MAXWELL:  “Bloody Sunday’ with the reverend

1/17/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The year was 1965, the time of my personal introduction to Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and my baptism into the civil rights movement.

Dozens of nightstick-wielding state troopers, deployed by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, stood at end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma. I was a 19-year-old junior attending Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. A group of my schoolmates and I had taken time out of school and had come to Selma to help initiate a voter registration campaign and, of course, to hear Dr. King speak at Brown’s Chapel Methodist Church.

Fear, the stuff of black life in the South during those days, had always been my constant companion. But when the nearly 300 of us, led by King, Ralph Abernathy and Andy Young, descended the hump of the bridge, I wanted to turn and run. The helmeted troopers, white men full of hatred and false courage, were determined to halt our march.

A fat trooper, standing behind a waist-high patch of grass, stared into my eyes. He understood my fear. Sensing his need to brutalize us, I was convinced that my life would end that day on the dusty easement of the Edmund Pettus.

Because I was near the end of the wave of protesters, I could not see King and the other leaders of the march. Looking into the faces of the other marchers, I saw fear and anticipation. I was surprised to see that about half of them were old people _ women and men whose wrinkles and scars and slow gait chronicled the South’s legacy of inhumanity. The presence of these elders made me hopeful and ashamed that I had waited so long to join the movement.

In front of me, a mass of bodies surged forward, heads bobbing rhythmically, and words to the song We Shall Overcome echoed in the warm air. Suddenly, a voice, amplified over a bullhorn, yelled, “Turn back and go home.”

We moved forward.

“Disperse! Turn back!”

Frightened white journalists mustered the strength of mind to stay alongside us as we marched toward the courthouse, where we were to let the world know that black people in the South had a right to vote.

“Niggers!” another voice, somewhere beyond the first row of troopers, shouted.

“Turn back!” a trooper said.

We refused.

The marchers in front of me no longer moved as a single body. We became individuals, pushed by the realization that we would be attacked by white men who wanted to obliterate us.

The words “god__ niggers” came from the crowd of white counterdemonstrators gathering behind the troopers.

Then, the screaming began.

Our women were the first to run as the troopers attacked, their nightsticks coming down like rain. For the first time in my life, I heard human bones crack. An old woman next to me fell to the pavement after a trooper backhanded her across the chest. Falling, she struggled to hold her green and orange gingham dress over her legs.

The trooper’s next move shocked even me, a kid born and reared in a South Florida ghetto, who had seen violent incidents nearly every day. He kicked the woman in the stomach. As the crowd pulled me forward, I lost sight of her and never saw her again.

When tear gas canisters hit the bridge and a poisonous cloud rose into the air, the troopers, all wearing masks, rushed us and knocked many of us down. No one of us fought back. March organizers had taught us that we would be whipped, injured, jailed and perhaps even killed. The clubbing seemingly went on for an hour or longer as sheriff’s deputies joined the troopers and encircled us.

The gas was overpowering, burning our lungs and eyes and nostrils. Most of us, at least those still standing, simply wanted to get out of the line of fire. By now, however, the cops had smelled blood _ a lot of blood flowed that day known as “Bloody Sunday” _ and were singling out younger males to chase and beat.

I was one of the unlucky ones.

A deputy struck me in the neck from behind with his nightstick, and, when I turned to face him, he jabbed me in the solar plexus with the weapon. My college roommate was beside me. He was hit in the face, and I saw blood stream down his cheek.

I could see King and Abernathy. Several deputies were dragging them toward a squad car. Young stood near an officer in charge, pointing at other officers beating three girls. Again, I was hit, this time on the forehead. Tasting my own blood, I raised my arms to ward off the blows. Women were screaming and children were crying. But the cops continued to pound us.

That night at the church, I took full measure of what had transpired. We out-of-towners had far less to lose than the local black residents who participated in the demonstration. They stood to lose everything _ their jobs, their churches, their homes. And, yet, they had the courage to stand with King on the side of justice.

Indeed, King deserves praise for making the civil rights movement a matter of conscience. But another remarkable side of the movement is rarely mentioned: That story is the bravery of the thousands of old people throughout the South who willingly faced the gas, the dogs, the truncheons, the guns. King knew how important these old folk were, for he routinely praised them in speech and in deed.

Martin Luther King has been dead since 1968, but I, along with others who had the honor of knowing him, remain touched by his courage and dedication to the cause of justice. He brought out the best in us. He taught us to overcome fear, to overcome hatred and to turn the evil of the oppressor into a positive force in our lives.