I was a reporter for the Selma Times-Journal in Selma, Alabama, in the early 1970’s, several years removed from Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery march by Civil Rights supporters in March, 1965. The bridge was the place where Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, Public Safety Director, Wilson Baker, armed troopers and deputized volunteers clashed with marchers. Our newspaper offices bordered the South side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the march began. From my desk I could look out my window and see the bridge. I’ll bet I crossed that bridge 400 times.
Selma was a hotbed for Civil Rights marches, demonstrations and activities at the time. In Selma the “N” word, and it’s polite euphemism “Neegra” were names as common as the phrases, “I’m fixin to” and “Y’all come back now.” When I arrived in 1971, you could still see “White only” and “Colored only” signs posted in restaurants, stores and public restrooms.
During those tumultuous times, Dr. King preached on occasion at the Browns Chapel AME Church in Selma. On the morning of March 17, 1965 more than 600 Civil Rights marchers gathered outside Browns Chapel. After challenging and inspiring words, Dr. King led the marchers on their five-day march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery. Five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
My remote connection to Dr. King was my association with Wilson Baker, who became Dallas County Sheriff after Jim Clark was voted out of office in 1966. Baker and I became friends. In fact, he called me several times at the paper. He asked if I wanted to go with him and his deputies to bust up a still, take pictures and write a story. Those were great trips. Except those bootleggers always hid those stills so deep in the woods you had to pipe in sunlight.
Several years later, I would write Baker’s obituary for our newspaper.
I never met Dr. King. But during his short life, I believe he did more to advance the cause of human rights and human dignity than anyone in history. He is an authentic American hero.
The places he walked and the march he led are, to me, a part of my story. When folks remember “Bloody Sunday” or Brown’s Chapel, or the Selma-to-Montgomery march, or Selma, I can relate. I’ve been there. I’ve been to church at Brown’s Chapel. I’ve crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was friends with Wilson Baker. I wouldn’t say all that to brag. But for me, it’s all a sliver of history I can feel is a part of me. I’m deeply grateful for that experience and my years in Selma. It’s my experience, however removed from the actual events it might be.