The Protests at Selma, Through the Eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Pulitzer Prize-winning book Bearing the Cross
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Bearing the Cross, author David Garrow draws from extensive interviews, FBI transcripts, and King’s personal papers to create the most comprehensive book ever written about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The excerpt below is an exciting look at what the protests at Selma looked like to Dr. King right as they were taking place.
Early Sunday afternoon King and a host of national dignitaries took the lead as more than three thousand marchers set out from Brown Chapel and filed across the Pettus Bridge. Scores of cameramen and hundreds of uniformed National Guardsmen looked on. Freedom songs rang out as the procession passed the site of Bloody Sunday and the Tuesday turnaround. By nightfall the marchers had covered seven miles and arrived at their first campsite, where the core group of three hundred bedded down while the remainder were bused back to Selma. After spending the night under two large tents and being treated to meals that were cooked in Selma and trucked out to the campsite, the marchers resumed the trek the next morning. Tight security protected the participants while they slept and as they marched, with teams of guardsmen ensuring that no armed segregationists lay in wait as they made their way toward Montgomery on the narrow, two-lane segment of Highway 80 that ran through rural Lowndes County. Large trees heavy with Spanish moss hugged the roadside, lending an air of foreboding to the procession and causing the marchers to hurry along the sixteen miles they had to cover to reach Monday night’s campsite. On Tuesday they walked eleven miles in heavy rain that made their next campground a muddy resting place.
Martin King walked most of those miles on the first three days of the march, joining in the songs and chatting with fellow marchers while federal officials and SCLC aides saw to the procession’s administrative needs. A mobile home furnished King somewhat fancier resting quarters than the other participants. King appeared “terribly tired” to some of his compatriots, one of whom was struck by how King had “a kind of detachment.” “He seemed to kind of have his mind on something else all the time.” He “wasn’t anything like a leader in the sense of communicating with people with any freedom,” a surprised Pittsburgh theologian remembered. “He seemed to be a kind of a symbol, and an inspiring figure, but all the actual organizing and leadership was done by other people in his entourage.” King would not have quarreled with that judgment, and by the end of Tuesday’s hike his major concern was his badly blistered feet, a condition other marchers were also suffering. Wednesday morning King rested as the others set out on a sixteen-mile walk that would bring them to the western outskirts of Montgomery. At midday he flew to Cleveland for a fund-raising rally. Reporters noted that he “looked tired,” and King told his audience he would be returning to Alabama late that night for Thursday’s final march into Montgomery.
Wednesday night the marchers were treated to an outdoor stage show by visiting entertainers at the procession’s final campground. Then, on Thursday morning, with an exhausted Martin King in the front rank, the huge column, its numbers swelled by thousands of local supporters and thousands of newly arrived out-of-state sympathizers, marched through Montgomery’s westside residential neighborhoods into the center of the city and up the gentle slope of Dexter Avenue to the Alabama state capitol. Coretta, Ralph and Juanita Abernathy, and a host of dignitaries joined King in leading the column up the avenue, past the red brick church he had once pastored, and into the plaza that lay between that little church and Alabama’s pure white capitol building. Only five years had passed since King had left Montgomery, but this magnificently triumphant homecoming seemed to suggest that most of a lifetime, and perhaps most of an age, had swept past in a small handful of years.
Thousands of people—25,000, the best estimate said—most of them black, crowded into every available space within sight of the platform on the state capitol steps. The scene suggested that perhaps Alabama and America had changed in some very basic way since King had seen his vision in the kitchen nine years earlier. The old parsonage on South Jackson Street was two blocks away, and the crowd was filled with faces of old friends. This remarkable homecoming filled King with a profound sense of how much had happened in so brief a time and at a speed that, upon reflection, seemed breathtaking.