Nearly 50 years ago, 11 days after the infamous Bloody Sunday incident at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers and members of a sheriff’s posse attacked civil rights marchers who had balked when asked to disperse, a longtime Selma resident, a white woman, felt compelled to sit down and write a letter that she began with the words, “Dear Anybody.”
The five-page missive was the woman’s attempt to explain what was happening in Selma and why. At that point, the city of about 28,000 had become known around the world because of Bloody Sunday, the ongoing voting rights demonstrations, the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr. and the sometimes violent encounters between authorities and demonstrators. While recounting various facts as she saw them — and her version of some events would not be shared by historians — she also discusses at length the longstanding relationship between the races in Selma, and the voting rights movement’s shock to that state of affairs.
“The relationship between the races, until a year or so ago, has been unchanged for a century,” the writer states in part. “The Negro worked for the white man. He was cared for by the white man, medically, scholastically, economically, sometimes well and sometimes poorly. He was not expected to vote, indeed he showed no indication of desire to do so. Then suddenly, all of this changed.”
The letter alternately expresses pain, sorrow, frustration, irritation, and also the writer’s willingness to acknowledge that her home, the “Queen City” of the Alabama Black Belt, could no longer hold back the citizenship aspirations of its black residents. But, reflecting a lot of white opinion, she stressed that King and other outside activists were not best suited to solve the problem.
“I feel that help can only come when the local people can pick up the pieces of our broken town after everyone else is gone and to try to face the fact that Selma must belong to the world, and that the Negro must have no more nor less rights than the white person,” she writes toward the end of her letter. “I can only hope that this will happen peacefully.” And yet, despite her misgivings about King, she concludes the letter with some grudging admiration for the civil rights leader: “I wish the president would appoint Dr. King ambassador to Russia for I am sure he would wear them down too, before too long.”
By the time she had written those words, President Lyndon Johnson had spoken in support of the Selma movement using the famous civil rights vow “We Shall Overcome,” and had had supportive members of Congress introduce voting rights legislation in Congress.
Since its writing, the letter has never published in full. Its contents are known to the writer’s close relatives and some friends. The writer has consented for Weld to publish the letter but wishes to remain anonymous. She and her husband, who was active in Selma affairs, still live in the city. Their children attended Selma public schools.
The text of the letter which follows has been edited, partly to correct occasional misspellings and grammatical errors, partly to more clearly define some of the people, places and organizations mentioned in the document. To protect the writer’s identity, her name and that of her husband have been changed. As such, Weld believes the letter to be a meaningful perspective on a series of events that led to national voting rights legislation that changed Selma and surrounding Dallas County as well as Alabama, the South, and the nation.
March 18, 1965
For the past few endless days and nights I have been trying to compose a letter to my friends, relatives, etc., and the more I have thought, the more events that have unfolded, the more difficult it becomes. First of all, you who have called, let me assure you of our safety. There is not now and never has been any danger to us or to any of my family. We do not go to the part of town where demonstrations are occurring or to the courthouse, but Fred or I pick up the maid every morning and her house is practically on the campus of Selma University, a Negro college. I shop in the stores downtown and find parking places everywhere for business is awful. Selma used to be a trade center for a 50-mile radius. It is no longer.
As background to this letter, let me give you a few facts about Selma. The population is about 28,000. This includes about 10,000 white people and 10,000 Negroes who are permanent residents, and 8,000 Air Force-connected people at Craig AFB [Air Force Base]. Selma’s principal industry is farming; however, in the past two years, we have acquired 10 or more large industries, and hope to acquire more since the Alabama River is now being developed.
Selma is steeped in the “Old South” tradition. There is old wealth, a large group of prominent families, and a great regard for heritage and manners. It is essentially an island, completely absorbed in its own interests and generally unconcerned with national or international events. … The relationship between the races, until a year or so ago, has been unchanged. For a century, the Negro worked for the white man. He was cared for by the white man, medically, scholastically, economically; sometimes well and sometimes poorly. He was not expected to vote; indeed he showed no indication of desire to do so.
Then suddenly all of this changed. Negroes in other places began taking active part in civic affairs and groups came to Selma to organize voting drives. They at first were not successful due to lack of interest and fear of reprisal from white people. They [whites] were both furious and frightened. Here were these children for whom they had cared all these years who threatened to outnumber and engulf them. To the average white person living here, this is a fear extant since Reconstruction. They would not admit this publicly but they fear being overcome by this group that is equal in number. Any concession to Negro rights intensifies this fear.
The reaction of the white people in Selma, in my opinion, was to refuse to face the problem. They rejected any thought of biracial committees, long-range integration plans, etc. Instead, they formed Citizens Councils [segregation organizations] to “maintain our way of life” and talked and talked and found little to do. The more violently inclined, and we have our share of those, bought guns. The sheriff formed his posse and rushed around Alabama to various racial conflicts. The attitude was that “It can’t happen here and we won’t let it.” Let me point out that any elected official who might have suggested preparation for integration would have been promptly voted out of office, if not removed sooner.
Despite this attitude, in the past few months, some integration has taken place. The movie theaters were first, then the principal restaurants, integrated with police protection and no violence, much to the surprise of most observers. It is hard for people in other parts of the country to realize that we have ignorant folks here that simply do not consider Negroes as human beings. These are not just uneducated people. They include many supposedly intelligent, religious people. No law can change them. There is no use exclaiming “That’s wrong!” This exists and outside pressure most assuredly makes these people more inflammatory.
Into this background, Martin Luther King came eight weeks ago to demonstrate for voting rights. For two weeks, we didn’t watch Yogi Bear [a popular cartoon show]; we watched Jim Clark [Dallas County sheriff] and the various reverends. Sensible people stayed away from the courthouse and argued among themselves as to how “this thing” should be handled. I remember suggesting once that if the mayor [Joe T. Smitherman] would find out from some of the local Negroes exactly what they wanted, perhaps it would clarify the situation. I wish you could have seen the looks I got. Several members of my family found it difficult to speak to me. Anyway, the sheriff warred with the police, the city council argued with the mayor, and the governor [George Wallace] was obvious in his silence. The demonstrations got larger as hundreds of Negro schoolchildren skipped school to march. The school authorities, with two truant officers, found their pleas fell on deaf ears. The children cursed and spit on the sheriff’s deputies, urinated in public places, and did not generally endear themselves to the law officers. These in turn poked and prodded, cursed back and occasionally really hit someone, usually who aimed a camera at them.
Every day brought a new tactic by demonstrators and law officials. … As days went by, Negro organizations poured in. All the letters of the alphabet — SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], CORE [Congress on Racial Equality], SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by King], even Malcolm X. On the white side, the Nazis came, the [Ku Klux] Klan, and the Citizens Council invited [former Mississippi Gov.] Ross Barnett to speak. It is amazing that no violence occurred in a four-week period. It is also a credit to the law enforcement and to the show of self-control by the people of Selma. As days went by, more Negroes registered to vote; there were fewer arrests, children went back to school and I went to the courthouse for a soil test kit and didn’t see a single reporter. As things seemingly eased off, everyone thanked God that Selma had weathered the storm.
Martin Luther King then branched out to Camden and Marion, two small towns nearby where Negroes had never voted. Marion surprised everyone by letting 500 Negroes use the courthouse lobby to sign up to vote. Then, after a restaurant refused to admit some Negro teenagers, Martin Luther King announced a “night march” in the little town. The governor immediately spoke up to forbid this type march in the town. Although I am not generally a supporter of George Wallace, I will say that a night march in a rural community of Alabama by Negroes is a complete impossibility. There ensued a fracas in which Jimmie Lee Jackson was wounded by a state trooper. He was brought 30 miles to the Good Samaritan Hospital…the new $3 million Catholic hospital, built primarily to serve Negroes. Because Fred is on the staff there, we are acquainted with the circumstances of the man’s death. He died from gross negligence committed by a doctor of his own race. …
It was after the ban on night marches and the ensuing death that the tenor of life in Selma changed. After four weeks of marching on the courthouse and the registration of more Negroes, Martin Luther King decided to march to Montgomery. People of peculiar dress and manner joined the demonstrators. Most of them were white. State troopers poured into Selma. The existing breach between Wilson Baker, Selma’s police chief, and Sheriff Clark widened. On Saturday, March 6, for the first time, angry groups of whites were allowed to chase a group of protesting out-of-town ministers and professors down the street. A showdown between Baker and Clark occurred and Baker offered to resign. The City Council, blessedly, refused to allow this. Thus Sunday saw Selma in a terrible fix. Wallace poured troopers to the bridge to prevent the march and city police were not allowed to deal with the situation by the sheriff. What happened is of course, history, a horrible episode watched by people all over the country. It horrified no one more than us. … Once the sheriff’s mounted posse got into the charge, they also vented pent-up wrath by chasing the poor souls for blocks. I have a friend here who feels that the posse has been a good influence in this thing since most of the more violently inclined belong to it, and that at least they [are] under supervision as members of the posse instead of roaming the streets with guns!
Thus for the first time in eight weeks, there was chaos in the streets of Selma. Dr. King called for ministers and witnesses from all parts of the U.S. and indeed they came, as did federal marshals, FBI, more troopers, more beatniks, more white racists, and for the first time, most people like us quit going to town. A federal judge in Montgomery [Frank M. Johnson Jr.], recognizing the incendiary situation a march to Montgomery would be, asked Martin Luther King to wait for a court hearing. This he refused to do, and in an agreement between [federal] government, state and city officials, he was allowed to march to the sight of Sunday’s debacle and have prayers. We all breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that this liaison, though denied by Selma officials, would continue and that something would be worked out. Instead, that night…three ministers were attacked by local troublemakers. (One of the ministers, James Reeb from Massachusetts, died from his injuries.)
This, or some other act like this, was bound to occur for there are still too many rabble rousers who cannot be watched in alleys and streets at night. There are too many out-of-town clergy and others who are defying every tradition in Selma in sleeping in Negro homes and eating in Negro restaurants. I am in no way condoning violence and neither am I excusing myself or any other Selmian for this death, but I know of no way to change the situation even if every trooper in the state, or, for that matter, any army division were sent here. Most of us were expecting any minute for someone to blow up Brown Chapel [AME] Church [the scene of voting rights rallies and the starting point for many marches] or something of the sort. As it stands now, the city police, under the excellent command of Wilson Baker, are actually protecting the demonstrators.
I am finally arriving at the present situation in Selma, and for my more liberal friends, if you consider me an arch conservative, let me assure you that in Selma I am a flaming liberal and please don’t send this letter to any of my family because they are already ready to disown me.
I see a glimmer of hope in the situation from several sources. First of all, Wallace did go to see Johnson, the federal judge, and maybe some of these things will please Dr. King, who seems to be the “man of the hour” with the federal government these days. One wonders what the result would have been if the sheriff of Dallas County had defied a court order in the casual way that King did on Tuesday. [Judge Johnson had announced he would issue an order postponing a march scheduled by King on March 9, two days after Bloody Sunday, until March 11. King led a large crowd of marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9, where they prayed and then walked back the way they had come.]
I think Wallace is first of all a politician and needs to get back in the graces of the Democratic Party as the Republicans are gaining ground in Alabama. For this reason if no other, Wallace will not allow troopers to get out of hand again. But he cannot, nor can [Judge] Johnson prevent violent attacks on white outsiders who continue to sleep in Negro homes, who hold hands with Negroes of the opposite sex on city streets, or who frequent Negro night spots. In my opinion, this type of thing will never be acceptable in my lifetime, regardless of any legal rights which may be obtained.
A second hopeful sign is that the mayor and Clark have for once made an offer to the Negroes. A genuine concession this time, for, in seeking a place for Reeb’s memorial service, they offered the football stadium. Guess what the Negroes did? They refused to accept the offer and said they wanted the street intersection in front of the courthouse, a most vulnerable and totally unsuitable place for a church service. This is characteristic of the demonstrators: i.e., to ask for something and, when it is granted, to ask for something else instead.
The third hope I see for us is that the newspapers of this state, in particular the Selma Times-Journal, is making a courageous appeal for reason, for new voting procedures, for some sort of biracial communication. We wish for some strong, respected statesman to step up and lead us out of this turmoil. I agree with [Lyndon] Johnson that when the cause of the demonstrations is ended, the demonstrations will end. But is this all for voting rights? For what rights do people have the right to demonstrate to the extent that a town is no longer able to conduct itself in an orderly fashion?
In closing, let me thank you for your patience if you read this far. In case you are planning to come down here to help us out, PLEASE DON’T! Fred and I would love to see any of our friends but right now Selma isn’t the charm spot of the South. Conversation is frenzied, the radio is blaring, we fuss at our children for aught but nerves, and we wonder how long our well-meaning friends will pray in our streets. The resentment on the part of local people [for] Martin Luther King and other out-of-state leaders is so great that I feel their ability to help the Selma Negroes is nil. I feel that help can only come when the local people can pick up the pieces of our broken town after everyone else is gone and to try to face the fact that Selma must belong to the world, and that the Negro must have no more nor less rights than the white person. I can only hope that this will happen peacefully.
P.S. I am sending this five days after I wrote it, but there are no great changes in the situation, except that…the demonstrators are marching daily. Preparation is now being made for the march to Montgomery, starting this coming Sunday. … I think at this point, even the press reporters are tired. I wish the president would appoint Dr. King ambassador to Russia for I am sure he would wear them down before too long.