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Transcript: #39-00 Racism, Civil Rights and Democracy in the 1960's and Today
September 27, 2000

Program description, guest contact information and audio files at

Phillip Babich: This week on Making Contact....

Reverend James Bevel: The Negroes in this country have been robbed, they have. They have been beaten. They've been robbed of their political rights. They've been robbed of educational opportunities.

James Perkins Jr.: The Nation is looking at you again Selma, because our time has come.

Phillip Babich: Since the 1960s, the town of Selma, Alabama has been a focal point for civil rights organizing in the southeastern United States. On this program, we take a look at Selma during the historic marches thirty-five years ago. . . and Selma today, where a black mayor has been voted in for the first time.

I'm Phillip Babich, your host this week on Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information.

The civil rights movement in the United States gained momentum during the 1950s and 1960s, as black people across the country were organizing and going into the streets, demanding equal rights and desegregation. They were joined by others who believed it was time to force government authorities to take action, and pass legislation that would recognize equal rights and establish a democratic voting process.

By 1965, three quarters of schools in the southeastern United States remained segregated, and blacks consistently met harassment and bureaucratic obstacles to keep them from registering to vote. Some people were forced to take a literacy test over 30 times before they could register, others were coerced, and jailed for even trying to do so.

On February 18, 1965, a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot and killed by a state trooper in Marion, Alabama, during a peaceful protest. In response, a group of 600 people organized a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, where they would demand that Governor George Wallace address the issue of police brutality. But instead, Wallace, an outspoken opponent of civil rights, banned the demonstration. Marchers ignored him, and went ahead with their protest on March 7, 1965. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday" after Alabama state troopers attacked marchers with whips, batons and tear gas to force them back.

Governor Wallace condemned the march in a speech to the Alabama legislature that was broadcast on television after a federal judge finally allowed the march to proceed. The excerpt that follows was recorded in the home of Selma resident and demonstrator, Reverend Langford.

Recorded Speech by George Wallace: Here are a few examples of what Judge Johnson embraces as peaceful demonstrations. These demonstrations wielding knives and slashing the clothing of law enforcement officers. They have thrown bricks and bottles at law enforcement officers, and at passing automobiles including a car driven by a member of the legislature. They have smashed windows, have invaded court rooms in Perry and Dallas counties. They have laid down in the streets refusing to let even ambulances pass through. They are mobs employing the street warfare tactics of the communists. And it is upon these people and upon their anarchy that a federal judge providing over a mock court places a stamp of approval as their right.

Phillip Babich: Contrary to Wallace's assertion that demonstrators were violent and uncooperative, many witnesses and participants at a total of three marches from Selma spoke of unprovoked and extreme police brutality. In response to Bloody Sunday, ministers from around the country joined together in a march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, where violence by state troopers had taken place. That night, Reverend James Reeb was killed in an attack on the streets of Selma.

Reverend C.T. Vivian was an important civil rights leader during this time and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, a key civil rights group that was founded in 1957. Vivian spoke on March 16, 1965 at the First Baptist Church in Selma, and addressed incidents of violence and negligence by state troopers.

Reverend C.T. Vivian: People have been beaten in Montgomery and are lying in the streets. They will not let the ambulances from Selma go over to help. They will not let them in. But that they won't even let the Negro undertakers in Montgomery go out to pick the people up. This is the message we've got. But we have known fates just like this in Marion, Alabama when people were beaten over there two weeks ago. We also tried to get nurses and doctors because Marion doesn't have a Negro doctor, doesn't have one Negro undertaker, and didn't have a Negro doctor or Negro nurse, right? Now, we organized here, because I've just come back from there. We organized here to send ambulances and nurses and doctors over to Marion, Alabama, thirty miles away and Al Lingo who we called asking that we might come in, Al Lingo is head of the Alabama State Police Force. We ask that they may come in on a mission of mercy and Al Lingo said: if you come over here I'll do the same thing to you, and throw you in the river.

Now this doesn't sound human, does it? But this is precisely what we deal with in Alabama under Governor Wallace, that's talking about we would do nothing to stop anyone from registering to vote. He would not let them come. They lay there. They would not be allowed to go into the white hospital there even though it uses government funds. And he would not let them - bring them. Finally he decided they could come and they had to come clear over to Montgomery and go to another segregated hospital to be treated. These were people that had been beaten down on their knees, their heads and their skulls open. So, don't think that this couldn't be. Or that he's stretching the announcement. It is believable to us because we know what has happened here in this very area, in Alabama under Governor Wallace.

Phillip Babich: Along with Reverend Vivian, Reverend James Bevel denounced the actions by Alabama authorities in a speech the next day at Brown's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a key organizing center in Selma. Bevel also worked with Dr. King and the SCLC, and was a prominent speaker on civil rights.

Reverend James Bevel: Some people have learned about the beating on the bridge. Some people have learned about Reverend Reebs getting killed but every Saturday night. At least twenty Negroes were beaten to death in the jail houses in Alabama. Every Saturday. I don't mean on Christmas and Mother's day, I'm talking about every Saturday. Twenty Negroes get brutalized, killed and die from wounds from police billy clubs in Alabama every Saturday night. You have to understand, in a State like that, there's something desperately wrong. There is something wrong in a community when it is acceptable and respectable for white troopers to beat and brutalize people on a bridge. Acceptable in itself. It's acceptable for a white minister to come out and turn children of God around at the front door with Chesterfields. That's acceptable and respectable in Selma, Alabama. But it's a screwball who loves folks. You see, something is wrong. And the argument that we have been putting forth all the time in this movement, is that there is something wrong with the white community in the South. They have been allowed to steal and lie and cheat so long, until lying and stealing and cheating seems right. That's the problem in Selma. And now when folks come and say this is right and this is the way men should live. They have lied so long and that's the tragedy of telling lies. And the American white people have lied so long about Negroes until they think their lies. And that's the problem over town tonight.

Phillip Babich: Reverend Bevel added that they were going to fix the problem in Alabama where blacks were being arrested and thrown in jail for nothing.

Reverend James Bevel: That used to be the standard weapon in Alabama: Nigger if you don't stay in your place we going to put you in jail. And that has frightened and kept Negroes in their place for three hundred and forty five years and now the Negroes think their place is in the jail.

Phillip Babich: Once word got out about incidents in Selma and other parts of Alabama, people from all over the United States joined the final march to Montgomery. Many celebrities took part, including Dick Gregory, an African-American entertainer who has written several books, and was an outspoken critic of the U.S. war against Vietnam.

Dick Gregory: For you newcomers down here that haven't been to jail but kind of wonder in the back of your mind what it's like. Well, let me explain it to you. First day you get arrested the food is horrible. Second day it's miserable. The third day it don't taste too bad. The fourth day you're asking for the recipe. I had no idea that would solve all the problems if Martin Luther King could speak to us, that he could get arrested on Good Friday morning and when they check their cell block Easter Sunday he'd be gone.

I'll be going and I'll see you in the morning. I won't be able to make the whole march because I'm right in the middle of shooting a movie, but my wife and two kids they'll be down sometime this week to finish it up. We're doing a heck of a movie. The name of the movie is called "White, Black, you. This is the story of a Mississippi sharecropper who painted himself white and moved to Arizona. He got tomahawked to death by a psychopathic Indian. Actually it's called Edgar. We're trying to get Wallace to play the sharecropper. You know it would be just our luck one day to find out Wallace is Colored. Wouldn't that be wild? To go to Wallace's mother's house in Montgomery and knock on her door and she come to the door and say, "Who that out there."

Phillip Babich: The week prior to the final march to Montgomery, political momentum quickly grew. And in response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson introduced legislation that would guarantee the right to vote, eliminate illegal barriers, and strike down restrictions on voting in all federal, state and local elections. Regardless of Johnson's efforts, the final march to Montgomery went on as planned, once protection under federal court was guaranteed.

Dr. King led what began as a crowd of 3,000 people and ended 50,000 strong on a five-day trek, over fifty miles to the state capital. The marchers were harassed and heckled all the way, but, as planned, they reacted nonviolently, responding with words of love.

Once the marchers reached the state capital, there was a mixed response. Some Montgomery residents cheered them, while others lashed out violently. Governor Wallace watched the crowd from his window. All in all, marchers considered the demonstration successful. Many view the march to Montgomery as a great leap in the civil rights movement.

Afterwards, Dr. King returned to Selma to address the future of the movement. He spoke on May 31, 1965 at Brown Chapel. This speech was recorded by Carl Benkert, and has only recently been released. Benkert served as a marshal and night-watchman for the marchers, and recorded over thirty hours of tape from that period. In his speech, King stressed the importance of the black vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (recorded speech): Equality is more than a matter of mathematics and geometry. Equality is a philosophical and psychological matter and if you pluck me from communicating with a man at that moment you are saying that I am not equal to that man. You are making slaves out of white children also. In a world that's three fourths colored and white people get up day in and day out and see nothing but white people and they communicate with nothing but white people. They are not being prepared to live in the modern world. We are going to live in this world today, come off those paths away as a judgmental path. We got to go to school together. We've got to work together. We've got to go to church together. We've got to be brothers down here in the southland. And this is why I want to stress this point that we got to integrate these schools and it's going to make all the schools better. See, you can make school nothing and get it right. You're wasting money, number one. You've got to have the youth have two water fountains. And I never did find anything coming out white water and colored water. Two bathrooms. And here is the most poverty-stricken sections of the country trying to have two of everything and they can't hardly have one good thing.

Let us not rest until we end segregation and all of its dimensions. Now, there isn't a single problem in race relations that the State of Alabama has that cannot be solved by four hundred thousand Negro registered voters. We are going all out and we solicit your cooperation as we embark upon this all important job, not for ourselves alone, we are but out to save the soul of America. And I tell you, we can't save the soul of America without in the process saving our white brothers. And they aren't free. When you enslave an individual, you enslave yourself. I mean all white brothers are slaves to that fear - slaves to their prejudices. How many white preachers are there in this town? Slaves to their congregations and they're afraid to take a stand and so they prefer to remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They know that segregation is wrong. They know that they should take a stand but they are not free. They are afraid, and they haven't allowed the gospel of Jesus Christ to permeate their lives. And we've got to save those preachers. We have got to put Christianity in the church.

And I say to you that as we walk these streets and as we work all over United States we are doing more than saving ourselves. You know we are putting Christianity in the church and we are making the market place do it. We are giving life to life. It may well be that when historians write about this period they will say that the Negroes did more in the civil rights struggle than get civil rights for themselves. When we started walking the streets, marching down talking about jobs. We caused the whole Nation to reevaluate the whole structure of joblessness. And the war on poverty came into being. Negroes started boycotting schools up North because the authorities like... the former president of Harvard University. And looked at the whole structure of the school system and say that quality education is a reality for anybody. And we have started sitting down at lunch counters, students on college campuses started thinking about peace. And they've started talking against capital punishment. They've started thinking about great issues and nobody can call the student generation now a beat generation. It is a generation of concern and activism. We have done a lot in this civil rights struggle. We're going to make America a greater nation.

Phillip Babich: Dr. Martin Luther King Junior speaking at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama.

Phillip Babich: You are listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, we'll be giving out our toll free number at the end of this broadcast.

Thirty five years after the famous march to Montgomery, blacks in Selma are still fighting for their civil rights. But on September 12, 2000, in a run-off election for mayor they won a very important victory. Orla Rapple has more...

Orla Rapple: Joe Smitherman, the same white man who supported keeping blacks away from the polls in the 1960s, has been Selma's mayor since then. He has won a total of nine terms even though blacks have gained a voting majority of sixty percent. In 1996, he won by just 350 votes. In many elections, Smitherman has been accused of voting fraud.

He recently ran for his tenth term, running for the third time against James Perkins, Jr., an African-American local businessman who hoped to become the city's first black mayor. Perkins spoke at a rally in Selma the week of the run-off election.

James Perkins: I'll tell you today, James Perkins Junior knows that this is not about him. There were people who came before me that paved the way for this to happen. I was looking outside, talking outside the fence a few moments ago. Mr. Ernest L. Doyle was standing out there. Mr. Doyle is a man that was one of the first African Americans to be - to take the seat on the City Council, the Selma City Council. Dr. Reese, J.D. Reese is standing in the audience. A trail blazer of trail blazers in our community. I stand on the shoulders of these giants in our community. Those who were born here. I stand on the giant - on the shoulders of four generations of Perkins, Smiths, and Williams. My family and all of us who have worked and toiled to do what was necessary. To improve education. To do what's best for our people. To tell you the truth and not to lie. To stand on reconciliation and not revenge. To stand on fairness and not favoritism. Oh, but nobody controls me. You all hear me don't you? Nobody controls James Perkins. Nobody but the Holy Spirit directs me.

But I believe. I believe that everybody ought to be able to influence the decisions of a public servant from an unborn child to a dead man in his grave. Everybody ought to be able to influence everybody. I won't denounce anybody because I love everybody. I want us all to work together. Don't come tell James Perkins to - to not speak to somebody else so that you can support James Perkins. That makes no sense. When you do that, James Perkins becomes a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. I'm interested in bringing us together. To move us forward in unity. That's my goal. That's my prayer. And when it is all said and done, when it is all said and done we'll give God the glory for the victory. We will. We're going to make Selma right for everybody. I know you all don't know me like you're going to know me. You don't know me like you're going to know me. I know it, but that's OK. I know they ask the question: What has Perkins done for Selma? But you know. You know that's why forty seven percent of Selma decided that James Perkins should be the Mayor of this city. You did that. You did that. God thank you. I thank you for that. And when it is all said and done now, when it is all said and done you won't have to be saying Joe gotta go. What we are saying: Joe go.

Orla Rapple: At another rally, Martin Luther King the third, son of Dr. King, spoke about the civil rights organizing his father undertook.

Martin Luther King III: When my father and his team were here, we did not have the right to vote. 1965. And so I'm honored to come back today and see our SCLC chapter personnel Brother Williams and others and to see each of you as we are poised to make history once again in Selma, Alabama. Because the Nation and the world is watching Selma, Alabama. You know SCLC is non partisan which means that we as an organization don't tell folk who to vote for. Now Martin King as a person can tell you who I would vote for if I was here. I would vote for, if I was here, brother Perkins.

Orla Rapple: Throughout Selma, residents joined the "Joe Gotta Go" campaign, organizing daily rallies and meetings in churches and community centers. Latosha Brown works with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Organization.

Latosha Brown: On Saturday we were out that day doing rallies and organizing and we were a little worried about a rally late that afternoon. And when we showed up at the rally it was more people there than I have ever seen at a community rally here in Selma. And the spirit was just on fire. And all day, the day when we went out throughout in the community people would - instead of us going to the door, folks would meet us at the door and say: what you got for me? So that - so we know something is broken. The spirit is in and when the spirit is in you have to make sure you honor it. And I want to welcome all of you all here. And add, I just want to do something real short for a little bit - unconventional, but I want you to join with me and in us thinking of - in us thinking of what we're here about. Now sometimes we have to take a moment and reflect. And in that moment of reflection, right here on the ground that we're standing is a holy ground. It is holy ground. Our folks' blood has saturated this ground. And long before the civil rights movement there were folk in this land, that were struggling. Long before that. And if you had been in Selma, maybe in the late 1800s and you had been in an old country church where folks were tired and folks were tired of struggling and felt depressed, you may have heard a old woman sitting right on that back pew saying: Go down, go there way down to Egypt land. Tell Old Pharoah to let my people go.

Orla Rapple: On September 12, 2000, Perkins unseated Joe Smitherman after a concentrated effort by his supporters. He won with fifty-seven percent of the vote, and there was a record turnout of voters in Selma. At a victory celebration, Perkins supporter Gwendolyn Smith-Shaw looked to the future.

Gwendolyn Smith Shaw: I'm saddened and I'm happy and I'm sad because it's going to take awhile for white Selma to realize that it's not a bad thing for a black person to be mayor because it's about justice for all people which it has been all along. And if we can practice what we teach our children, then it's about inhaling, exhaling, and saying that we are ready to move on and Selma can grow. It's time. It's time to grow. And like I was telling her, that when I first moved back here I didn't understand how there could be poor whites because I saw as a black kid all the rights were for whites. So when I came back as an adult to experience what's happening in the city, that there are poor people and it's not about color, that's where you need to be unified to bring people together. So when I look at today and I say, yesterday we marched, we went to prison, we went to jail. And now today the opportunity that what we fought for in the 60s, the right to vote, has now paid off in the year 2000. The opportunity that we're given to represent all people, all the time and not just some people some of the time.

Orla Rapple: For Making Contact, I'm Orla Rapple.

Phillip Babich: And that's it for this edition of Making Contact- A look at civil rights and voting. Thanks for listening. And, special thanks this week to Carl Benkert for all archive tape and Dave Lippman for recorded portions. We had assistance from Jeanne Marie Besanceney, Dennis Bernstein and Leo Stegman.

Laura Livoti is our managing director. Peggy Law, executive director. Associate producer, Stephanie Welch. Senior advisor, Norman Solomon. National producer, David Barsamian. Women's desk coordinator, Lisa Rudman. Prison desk coordinator, Eli Rosenblatt. Production assistant, Shereen Meraji. And I'm your host and managing producer Phillip Babich.

If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, call the national radio project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. That's 800-529-5736. You can also go to our website at That's

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