling one another how and why we had decided to come. My own deci-sion was simple. I am a Southerner living away from the South. Many of my friends and relatives have remained there to carry on the grinding day-after-day struggle to rouse the drugged conscience of a stubborn and deluded people. They are the heroes. A trip to Alabama is a small thing.

I had, of course, any number of excellent reasons for not going to Selma, not the least of which was a powerful disinclination to be struck on the head and gassed. But as I raised that point and every other negative argument, a matter-of-fact voice answered. "You better get down there."

At midnight, the San Francisco airport was nearly deserted. Three men stood at the Delta Air Lines counter, a Negro and a white man in business suits, and a tall, fair Epis-copalian priest. I sensed something dramatic about the tall man, somehow he brought to mind a priest in a Graham Greene story. His companions seemed especially solicitous as they helped him through some complex negotiations with the ticket agent. I intro-duced myself and learned that the priest alone was going to Selma, that he had decided to go only that night, that he had no idea how he was going to get from Birmingham, where the flight ended, to Selma, ninety miles south. I told him I had wired to both Avis and Hertz for cars at Birmingham, somehow I would get him to Selma.

As we started toward the plane, I realized why the priest's companions had seemed worried. Father Charles Carroll of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in San Jose, Calif, walked with a heavy cane, it was an effort for him to maintain our rather slow pace along the runway. Here, then; was the first of our marchers.

Flight 808 to Dixie rose into the cloudless California night. As in countless other flights across America, I pressed my head to the window -- and wondered at the wilderness below. This nation, the most automated, urbanized civilization in the world, consists mostly of open space. Yet this is appropriate, for America is still-unfinished; it is still a huge, untidy experiment, a series of hopeful statements ending with question marks. Most of all, America is the only place in the world where a nonviolent Negro movement could exist. It is the one society that has dared openly confront its own deepest moral wrong, which is also mankind's most ancient prejudice. The great land that lay sleeping some 7 miles beneath me has not yet defined itself, but one thing is sure, it is the only home of a revolution that would correct not laws or governments but the hearts of men. If we can pull this one off, then what is impossible for us? But Selma stood ahead.

"It was the voice of Sheriff Jim Clark on the radio that brought it back to me that strange feeling in the pit of my stomach." Father Carroll's burning eyes turned inward to the past, to his student days in Germany in the thirties. "I remembered my apartment in Ber-lin, the Jewish family with whom I lived, the steel that was to be used to bar the front door when 'they' came; the bottle of cyanide in the medicine cabinet -- everybody knew why it was there. I remembered my German cousin who had turned Nazi. He had come home one night in 1938 to be asked by his wife what was burning in town. He had said, 'The synagogues' and she had replied, 'What synagogues?' Could this be happening here?

"I went about my rounds today wondering how I could get to Selma and what I would do if I got there. Then I saw the news just as you did and, at that moment, I knew. It is hap-pening here. I had no more doubts as to what I had to do."

Dawn came in Dallas as we waited between planes. The night had brought other flights from the West, each had its cargo of pilgrims. All of us trooped aboard a rakish, shining Convair 880 for Birmingham -- a score of clergymen both Negro arid white, a lawyer from Palo Alto, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles, a Bay Area matron who had had a bit too much to drink, a young couple from Berkeley.

Inside the plane, a plump Negro minister from Los Angeles named Bohler kept leaping to his feet to introduce himself and everyone within earshot to each new passenger, most of whom were bound for Selma. Twice he, told us that the previous night he had been wanting to, go "more than anything," and that the phone had rung at about 10: 30 with news that he had been given a ticket -- at which he had murmured, "Oh, He's an-swered my prayers so quickly!" One of Bohler's companions admitted that "when I told my wife, all she said was buy as much insurance as possible."

There was a stir at the plane's door as a group of rumpled students entered. The new-comers were Mario Savio and some of his followers from the University of California. The bushy-haired student leader and his girl sat across the aisle from rue, the door was closed and we took to the sky.

Savio's group, I learned, had decided to come only after watching the 11pm news. They had raced across the Bay Bridge to the airport to catch the flight after ours. Now these young revolutionaries were all over the plane, bursting with news and curiosity. Some-one said Governor Wallace and the state of Alabama had been enjoined from interfering with the march. "Looks like somebody may be walking 50 miles today," I said, glancing down at the high heels worn by two of the girls, a sophomore and a junior. "We didn't have time to change," one of them said. "We'll have to march without shoes," added the other. "0h, no," said Savio, no doubt considering past criticism of his group's appear-ance, "we'll buy you shoes."

"How about your shirt tail?" the sophomore said to Savio. "I'll put it in." "And your face," she went on, indicating what appeared to be a two-day growth of beard. "I'll shave," Savio said.

Dark clouds grew into the morning sky and shook our plane as it passed over Texas and into Louisiana. I talked with Savio, a brilliant, uncompromising young man who -- aside from matters of etiquette, propriety or procedure, and to the considerable dismay of his elders -- is right a great deal of the time. "If we're enjoined from marching," he told me firmly, "we should march anyway."

Mississippi. I looked down at the drab fields and forests of late winter and shuddered slightly. Twice in recent years I had gone into that state on story assignments. I experi-enced again the sick sensation that always came over me when I crossed the state, line. It was something like combat in World War II, like flying past that ominous red track across our briefing maps that indicated the point beyond which we could expect to fall into enemy hands if we went down.

To Mississippians, my Southern credentials meant nothing. I represented what they feared most of all: the outside world. To hold to their particular web of self-deception, segregationists must speak only, with one another. The very presence of an outside perception threatens the madness to which they cling. That is why no "outsider" can ever feel entirely safe in a place like Mississippi, especially under the following condi-tions: when it is dark, when the segregationists are armed, when they outnumber their prey, and when they approach from behind This -- God rest my Confederate ancestors -- is the present measure of Southern white "courage"?

But how can we measure the wrong? When the young Negro civil rights workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee first came to work in rural Mississippi, they found that segregationists could spot them immediately and unerringly, even from a distance. No matter that the SNCC workers took pains to dress in the precise manner of the local Negroes, they invariably stood out -- simply because of the way they walked. And how did they walk? As a human being is supposed to walk, head high, eyes to the front, chest out, feet lifting cleanly from the ground. In the past, during the years of racial "peace" in the South, Negroes have been beaten and killed for less.

And that is one of the things the Southern society has required of its Negroes -- that their way of moving on this earth, the very posture of their bodies, proclaim subservi-ence. It is a wrong that goes far deeper than voting rights. But that is a good place to start. On to Selma

In Birmingham we learned that a federal judge had enjoined Martin Luther King from marching to Montgomery that day. Whether he would march anyway remained in doubt. But nothing could slow our momentum We had flown all night from the West and were not going to stop now. The airport was in turmoil. People from all over the nation were streaming in. Many others, we learned, were landing in Atlanta, still more in Montgom-ery. I picked up my car, loaded my passengers and started out on a tricky, uneasy 90 miles through hostile territory.

Father Carroll sat to the right of me, calm and serene. In the back seat was another Episcopal priest, Thomas Steensland. He had left his home in the rural California town of Paso Robles at the last minute, driving south more than 100 miles to catch a plane from Santa Barbara, had missed that plane by ten minutes and had kept going another 100 miles to make a 1am flight from Los Angeles. Father Steensland also faced a diffi-cult march. As an infantry lieutenant in World War II, he had stepped on a land mine and had lost part of one foot.

Also in the back seat was an older couple who had sat in front of me on the plane from Dallas. I had heard the name, William Morris, and the home town, Malibu Beach, Calif. (That's a strange parish. I had mused, assuming Morris to be a clergyman.) Getting in the car, I noticed that Mrs. Morris wore a particularly expensive-looking suit and that she carried a Malaysian Air Lines travel bag. Now I turned and asked lightly, "To what as-pect of human life do you minister?"

"Oh, I'm not a minister," Morris said, "I'm in the theatrical business."

A quick realization he was the William Morris of William Morris Agency, the most vener-able of theatrical agencies. I wondered what had moved these people, who must live a very comfortable life indeed, to leave Malibu Beach in the middle of the night for a desti-nation that held the clear possibility of tear gas, beating, jail or worse.

"We watched the news," Ruth Morris said, "and then we went in and sat down and were eating dinner. Our home is right on the ocean. It's a very pleasant place to live, rather gay in color. Our dining room is warm and gay and we were sitting down to a very good dinner. We felt sort of guilty about being there enjoying ourselves after what we had just seen on TV.

"We both said it at the same time -- it just seemed to come out of the blue. 'Why are we sitting here?' Then I said, 'I'll pack,' and Bill said, 'I'll call for the reservations.'

The day was more Indian summer than late winter. We were driving south at a careful 50 miles an hour about a hundred yards behind a bus from the Pilgrim Hill Baptist Church of Birmingham. Church members had outlined the procedure for traveling in Alabama in 1965. We were not to have any integrated cars. ("Might attract gunfire.") We were to gas up at a Negro station in Birmingham; no stops would be made along the way. We were to stick to the speed limit, in fact, if the sign said 15, we were to go 14. Two cars loaded with Negroes would scout ahead, returning if necessary to warn us of danger. The most vulnerable vehicle was the bus, for it carried most of those, black and white, who had been on our plane. We of the all-white car were to follow it at a good dis-tance.

If it was stopped, we were to pull up behind it and witness whatever happened The driver of the bus had sketched the route on my map and had shown me the "bad" com-munities along the way, where we might expect trouble. He would warn me, if anything went wrong, by turning on his blinking yellow loading lights.

Now these lights were flashing.

The bus turned off the superhighway we had planned to follow an started down a nar-row rural road. We had no way of knowing what the trouble was. We just stayed behind the bus, moving with a turn of the steering wheel into another world, the hazy, dreamy Southland of my childhood. After a night without sleep, I was particularly susceptible to the aching loveliness of the land. We passed run-down Negro shacks, but it was easy not to see them clearly. It took no effort at all to let them fade into the landscape like an old oak or a stand of pines on a rolling hill. Not to see is what our culture has tried to teach us.

I turned to my passengers "Look at that shack, the holes in the roof, the broken win-dows, all the children. It gets cold down here."

We turned again. The road became even more lonely. I switched on the radio for news from Selma, but it was difficult to pick out any clear station from the sizzle of static and hillbilly music. At last a faint voice told us Martin Luther King was marching, the march would start in an hour. We could make it.

We never, learned why we had followed such a circuitous route, but we entered 'Selma without ever passing a roadblock or even a city-limits sign, and we stayed on dirt roads all the way to the Negro church district that was our destination. As we pulled to a stop, three slim young Negro women walked past our car. One of them leaned over to us and said with absolute simplicity: "Thank you for coming." Tom Steensland said quietly. "The trip is already worth it."

The scene inside the church burst upon me. Every seat, every aisle was packed. They were shoulder to shoulder -- the Princeton professor and the sharecropper's child, the Senator's wife and the elderly Negro mammy. The balcony at the left side of the church was like a fresco by a great Renaissance painter. The classic, dizzying angles formed by those who leaned to view the altar were fixed forever, it seemed, against the rich col-ors of the stained-glass window.

And they were all there at the altar, those who would lead us. For some reason they brought to mind those lines from John Brown's Body that introduced the leaders of an-other time.

Army of Northern Virginia, army of legend,
Who were your captains, that you could trust them so surely,
Who were your battle-flags? Call the shapes from the mist...

Ours were captains of a far gentler army. Charles Evers of the Mississippi NAACP, a martyr's brother and a constant temptation to every cowardly sniper in his state; James Farmer of CORE, the urbane revolutionary with the round face who had walked crying through the streets of Harlem, trying to stop a riot; James Forman of SNCC, the troubled young activist who bears more battle scars than all the rest, now dressed as a poor country boy in overalls; Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr King's trusted lieutenant, a man to soothe the impetuous, possessing iron courage of his own. And, in the center, Dr. King himself.

But now a doctor from New York was speaking, he was giving us, with scientific enthu-siasm, our medical briefing. "Tear gas will not keep you from, breathing. You may feel like you can't breathe for a while. Tear gas will not make you permanently blind. It may blind you temporarily. Do not rub your eyes." I looked around at the amused but somber smiles. The doctor's enthusiasm was carrying him away. "If you become unconscious, be sure somebody stays with you." A delighted, outraged laugh rose throughout the church. The doctor laughed, too. "I mean, if you see someone become unconscious, be sure to stay with him." He got the day's' greatest ovation.

Martin Luther King stepped forward to the microphones. His slightly oriental eyes glis-tened in the glaring light. A faint smile, both humble and triumphant, came and went.

As a journalist, I had spent some hours with Dr. King, but had never penetrated the mis-sion to find the man. He was a boy from my home town who had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some would make him a saint, but it is too early. While the man still lives, one thinks of flaws. I was aware, too, of the narrow, precipitous pathway he walked between the white leadership, whose ultimate consent he must have, and the Negro activists, who even now rankled with bitter disapproval of his "timidity."

It is too early to beatify him; we must wait for a larger decision. History may take a turn toward harshness. Force and authority may gain sway over men everywhere, in which case Martin Luther King and the Negro movement will rate not even a footnote in his-tory. But if history turns toward the gentler, more subtle controls that we know as love and brotherhood and it probably must if mankind is to survive -- then King's place will be assured.

"Now, we have a problem here in Alabama," Dr. King spoke with restraint and regret. He did not try to stir his audience; they did not need that. He outlined the situation that faced us matter-of-factly. He talked of the decisions all men must make. Next to me a tweedy man with a pipe and British mustache wiped tears from his cheeks. All the faces around me were radiant. "Perhaps the worst sin in life, Dr King said with a kind of ma-jestic sadness, "is to know right and not to do it."

Outside, in hazy sunlight, the marchers formed. One was to be fatally beaten that night. From a bank I watched the first ranks of four go past. They moved in voiceless exalta-tion. I exchanged smiles with Jim Forman who walked arm in arm with Dr. King in the front rank. And behind them were all those with whom I had traveled. Tom Steensland went by with another white minister and two Negroes. Bill and Ruth Morris were to-gether and Charles Carroll was with them, supported on the right by a strong Negro minister.

America's conscience has been sleeping, but it is waking up. In Germany, people, did not travel all night across the land to walk with the oppressed. A trip to Alabama is a small thing; but out of many such acts, let us hope, may come a new America. I smiled at my friends and stepped into the ranks.

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