Alabama March Today to Mark 'Bloody Sunday'

Times Staff Writer

When Marie Foster first attempted to march the 50 miles from this rural west-central Alabama community to Montgomery, the state capital, she got only as far as the outskirts of town before she was knocked to the ground in a clash with state troopers and mounted sheriff's deputies at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That was 20 years ago. Foster, then a feisty widow with three teen-age children, was among the more than 500 voting rights activists and supporters who were clubbed, tear-gassed and routed back over the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" for daring to defy Gov. George C. Wallace's ban on any voter-registration protest marches from Selma.

Today, a grandmother of six and still as feisty as ever, Foster will take part in another march over that same bridge--a 20th anniversary trek in honor of "Bloody Sunday" and the ultimately successful five-day march to Montgomery that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led just two weeks later.

The marchers will follow the same route as the 1965 King-led march: from the red-brick Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church near downtown, across the Pettus Bridge and along the winding four-lane highway of U.S. 80 due east to the sparkling white-domed Capitol in Montgomery.

Changed Atmosphere

But this time the marchers step off in a dramatically changed atmosphere. There will be no club-swinging, tear-gas-tossing troopers and sheriff's deputies to greet the demonstrators. No knots of glowering white onlookers shouting threats and insults or silently waving little Confederate flags. No cars with signs in whitewash lettering saying "Martin Luther Kink" and "Walk Coon."

Selma has gratefully retired those kinds of shameful displays along with the "Whites Only" signs and Jim Crow laws that long flourished in this 165-year-old city of 27,000 along the twisting Alabama River.

What's more, the same George C. Wallace who once declared "segregation forever" now woos black voters here, and was reelected to the governorship two years ago with crucial black support.

Selma's mayor in 1965, Joe T. Smitherman, is still in office, but he also is a changed man. Once a die-hard segregationist who opposed any effort to open up the political process to blacks, he now courts black voters, has appointed blacks to many City Hall posts and calls the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "the most significant legislation ever passed in my lifetime."

Black elected officials here now include two of five City Council members and one of two state senators representing this district. In addition, black appointed county and city officials include a school board member, a deputy police chief and one of three voter registrars.

'Not Promised Land'

"From that point of view, things have certainly improved," Marie Foster said. "But Selma's not the promised land yet. There's so much done to impede our progress that's not on the surface--it's swept under the rug. They are still trying to keep us back."

For that reason, the march that begins today is not simply a celebration. Foster's comment mirrors the widespread discontent in Selma's black community over the political and economic obstacles blacks still face, and march organizers say that they intend to dramatize those issues.

Selma's public schools, which have gone from a ratio of about 55% white and 45% black in 1965 to 70% black and 30% white today, suffer from chronic lack of funds and dismal student achievement scores.

The overall unemployment here is a heavy 15%--but in the black community it is more than double that. According to a December, 1984, report by the Southern Regional Council, poverty among blacks in the 11 states of the old Confederacy has probably risen to 39%--"a rate which makes almost two out of every five blacks below poverty."

Little Change Seen

"I don't think things have improved too much," said Sam Evans, 48, an unemployed cotton press worker who lives in a ramshackle "shotgun" house in the depressed black ghetto known as East Selma. "People around here are walking around hungry, they can't get jobs. It's the whites that gets the jobs."

Mayor Smitherman sees things differently. Smitherman, 55, who was reelected to an unprecedented sixth term last year with more than 10% of the black vote, said: "We've made more progress here in Selma than in the South as a whole. If you want hate these days, go to Boston, where they've got less than half the percentage of blacks that we do and the whites and blacks can't stand each other."

"Bloody Sunday" contributed greatly to the positive changes in Selma. Five months after that brutally violent incident made national headlines and television footage, stirring up widespread public outrage, Congress overwhelmingly approved the landmark Voting Rights Act.

That measure--signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and widely regarded as the most important piece of civil rights legislation in this century--broke down longstanding barriers that had denied blacks in the South any effective voice in political life.

Gone with the wind were such opprobrious schemes to disenfranchise blacks as literacy tests and poll taxes. Blacks no longer lived in fear for their lives or their property if they attempted to register to vote. In the 10 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of registered black voters in the South rose from 1.4 million to 3.8 million. And from 1970 to 1984, the number of black elected officials in the nation went from 1,469 to 5,700.

Dramatic Voter Increase

In Selma, the increase in registered black voters was even more dramatic. Before 1965, they totaled less than 300 out of a potential 15,115. By November of 1984, the total number of registered blacks had soared to 18,591, compared to 19,648 registered whites.

Now, however, blacks charge that they are suffering from forms of racial prejudice on the political front that are more subtle and sophisticated, but no less insidious, than the legal discrimination that existed before.

"It's hard to single out a single advancement by blacks that was not won through a court order, the federal government or the threat of litigation," said J. L. Chestnut Jr., a prominent black attorney here who has played a role as a "legal godfather" to the civil rights movement since the early 1960s. He cited as examples the lawsuit to force the city and county governments to publicly advertise their job vacancies and the lawsuit to overhaul the jury selection system so that more blacks could serve.

Chestnut is also among Smitherman's most vocal critics. Recently, when civil rights leader Jesse Jackson phoned to propose inviting the mayor to join Jackson on the podium at Brown Chapel for the morning memorial service today, Chestnut exploded.

'How Far We Have Come'

Jackson said: "I suggest it is appropriate to have Mayor Smitherman seated on the platform during the commemorative service. In a sense, he represents how far we have come and how far we must go together."

Chestnut snapped back: "The mayor hardly represents anything of the sort, and inviting him underscores that false image. I think he ought to be left outside, agitating at my mother and others, as he did 20 years ago."

"If you ask me, I think blacks in Selma are actually losing ground," said the Rev. F. D. Reese, a junior high school principal and pastor who gave up his City Council post last year to make a bid--an unsuccessful one--to become the city's first black mayor.

"I hesitate to draw a parallel between the period right after Reconstruction and now, but it sure seems like we're headed in that direction."

Reese's lament is not confined to blacks in Selma. Throughout the South--and in many parts of the North as well--blacks are sounding the alarm over what they view as the steady erosion of the hard-earned civil rights advances of the 1960s and 1970s, and the strong potential for blacks to become trapped in a permanent second-class status.

Was the Great Society

"There is a vastly different climate now than then," said John Lewis, a 45-year-old black Atlanta city councilman who was clubbed into unconsciousness in 1965 as he led the "Bloody Sunday" march over the Pettus Bridge.

"It was the Great Society then," he said. "We saw the federal government as a sympathetic referee in the struggle for civil rights. The Voting Rights Act created a great sense of hope and a greater sense of optimism. We felt as if we got the ballot, we would transform the South and make it a better place."

Lewis and many other black political thinkers believe that the dream started going sour with the escalation of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and chronic business stagnation and economic inflation that all but arrested growth during the latter half of the 1970s and the early part of this decade.

The Reagan Administration, carried into office on a strong conservative tide, has compounded the problem, they contend. The Administration's cuts in social spending, its open hostility toward traditional civil rights goals, and its coolness toward the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act are viewed by blacks as mortal threats.

'Headed for Violence'

Even Mayor Smitherman is not sanguine about the future. "Don't call me an extremist, but I feel we're headed for some violence from the black communities in your larger cities," he said. "When you cut off people's bread, which is what the Reagan Administration is going to do, they're not going to take it."

The mayor said that he had noticed a hardening of racial lines in Selma over Reagan's plan for further cuts in social programs.

Organizers of the 20th anniversary march to Montgomery hope--among other things--to dramatize what they see as dangers to social and political programs on which blacks have counted.

"There is a need to highlight the need for strong enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and legal action to tear down the continuing barriers to black political participation," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is sponsoring the anniversary activities in Selma along with the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project.

The Rev. Joe Rembert, pastor of Brown Chapel, has selected a theme for today's religious service that he said should be a reminder to all blacks of the need to commit themselves to the struggle for equal rights.

It is taken from Galatians in the New Testament: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

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