Fifty years ago, on the 7th of March, 1965, the first attempted march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama along US 80 to protest unjust, illegal, unconstitutional, racially-motivated restrictions on voting -- as well as recent deadly police violence -- was broken up by "law officers" and "deputies" using clubs, whips, cattle prods, tear gas, and physical barehanded violence.
The violence of that day was captured on film and video and shown around the country and around the world, and that first march became known as "Bloody Sunday." It was a tremendous turning point in public opinion, and the disgust that it generated, among those who saw the images of violence against unarmed, non-violent men and women and even children, finally accomplished changes which decades of litigation in the court system could not achieve in the unjust courts which were dominated in many cases by those who also supported racial oppression.
It is quite possible to make the argument that the nonviolent marches beginning in Selma were deliberately designed to bring into the light of day -- to reveal and make obvious -- the officially-condoned, soul-crushing reign of violence and racial oppression that had been going on for decades in the United States but which had been largely ignored, excused, and overlooked by those not directly threatened by it.
This is the argument proposed by David J. Garrow in Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, published in 1978, a book which began from a thesis he began in 1973 while a student at Wesleyan College and which as a book won the 1979 Chastain Award of the Southern Political Science Association for "best book on politics, government, or public administration in the US South."
In that book, he presents evidence that:
The first federal attempts to protect southern blacks' right to vote [. . .], based upon the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, employed a litigative strategy of enforcement which placed much faith in the federal courts' ability to rectify racial discrimination in the electoral process. As we shall see, this faith was badly misplaced. Recalcitrant, obstructionist judges in most southern jurisdictions all but stifled the Justice Department's attacks on voting-related racial discrimination and harassment. Only minute gains in black registration and voting resulted from the Justice Department's long and costly attempts to eliminate racial discrimination in the electoral processes of several dozen southern counties. Recently one scholar has asserted that the courts eventually would have proven successful in effectively enforcing southern blacks' right to vote. Consideration and analysis of this claim shows how erroneous it is. 5.
It was not until the events of "Bloody Sunday" that people around the country finally became sickened by the spectacle of seeing on a large scale and in undeniable images and film footage the kind of violence and ugliness which had been operating in the shadows and on a more individual-scale for decades but which -- for whatever reason -- they had not previously considered and had therefore tolerated, ignored, or "excused away."
This view of the events of Selma in March of 1965 is incredibly important, I believe, for a number of reasons, because it shows that:
- "Artificial legalities" were being used to thwart natural universal law. Natural universal law says that no one has a right to use force to stop another person from doing something lawful (nonviolent) such as voting, assembling peaceably, riding in a car with another person regardless of the color of their skin, or protecting their mother from assault -- and certainly no one has the right to use deadly force and thereby kill someone for any of the above actions. Artificial "laws" (which really are illegal and hence no laws at all, which is why they will be referred to here as "legalities" instead) are often written which supposedly bestow upon some men or women a free pass to violate the rights of other men and women, or even to use physical force against them to oppress them and deny them of their human rights and dignity.
- These artificial legalities ("artificial legalities" in this case being used as a term to describe those laws on the books which are deliberately designed to subvert or "get around" the requirements of natural law, and in doing so to do violence to the natural law rights of some group of men and women) are often supported by a variety of mental "smokescreens" or "illusions" (or "paradigms," or "narratives") which prevent their careful examination by those not directly violated by them. We could use a shorter, blunter word and call them "lies." These lies or illusions, when widespread among the general populace, act to prevent outrage which could in fact bring about the rejection of those artificial legalities. Because of this fact, in these types of extreme cases, attempts to address obvious natural-law violations through the courts can be thwarted by what Garrow calls "recalcitrant, obstructionist judges" -- that is, judges who do not care about natural universal law but actually wanted to continue a system built upon the violation of natural universal law, which they assisted by their reliance upon artificial legalities.
- In reality, the judges and their artificial legalities are only a small piece of the puzzle: the bigger piece is the perception of the public at large. There were some men and women who actually used physical violence against blacks, in a way that was almost "casual" in its brutality (Garrow, 228). These acts of outright violence were enabled by the courts and the system of artificial legality described above -- but they were also enabled by the many more people, not just in the south but around the country, who were neither judges nor active perpetrators of violence themselves, but who supported, overlooked, condoned, or otherwise excused the racism and thus the violence and the violations of the rights and dignity of other men and women.
- As long as that larger body of men and women -- the ones who generate that nebulous thing known as "public opinion" -- did not examine their support of the violations of natural law that were taking place, the courts could continue to use artificial legalities to paper over clear violations of natural law, and those who were accustomed to actually inflicting almost "casual" forms of physical violence against other men and women based on the color of their skin could get away with it, often with complete impunity.
- In other words: there were enough judges (and juries) in the courts who were devoted to a system that clearly violated natural universal law, and which condoned systemic, brutal, often murderous violence against some men and women in the society. As long as enough people in the "society at large" either consciously supported that same unjust system, or simply failed to examine it and thus failed to become outraged by it, these courts could use their artificial legalities to thwart natural universal law, and those criminals who actually perpetrated violence against African-American men and women and children could do so with impunity.
- That is why a strategy of simply trying to go through the courts would not work and did not work from 1957 to 1965 (or in decades before 1957, as there actually were voting rights acts on the books going back to the 1800s).
- The events at Selma in 1965 represented a completely different approach, a new strategy: the attempt to appeal to the inherent sense of natural law and human dignity in the public-at-large. While there will always be some upon whom such an appeal will not work, if the majority of people become outraged at clear violations of natural universal law, the artificial legalities can be swept aside by the tide of public opinion. The key is to wake people up to the point that they examine the assumptions and illusions -- in fact, the lies -- which they had been listening to or subscribing to without questioning or examining up to that point.
- David Garrow's 1978 book presents specific evidence that the marches originating in Selma, Alabama were deliberately designed to bring about a situation in which the injustice of the system that controlled the courts and the agents of "law enforcement" in Alabama would be on full display to the world.
Note that the assertion that the Selma marches were part of a deliberate strategy of nonviolence as a means of waking people up to injustice does not in any way suggest that they were somehow less-than-authentic, or that the very real injuries and violence and abuse (and even loss of life) that participants suffered as a result of their decision to march (or their decision to shuttle marchers back in their cars afterwards) are in any way less valid.
On the contrary, as the evidence shows, other methods of ending the institutionalized discrimination and oppression and violence were not working. A strategy of peaceful protest in a city and county where the police and sheriffs and deputies would be likely to exhibit on a large scale the almost "casual" violence that individual black men and women were at risk of encountering on an individual scale at just about any moment in their daily lives if they violated the unwritten norms and mores of that society was both courageous and intelligent -- and it turned out to be extremely effective, at least in terms of securing the ability to register to vote.
It was also an extremely moral strategy -- it appealed to natural universal law, and it appealed to the higher aspect of human nature, the spiritual aspect of human nature.
Racism, violence, and other violations of natural law are by their very nature degrading, brutalizing, de-spiritualizing. If every human being has a physical component and a spiritual component, racism and violence emphasize the physical component and attempt to deny the spiritual component.
They emphasize the visible and deny the invisible.
They emphasize our animal nature and deny the inner, hidden, but undeniable divine spark present in each and every human being.
Thus violence and racism and the lies that support and enable them act to pervert and reverse the teachings of the collective ancient sacred teachings of humanity, which (I believe) can be shown to be designed to help us recognize and emphasize and "coax out" the invisible, spiritual, hidden-and-almost-forgotten divine spark inside ourselves and others and the world around us.
We can say this succinctly by saying that violence and racism, by their very nature, curse and do not bless.
The violence displayed against the marchers at Selma in March of 1965 place this brutalizing aspect of racism on full display: white "law officers" and "deputies" (many of these deputies being private citizens, "deputized" and given clubs to use against the marchers) used whips, cattle prods, and horses against the marchers in Selma, as well as clouds of tear gas which is composed of pulverized glass and attacks the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth, causing the eyes to burn and begin to flow with tears and the nose and lungs to burn and begin to flow with mucous -- thus emphasizing the body and bodily functions and pulling the consciousness down from any sort of higher considerations to the problem of wiping off the snot that is hanging down like long icicles from one's own nostrils, and figuring out how to get fresh breaths of air into one's lungs without choking or gasping or vomiting.
In previous civil rights marches (notably in Birmingham), police also let big German shepherd police dogs brutalize marchers, leaping at them and biting them and ripping their clothes off. They also turned powerful firehoses on men and women, which is also extremely brutalizing. (Photo gallery).
Garrow recounts some of the injuries after the march at Selma:
The parsonage next door to Brown's Chapel became one treatment center, as the New York doctors and nurses treated the less seriously injured, most of whom were suffering from the effects of the tear gas. At Good Samaritan Hospital several blocks away, fifty to sixty marchers were treated, and seventeen were admitted. Injuries included fractured ribs and wrists, severe head gashes, broken teeth, and what was thought to be a fractured skull sustained by SNCC's John Lewis. More than half a dozen others were treated at the Burwell Infirmary. Estimates of the total of injured ran as high as ninety to one hundred. 76.
Even after the marchers had retreated to the churches, "tear gas was fired into the First Baptist Church, and lawmen threw a black teenager through a window" (76).
Some human beings are so gripped by a consuming mental lie that they will not recoil at such an exhibition of violating the rights of other men and women for the non-crime of peaceably assembling to protest a culture of institutionalized racist violence and severe voter registration discrimination by walking across a bridge and down a highway,* but most know that such brutality is profoundly wrong. Garrow cites first-hand accounts by people around the country after watching the news that night of Bloody Sunday, and being shocked and outraged.
I believe this analysis of the Selma marches is extremely important in any struggle against the systematic, institutionalized violation of natural universal law and human rights.
The peaceful marchers at Selma did not have "superior physical force" to match what the law enforcement personnel (and the private citizen "deputies") brought to bear against them. In fact, the peaceful marchers did not have weapons at all, while those who opposed them had weapons, tear gas, helmets, and in some cases even horses.
What they did have, however, was truth on their side. Systems which say that it is excusable to violate the natural human rights of another man or woman, and even to use physical violence against them for virtually any arbitrary reason whatsoever, can only be supported by lies.
We are all, sadly, capable of accepting stunning lies and of overlooking grievous violence -- even of condoning it or promoting and praising it. The illusions or paradigms or smokescreens or narratives that we accept and buy into, and which can blind us or numb us to the criminality of what is taking place literally all around us -- and which we are in fact enabling and supporting through our failure to examine the assumptions underlying those narratives or paradigms.
Until something blows that fog of illusion away, rolls back the smokescreen, we probably will not exhibit any outrage, because we remain willfully blind to the outrages that are taking place.
In such an environment, criminals can perpetrate acts of almost "casual" violence with impunity. In extreme situations, the courts will look the other way, fail to convict those criminals of their crimes, and actively seek to subvert natural law through twisted structures composed of artificial legalities.
The leaders of the Civil Rights movement eventually realized that their plan of going through the courts first was being thwarted, obstructed, and subverted by some of those who were running the courts themselves. They hit upon the strategy of appealing directly to the general public at large -- behind whose apathy those criminal violations were being allowed to continue with impunity.
The events of Bloody Sunday were an absolutely historic turning point which led to a widespread re-examination of previously unquestioned assumptions, paradigms, and lies -- and which led many to reject those previously unexamined paradigms. It had dramatic results. Of course, there has been more progress in some areas of ending racially-based violations of rights than in others, and so the process of calling for the examination of assumptions, paradigms and narratives must go on.
There is much, much more that could be said about the details of the events leading up to the Selma marches, and about the importance of what took place in Selma and other cities in the South fifty years ago. Far too little of the truly ugly and disturbing details of some of the violence that took place before and after the actual marches is ever studied or discussed or examined in classrooms or in "the news," with the result being that far too little of it is examined and considered for its applicability to our individual lives and to the situations we find ourselves facing today.
We owe it to ourselves to seek out and study this information and this history on our own. And, we owe it to those who at great personal risk to their own physical security participated in those marches so many years ago: we should learn as much as we can about what they were really facing in their lives, and to learn the lesson that they taught us about the importance of natural universal law, about the ability of peaceful protest to blow away the fog of lies, about the courage to stand up to violence and injustice, about human dignity, and ultimately about the elevation of the human spirit -- about blessing -- and about refusing to be dragged down by people or forces or systems that want to degrade and brutalize us.
* and, by the way, the artificial excuse that Sheriff Clark had put US Highway 80 "off limits" due to possible public safety concerns and that the assembly was thus "unlawful" is a canard, as Clark had in previous months authorized his lawmen to use billy clubs -- and used his own billy club -- to prevent blacks from entering by the front door of the courthouse, and to force them into a side alley where they and their protest against voter registration discrimination would be more out of sight, and as no one can argue that preventing them from going in the front door was a "public safety concern," neither can we believe that Sheriff Clark was really issuing his injunction against the marchers because he had "public safety concerns" about their crossing the bridge or walking down the side of the highway in this peaceful protest.