On March 25, 1965, the Alabama Legislature was meeting in special session in the capitol. The lawmakers had been called into session to review and act on then-Governor George Wallace’s ambitious education budget, but civil rights protests and outbursts of violence 50 miles to the west in Selma had been drawing their attention — and that of the nation.
The Selma protest movement was about breaking down barriers to the right to vote, and following a March 7 “Bloody Sunday” attack on marchers by state troopers and mounted members of a sheriff’s posse, movement leaders successfully arranged to mount a trek all the way to Montgomery. They had left Selma on March 21, and now, on March 25, they were closing in on Dexter Avenue, the wide thoroughfare that ascends to the steps of the state Capitol. On the steps of that same building 104 years earlier, Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as the Confederacy’s first president. Atop the Capitol dome, the Confederate battle flag flapped in the breeze.
As the marchers drew near, state troopers entered the Capitol and told legislators they could not guarantee their safety. While both houses earlier had passed a resolution claiming the march’s aim was to “foment local disorder and strife among our citizens,” a number of lawmakers chose to stick around.
One of them was a two-term House member, and future Alabama Supreme Court justice, from the small east Alabama County of Clay. His name was Kenneth Ingram. Ingram, who died in 2014, later told his daughter Jennifer he had wanted to watch the rally and listen to the speeches. Not surprisingly, the speech that stayed with him came from the nation’s best-known civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr..
“He told me, ‘I knew, when I heard him, that things were going to be different, that things were going to change and never be the same again,’” Jennifer Ingram said recently.
King was already known in Alabama and beyond for his prominent role in earlier movements in Montgomery and Birmingham, for his having received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and for his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. King’s speech to conclude the Selma-to-Montgomery march is not as well known as the “Dream” address, but it is full of powerful passages. Entwining distant and recent civil rights history, quoting poetic and spiritual passages and expressing hopes for an integrated society that have yet to be realized, King recounted how the South’s powerful Bourbons stoked racial fears among poor whites to keep their wages low and keep blacks oppressed. But he also declared that segregation was “on its deathbed in Alabama.”
“Let us march on ballot boxes,” King said to enthusiastic cries from an audience of thousands, “… until race-baiters disappear from the political arena … until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens … until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence … until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God … until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.”
While Kenneth Ingram told his daughter he listened to King’s speech, he did not mention to her that he took some photos of the rally, some while he was sitting at a window in the capitol, most while he was outside the building, looking west down Dexter Avenue. He had taken many photos over the years, and Jennifer Ingram has been sorting through boxes of his negatives and many other items at the family home in Ashland, the Clay County seat.
“I didn’t know there were pictures [of the rally] until about two or three weeks ago when I had the negatives, the last box of negatives, cleaned and scanned,” she said.
Except for one photo of some unidentified lawmakers, two of some people who appear to be members of a broadcasting crew, and one of a man sweeping up after the rally, Ingram’s photos are not close-ups, but larger views of the big event, from his vantage point at the capitol.
At the time, the Alabama Legislature was composed almost exclusively of white male Democrats. The House, where Ingram served, had one female member. That roster would begin to change in five years, when Fred Gray and Tom Reed became the first black legislators elected in the state since Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed largely in response to the Selma movement, would boost black representation at all levels of government in the years ahead. One future black House member, Alvin Holmes of Montgomery, would be the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to the Confederate battle flag being removed from its perch atop the capitol.
Some of the lawmakers who were prominent and influential at the time of the Selma march would become more prominent and powerful in the years to come. Jim Allen, who was lieutenant governor and the Senate’s presiding officer, would win a U.S. Senate seat in 1969 and serve there nine years. Albert Brewer, who was speaker of the House, won the lieutenant governor’s chair when Wallace’s wife Lurleen was elected governor in 1966, then served two years as governor after Mrs. Wallace died in 1968.
After becoming governor in 1968, Brewer appointed Ingram circuit judge for the 18th Judicial Circuit, which at the time consisted of Clay, Coosa and Shelby counties. In 1986, Ingram won a seat on the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and then won a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court in 1990.
“You know, He was always for the little guy … not for these companies that didn’t care about the little guy,” Jennifer Ingram said in looking back on her father’s judicial career.
In 1996, after a hard-fought, expensive campaign, Ingram lost a bid for re-election to a Republican challenger, Harold See. Republicans were steadily gaining ground in the state by then, and in 2002, Ingram watched from afar as one of his fellow Clay Countians, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, was elected governor.
Ingram did not live to see one of the biggest changes to occur in his home county, one that his daughter had to see for herself to fully believe. In March 2016, voters in Ashland and in the county’s other principal town, Lineville, voted to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. Months later, during a visit home, Jennifer Ingram walked into a grocery store, took a look at the refrigeration section and did a double take.
“I called my husband,” she said. “I said, ‘You won’t believe this. In the Pig, They’ve got beer!’”