Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by David J. Garrow (Yale University Press; $15.00)
“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men,” declared President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All the participants in the bloody events at Selma, Alabama, which led up to that legislation, agreed with the president. “Voting is the foundation stone for political action,” announced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the civil rights demonstrators. “The basic elements so vital to Negro advancement can only be achieved by seeking redress from government at local, state and Federal levels. To do this the vote is essential.” Clearly Sheriff James G. Clark, Jr., of Dallas County, the most conspicuous of the segregationists, shared King’s views on the importance of the ballot; his words were few, but the electric cattle prods and the tear gas his posse used against civil rights activists had an eloquence of their own.
Rarely has there been an illusion so persistent and so demonstrably fallacious as this belief that the ballot is the key to social change. The experience of the first Reconstruction, after the Civil War, ought long ago to have killed that notion. For more than a generation historians of the Reconstruction have been showing how emphasis on voting rights for the freedmen distracted the attention of the victorious North from their more pressing needs, such as land, job-training, and education. Because blacks had no economic base. Southern whites could intimidate and harass them when they tried to vote, and, after Federal troops were withdrawn, could exclude them from the polls altogether. Now, as the second Reconstruction era draws to an end, it is discouraging to look back and see that same mistake has been made all over again. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represents a high point in the crusade for civil liberties, but it also represents a diversion of energies to an unworkable approach that would ultimately weaken the whole civil rights movement. Just because that act is a turning point in history, it is good to have David J. Garrow’s careful, factual account of how it came into being. For those of us who have forgotten, or were too young to remember. Protest at Selma provides a day-by-day account of events in that remote segregated Alabama town during the first three months of the year as blacks organized, tried first to register at the county courthouse, and then planned a march of protest to the Capital at Montgomery. When their Unarmed column began to cross Pettus Bridge on March 7, Sheriff Clark’s posse, armed and on horseback, attacked with clubs, whips, and ropes. While the blacks huddled together on the bridge in prayer, they were barraged with tear gas, and the state troopers, wearing masks, waded through the group, flailing at heads with their nightsticks. “Unhuman,” one witness termed their behavior. “An American tragedy” was what the president called it. The atrocity at Selma prodded a foot-dragging Congress into passing comprehensive legislation to protect blacks during registration and at the polls.
Protest at Selma is neither a colorful recreation of the events that led to the battle on the bridge nor a detailed legislative history of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, Garrow, a young political scientist at Duke University, is primarily concerned with testing a general theory about “the dynamics of protest activity.” Following E.E. Schattschneider and Harvey Siefert, he believes that in a confrontation like the one at Selma the historian’s focus should be on neither of the protagonists but on the third party, the observing public, which in this instance consisted of the millions who watched the tragedy on television. It was this public, through its representatives in the Congress, that translated outrage over Selma into outlawing racial discrimination in voting. At times, however, Garrow pushes his theory too far. Convinced that the public response to a protest movement is all-important, he has persuaded himself that the creation of the desired response was the chief purpose of the protesters. Specifically he charges that King and the other spokesmen of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Selma campaign tacitly abandoned their philosophy of “nonviolent persuasion,” which had failed at Albany, Georgia, and had produced only limited success in Birmingham, in favor of “coercive nonviolence.” King now sought, Garrow says, deliberately to create a confrontation, so that the largest possible public could witness racists of the most bigoted and brutal sort attacking nonresisting civil rights demonstrators. In short. King chose Selma because he knew in advance what Sheriff Clark would do to his followers.
It is, of course, conceivable that such was King’s strategy, however out of keeping it was with everything else that he said or did. But Garrow’s conclusion on this point must be received with skepticism. He is able to cite no public or private statements by King or other SCLC leaders to support his argument. Since the SCLC papers are closed and since Dr. King’s personal papers were not available to him, Garrow has not made a judgment of King’s motives at Selma on the basis of evidence but has deduced from his theory of reform movements what his motives must have been.
Despite this considerable flaw. Protest at Selma is a valuable book, because it is a reminder of both the heroism and the brutality displayed in the great civil rights crusade. Not even Garrow’s pedestrian prose can kill the drama of such encounters as that between Sheriff Clark and Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper. After waiting for hours outside the courthouse at Selma in order to register, Mrs. Cooper was ordered to go home, and she lashed out at the sheriff with a punch that sent him reeling. Clark’s officers seized her and threw her to the ground. “I wish you would hit me, you scum,” she screamed. Whereupon, as John Herbers reported in the New York Times, the sheriff “brought his billyclub down on her head with a whack that was heard through the crowd gathered on the street.” One could only wish that the outcome of Mrs. Cooper’s struggle had been something more lasting and more valuable than the right to vote.
David Herbert Donald, who is chairman of the American Civilization program at Harvard, is the author of the reeently published Liberty and Union (Little, Brown).