Production Team: C
Interview Date: December 5, 1985
Camera Rolls: 568-571
Sound Rolls: 1531-1532
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Mayor Joseph Smitherman, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 5, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Sound roll 1531
Camera Roll 568
OK FIRST THING I WOULD LIKE YOU TO GO BACK BEFORE YOU WERE MAYOR AND UH, WHEN YOU WERE A BUSINESSMAN, UH, WHAT WAS YOUR ATTITUDE [overlap] THIS IS FOR REAL.
Well, I ran an appliance store when I got out of high school, I got married. Uh, people get married very young in the south in those days and I got married and I got a job selling appliances first with the railroad and then appliances. We didn't have much industry in Selma in those days. Mainly cotton and agricultural. So I got a job selling appliances with sears Roebuck and then later on went into an appliance business with two partners on a shoestring. And uh, some of my best customers were black school teachers you know, you'd often get caught in a, and they were genuine friends, these were the few jobs the blacks had in those days and professions, and you know, you dare not call them Mister, or Mrs. and you dare not put it on their stationery Mister or Mrs. this is sometimes it would really bother you, you'd meet them in a bank or something like that and they're one of your best customers and yet you'd have a white person who might be one of your worst customers and uh, you would try to walk around, uh, or get to the other side because you had a lot of white pressure, it was just built up in you that—we never had the Ku Klux Klan in this area, we had what you'd call the White Citizens' Council which, and I was a member of it, that uh, we'd promoted, separate but equal philosophy, and uh, one of the things was to bring economic pressure on any blacks that tried to integrate restaurants, or get out of line, so to speak and this sort of thing and uh, then the whites also put pressure on each other if a white person was shown sympathetic or so-called liberal to a black or had a black waitress or something, uh, you'd get a group to go by and say, Hey what are you doing? You helping promote these radicals and civil rights idea, integration. So uh, you had that sort of pressure on you in those days. And all politicians that ran for off- ice had that cause I came from a poor background, uh, I grew up on welfare, uh, it wasn't food stamps, uh, my mother was a widow woman, with 6 children, I was the youngest. We moved to Selma when I was a month old. And my father died when I was 2 months old, no hard-luck story but just the facts. And uh, we had, we got a welfare check and uh, we had uh, surplus food. we had the powdered potatoes, the powdered milk, uh, the barley bread, apples and cheese and so forth and you got food, you didn't get the stamps that you could swap for beer or whatever, but we had a lot of pride and I was ashamed to go get it. You know, because I lived in the railroad section of town, and these other kids had food uh, but I would go get the welfare food, and I was ashamed of it and I wanted to get out of that environment. And uh, I struggled through those days, getting married young and the appliance business and what and I guess, in some instances blacks had it better than I did and many of them worse, but they would take jobs that whites would not take, like being maids and things like that or taking washing, uh, even though many times I wish we did because uh, if you went hungry for a day and a half, you know what it means. So…
OK, LET ME JUST JUMP IN HERE. CAN WE JUST STOP HERE FOR A MOMENT? I'D LIKE TO MOVE AHEAD NOW, YOU WERE NEWLY ELECTED WHEN ALL OF A SUDDEN THE KING CAMPAIGN GOT STARTED HERE, UH, WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO ALL OF THAT?
Well, I was elected to the city council in 1960, which is a part-time legislative job. Out of 11 council members I was elected at age 30 to the City Council and it was all white obviously, and I was a rebel with those other council members and the former mayor because we all were segregationists but I was for, I really got in politics to try to get industry, pave the streets, streetlights, uh because segregation was not an issue, everybody was a segregationist, it was in politics, uh, so I was elected to the Council, I could do very little in, on the council and, I was determined I wanted to be the Mayor, that's where the, you had a lot of authority. So at age 34 I ran for the office of mayor and uniquely so, uh, while the black vote didn't amount to any percentage, we had about uh 9,000 white voters and about 200 black voters maybe, and so, uh, in fact you tried to run from the black voters. I believe not because of my racial views but because of progressive views for jobs, industry and things like this, I would have got what black vote was there, but I didn't solicit it or seek it. As opposed to now we do, but uh, and genuinely so, but uh, I ran for the office of Mayor and I, interestingly enough, Jim Clark backed me and Wilson Baker backed me. Jim Clark, the sheriff and the former police chief who had run against Clark, uh, backed me. And I put together a coalition of people from moderate, uh, low income moderate, middle income whites and some of the upper income financial institutions.
LET ME JUST MOVE YOU UP TO THE KING CAMPAIGN, DID YOU FIND THAT THREATENING? WHEN YOU FINALLY CAME IN?
Well I came into office, I took office after being elected October 1 of 1964 and somehow I blocked out, I was on a cloud having run on these progressive steps, I thought we could handle the racial situation. Uh, I offered a thing that was very big then, anybody could come to my office which was unheard of, I got a lot of rack for it, but I even called three prominent black leaders down I won't call their name now, and I tried to make a deal with them. I said, just little things, I've got some state money if you three will come out publicly and demand I pave a road, which back then, practically all the streets in predominantly black area were dirt now there all paved and I said, you'll get credit for this and I'll respond. And we don't need this Martin Luther King in here he was announcing from Atlanta he was coming to the most segregated, biased city in the South as representative of the South as a whole to promote voter rights and he would make these announcements and while we did what we thought was a good job trying to defuse it and keep him out of here and work with local leaders and it was impossible and then his very announcements brought in radical whites uh, that would come in from other parts of Alabama and Georgia and uh,
TELL ME THE STORY ABOUT A BLACK CON MAN WHO OFFERED TO…
Oh yes, we, we even had, uh, black conmen to come in, they, they a group had formed after my election before I took office, of prominent old men, civic leaders, financial institutions and things like this and they would meet at night not bi-racial, it was all white, but they would be considered liberal in those days, and finally disbanded. But, you had this black going around to the various counties where you had a large black population and he was selling influence, he claimed that for $10,000 he could keep Dr. King out of here. And I think local group here paid him about 7 to 800 dollars before we convinced them he was a con artist and uh, that uh, and he got some more out of some other counties, I don't know where he is today…
OK, NOW YOU MENTIONED SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH BLACK PEOPLE. [unintelligible]WHY DID YOU BRING WILSON BAKER BACK?
Well, in order to win the election for mayor, I had to have support from various groups and while I probably was closer to Jim Clark in those days, uh, cause he was the sheriff and had beaten Baker who was the Police Captain, the former Police Chief when I ran for mayor had walked the streets against me, I had to have a new Police Chief, it was part of my campaign pledge, Baker was well qualified and he wanted to come back and Clark was afraid of Baker come back, he would run against him and Baker gave him his assurances he would not run. And uh, so I tried to make it up with Clark, but it didn't work. And things, got, such a resistance built between the civil rights people split ‘em up and between the city and the county and so much politics, that finally at one time Clark was going to run for Governor. And he told me he was going to run for Governor so that released Baker of his pledge not to run against him.
OKAY, BUT DID YOU BRING WILSON BAKER BACK EXPRESSLY TO, BECAUSE OF THE KING CAMPAIGN, OR?
No, I brought Wilson Baker back because he was a political ally and it took his help because I only incumbent mayor then some like two thousand five hundred, to two thousand and that was a big election, probably the biggest they'd here in 30 years or longer. And an unknown and from, not a Selmian and the wrong side of the tracks and all those things, it took the support of Wilson Baker and people wanted a change, many of the people that supported me in the Police Department.
AND WHAT WAS YOUR VIEW TOWARD UH, JIM CLARK AT THAT TIME?
He was a very close friend, and uh, you know.
CAN YOU START THAT OVER BECAUSE NOBODY HEARD THE…
Jim Clark was a very close friend and supporter and uh, Jim Clark was a very affable guy, everybody liked him, so you, you know, these things switch. Jim Clark had been, when he first ran for office, he got what Jewish vote it was, we have a big Jewish community for a city this size, Jim got the Jewish vote, the Catholic vote, what little black vote it was out there the first time he ran he was appointed by Folsom and ran against Baker, a popular police captain. Baker at that time was a hard core conservative in racial matters and Clark was a liberal and it just reversed. Uh, you know, similar to Gov. Wallace and Gov. Patterson. When Gov. Wallace first ran for office, he carried the black vote and he lost, Patterson called him a liberal, next time Wallace said nobody will out seg me again. And he stood in school house doors, and all those things which, uh, he carefully articulated. But last time he ran against a Republican, he got 200,000 black votes, or approximately 99% of the black vote.
OK, I DON'T WANT TO KEEP BADGERING YOU ABOUT JIM CLARK, BUT I AM CURIOUS CAUSE WHEN YOU SAY THAT HE WAS, UH HE WAS CERTAINLY A MODERATE, WHAT MADE HIM CHANGE?
Well, community climate, Jim Clark was an outsider. Similar to me, even moreso. He had been appointed by a Governor of Alabama, Big Jim Folsom who was kin to, which was very unpopular in this particular county the old heart of the Black belt. And it's named the Black belt because of its rich black soil and this is where all the farming and cotton were. And when he ran for reelection that's when Baker ran against him and Baker had all the problem that whites and so forth and Clark had a mixture of the whites, and uh, so, but when he got into office with the White Citizens Council, which was, uh, a big factor, it started in Mississippi and next to that we had the largest contingent. And this was made up of prominent business people, farmers and middle and low income whites. And you had people elect… well this was what
[Ok that was a rollout on 568, we're going to Camera Roll 569]
I JUST WANT TO PUSH A LITTLE BIT MORE ON JIM CLARK, BECAUSE THERE WAS ALWAYS A TENDENCY TO MAKE CLARK THE GOAT, TO MAKE HIM THE BAD GUY, WHAT, WHAT WAS HE REALLY LIKE, WHAT, WHAT REALLY HAPPENED WITH JIM CLARK?
Well, it was politics, you had the White Citizens' Council, what they did at one time prior to Dr. King coming in, uh, even John Lewis and all of those, the Citizens' Council got the Sheriff and he formed a posse, he had a riding posse and he had a walking posse. You know, in the state laws, statutes like the Old West where could you have a posse. Well uh, they had brown shirts and they bought their guns, and they would have parades down the main street and go out to a ball field and practice and of course, if you rode a horse you were higher up in there, you was, those was big landowners. And that got to be a big political arm for him, but it's tied directly to the Citizens Council and segregation. And he built up state-wide notoriety in fact, at one time, I think the airborne unit in Kentucky, I had a friend in it come down here one day whispered to me they'd called him into a meeting they had portfolio on all of us figuring out how to make a drop on Selma. They thought we were having a insurrection and you know, we didn't pay that much attention to it, I mean, it was an honor for a lot of these people to be in the posse.
SO YOU'RE SAYING BASICALLY THAT HE KIND OF GOT CAUGHT UP IN HIS OWN…?
Yes, and then you had the thing where the tail was wagging the dog. A lot of the extreme elements were in the Citizens' Council and if you had a good leader, which we had in the Citizens' Council, kept things at a low level, kept down violence, but the elements working back through the Sheriff provoked him into a lot of these things, saying that if you don't react stronger to these demonstrations, when they actually started, Baker's going to run and get your job because Baker prior to that had been the uh, stronger on the segregation issue. So, I think, it was a case of Sheriff Clark, some of it just literally being provoked, just like I was. I mean, you know, here you are in a city, you just been elected and he's got his thing going and uh, you're for jobs, and paving streets and all of that and in comes a civil rights leader, with a lot of national uh, TV and newspaper, we had close to 200 people from various news media all your networks in here and they converge on your city and the first march you see things that you've never seen before and I'd say 2/3 of the 350 marches, the first march out of town people, you would have a black woman carrying a white baby with a white man, or you'd have a blonde headed white woman with a black man and a black baby. And course, while we kept the marches concentrated in a given area from the Brown's Chapel by city, old city hall to the courthouse, you'd have people on the sidewalks jeering them and jeering us to stop ‘em. Which we were trying to handle it peacefully and hope we would wear ‘em out and they'd get out of town and leave town. And everyday they would do something new, but, and everyday the sheriff when they got to the Courthouse would do something uh, different, uh, he'd be provoked by his followers and while, uh Baker who later became sheriff handled it very professionally, uh, very professionally, uh, the press would praise him for his professionalism and damn Clark for being an extremist and that just widened the gap between various people in Selma. And uh, uh, you know uh, this is some of the things, but uh, Clark…
WHAT ROLE DID THE PRESS PLAY IN THIS?
The press, without the press there would have been no voting rights act. Because every day, and a lot of young people don't realize it now, but everyday for about 3 months, Selma was headline news. Now they see marches all over the country, and other countries too, but this is where they really started the mass, day by day marching. And everyday it was something different.
WELL LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT THIS, THIS WHOLE ISSUE OF VOTING RIGHTS, I MEAN THAT WAS REALLY A STATES ISSUE AT THAT TIME, DID YOU FEEL IT WAS UNFAIR THAT YOU BECAME A GOAT…
Right, I mean, you've hit, the, you know they hit us this city, they hit this city for voting rights which, frankly we wouldn't have done it had we had the power, but we had no power to handle that. The sheriff had no power, that was in the Governor's hands. The Governor appoints three Board of Registrars that just happen to have an office at the County Courthouse and under state law, they could only register only on certain day, but that didn't really matter, they wouldn't have allowed blacks to register anyway, maybe one here or there. But we had no power to change that or, I don't think we would have if we had uh, and uh, neither did the sheriff or the probate judge, or whatever. And the Governor would dare not do it and we wouldn't have either. But the issue was that the state capitol, but uh, that came about later. They picked Selma just like a movie producer would pick a set. You had the right ingredients, I mean you would have to have seen Clark in his day, he had a helmet liner like General Patton, he had the clothes, the Eisenhower jacket and swagger stick and then Baker was very impressive, and I guess I was the least of all, I was 145 pounds and a crew cut and big ears. So you had a young mayor with no background or experience** or uh, I don't guess it would have counted had you had and you had this dynamic figure, Wilson Baker, a professional law enforcement officer a moderate, if you please, and you had Sheriff Clark that was a military figure uh, and you know that's quite a scene, and you had the old South, an example of the old South and here they came.
ALRIGHT LET ME, LET ME JUST [unintelligible] NOW, YOU WERE A BIG SUPPORTED OF GEORGE WALLACE, WHY COULDN'T YOU JUST GET ON THE PHONE AND SAY, GEORGE, GEORGE THEY'RE BEATING ME ABOUT THE EARS, CAN'T YOU JUST OPEN THESE DAMN OFFICES SO THAT THEY CAN REGISTER VOTERS FASTER?
Well the reason I couldn't get Gov, Wallace to change, that's why he's Governor now and uh, it wasn't time for him to change and he would, he would say it's a local issue, but don't allow violence because if you do we'll have to send the National Guard in and uh, President Johnson will mobilize them and you'll have United States Army in control and I don't want the Army in charge of one of my cities in my state. And uh, he said I want you fellas to keep, keep control and he knew it was division over here but Clark was so popular and even his Public Safety or Trooper Director, the late I.O. Lingo, Clark really dominated him and we'd uh, of course the Governor was supporting my efforts, and Wilson Baker's efforts, but he didn't want to have a public issue with Jim Clark, he had become that big and he wanted to fire his Highway Director, I mean, uh, the Trooper Director but he couldn't because, because of Clark, they had the support of the Citizens Council throughout Alabama. And he wasn't ready to make the issue. He finally did almost make the issue after the incident at the foot of the bridge. But we, you know, they used to call me uh, Clark would call for 50 troopers, or 100 troopers cause they would come under Lingo who had controlled all that and uh, I'd call the Governor and the Governor finally made a policy he wouldn't send ‘em unless me and Clark both and we'd argue back and forth I'd say, we don't need ‘em, and, but then you'd worry what if something did happen and I'd say, well send 10 and we'd finally work it out and get 50 you know, Clark wanted 100 and I didn't want any, but I'd say 25 and we'd compromise on 50. And then they'd turn on the sirens and head over here and it created an atmosphere.
WELL IT SOUNDS TO ME WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS THAT… OK IT SOUNDS TO ME WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS THAT ULTIMATELY IT WASN'T CLARK IN CHARGE, IT WASN'T BAKER IN CHARGE, IT WASN'T WALLACE IN CHARGE. IT WASN'T JOE SMITHERMAN IN CHARGE, IT WAS THE WHITE CITIZENS' COUNCIL IN CHARGE.
Well, when you say the White Citizens' Council, yes, you know uh, it was a climate or an atmosphere, not just here but people come in don't give up, stand your ground, you're fighting for the white man's rights and all of this stuff and uh, so, really you just roll with the situation, I mean, nobody was really totally in charge. Uh, because uh, we felt Baker had a idea that we oughta go ahead and register some but we couldn't convince the appointed registrars to do that, I wouldn't have publicly done it anyway but, we even talked, I went and visited Katzenbach, quietly and he said if you people don't register put out card tables and register give everybody the right to register down there, uh, the government's going to come in and register everybody that can breath. And uh, obviously we didn't do it and I even had a Republican Congressman come in and tell us that and but, the climate wouldn't allow you to do those things
[Smitherman. Ok reference tone.]
I'M CURIOUS ABOUT SOMETHING, UM, JUST A COUPLE OF YEARS BEFORE ALL THIS HAPPENED IN UH SELMA, THERE WAS OF COURSE ALL THE DEMONSTRATIONS IN BIRMINGHAM, THE EXAMPLE OF BULL CONNOR UM, THERE WAS ALBANY, GEORGIA WITH LAURIE PRITCHETT, DIDN'T THESE THINGS COME INTO THE THINKING WHEN YOU WERE IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS?
Well, you would tend to tune ‘em out. Uh, best I can remember. You, in retrospect you knew they were wrong and even then you knew it was wrong but then what would always you would rationalize why were they pushing this for and why were they trying to, uh, tear up the society with uh coming on this strong with demonstrations and things like this, why didn't these outside agitators leave us alone to work out our own problems. Well that was generally the attitude and course we knew it was wrong to shoot fire hoses and turn dogs loose uh, or whatever, we never did that here, but that was in Birmingham, but we all share the blame, I mean you know, I can't sit here because in my, I'm in my 6th term, 4-year term full-time Mayor's office. Uh, in my 4th term I got 70% of the black vote and I carried the white boxes too, not by that percent, but enough. My 4th, 5th term I got 80% of the black vote, cause…
OKAY, I'M SURE ALL THAT'S TRUE, BUT THAT'S A LITTLE BIT OUT OF OUR TIME FRAME. I'M REALLY JUST TRYING TO UNDERSTAND WHAT, IF YOU DIDN'T SIT DOWN WITH WILSON BAKER AND JIM CLARK AND SAY LOOK THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED IN ALBANY, GEORGIA, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED IN BIRMINGHAM, WE CAN CALM THIS THING DOWN IF EVERYBODY JUST STAYS COOL. CLARK, STAY COOL.
Well, we offered concessions behind the scenes uh, that uh, we would start hiring more people and uh, all of these things. Paving streets and we needed time, we were always asking for time, but the blacks had solidified their leadership through Martin Luther King. People like the former City Councilman F.D. Reese, or Reverend Reese, and other pastors here, their leadership then was mainly preachers. And they solidified their leadership not to give in on anything, in fact, uh, you look back and see how much you learn from those leaders uh, even after the demonstrations they would come in after Dr. King left and they looked around and nothing had really happened, they had the right to vote, but um, it hadn't really accomplished anything at that time. They'd come in with 10 demands and you'd listen to them 3 hours and give them one. They'd come back the next month with 10 more and you'd give them one you'd look around a year later and say, hell they got all 10 of them, uh, and cause and so what we did in the 70s…
WE JUST RAN OUT
[Ok that was a rollout on 569, we're going to 570 Camera Roll ]
MAYOR SMITHERMAN WHERE WERE YOU THE DAY OF THE PETTIS BRIDGE INCIDENT?
Well, when the incident at Pettis Bridge that was after almost two months of daily marches and a different type march every day. One time the word went out, see they built up all kind of momentum, the first march you'd arrest say, 6-800 and they would, a lot of them juvenile you'd let ‘em out and uh, they'd march the next say and they would put ‘em in a highway camp out here where workers would stay until they could process ‘em and turn back over to the custody of the parent. The press kept score and at one time we'd arrest 20 some thousand people down here which was about the same 1500 over and over and over and, these were the type things they would do, uh, and then they would go have the shouting matches at the courthouse uh, one time a picture went out on Jim Clark, I never will forget this one, a big black lady would make him get in line and the Federal judges would order you do it a certain ways you'd wrap ‘em around and around the courthouse cause registrars wouldn't see ‘em. And uh, but anyway a black lady jumped Jim Clark threw him on the ground, was lying on top of him beating on him and he of course he had his billy stick in his hand, he rolled over on top of her and was putting his stick away. The press took that picture and they stopped it on him pulling back with his stick like this and it went around the world showing a picture of Jim Clark beating a black lady on the ground, when he was trying to get her off him. But these are the type, just one of many, many incidents that happened, well the bridge march was kind of an accident. It was not a planned thing so to speak. What would happen, Dr. King would fly in and out of here for a big type march, but other than that it would be held, the marches would be led by always, Reverend Reese, John Lewis and Jose Williams. And the press, we used to, after awhile we couldn't get from the leaders what they would do everyday and we'd always watch the TV cameras, they had a station down here at EME Chapel and a housing project there, and uh, they were never on time, they never followed a schedule or what and we used to watch the TV cameras if uh, when they started moving, we knew something was going to happen. Cause they kept direct contact with the press and the press from New York and the major networks would tell em, uh, this thing is burned out we're going back to New York, there's no news down here. So they would come up with something different and I think this particular march without King's planning or Andrew Young or whatever these so-called people that, uh, say all these things now uh, John Lewis and Jose came up with this. They had about 325 or 375 people and they decided to march to Montgomery and carry their grievances to Governor Wallace and at first the Governor through his aides and what I was in direct contact with was going to let ‘em march. And some legislator convinced him that one of the counties between Selma and Montgomery that there might be violence and then he ordered a peaceful stop of it and uh, we Wilson Baker and a newspaper friend of mine we stayed on the phone four hours with one of Governor Wallace's aides that was from Selma convincing him that there was going to be trouble. Wilson Baker assured me that when they got across the bridge that they would be beat up and run back into Selma and then it would be a local problem again. see, that's always the kick between the Governor's office and local if it's something good, naturally the Governor who I support, had a big part in it, if something bad happened, that's a local problem that the city or the county should've taken care of. Everybody politicians finds their hard ground, so, uh, but when that beating happened at the foot of the bridge that looked like a war, uh that went all over the country. And then people, the wrath of the nation came down on us.** That one incident caused Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Congress is a reactionary body, they don't ever, pass anything out of uh, uh, statesmanship, if it's enough uh, commotion out there or whatever that the public comes down on ‘em, they'll pass it, other than that, it'd been years before they passed it and that one incident, uh, other than that we had it somewhat tempered because through the efforts of professionalism like Wilson Baker and uh…
BUT WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT THAT, WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED THERE.
What happened, I was not there, you know I would stay away, I was at City Hall, uh I didn't uh, I didn't understand how big it was until I saw it on television I was only about 3 blocks from it, but uh, and then you know, I didn't go out on the streets, I would stay on City Hall, cause I didn't want to be around uh, Dr. King, that was a political no-no and uh, but I was within 50 yards or 500 feet of everything and this instance 2½ blocks but see, we almost had a race riot that's the closest we come to violence in the city, they ran ‘em back over the bridge and then the city police did there share. And they ran into AMA Chapel and some of the posse members almost rode horses in there and even the city attorney who is deceased now, at that time who was a big supporter, naturally of mine and Jim Clark's and uh, it scared him and we probably would've had violence because you know that's, that's the sacredest part of anybody is their church, especially blacks but they almost rode horses, you know they got scared away in the AME Church and that's the closest, uh,
DID YOU FEEL LIKE EVERYTHING WAS JUST…
[overlap] Oh yes, yes, I was you know, the way the press could do it and you know, I understand that now, but uh, one time we issued an edict that they could not march to the courthouse and so they started assembling in Martin Luther King's street, it's Sylvan Street now, in front of that and so they would keep, it was about 300 and they would keep inching forward and we'd put a little rope across it and said, don't come beyond this point peacefully. Then it, the crowd ended up one time over about three weeks end up 3 or 4 thousand in there and it looked like and they didn't know when the press would come. They'd pull shifts they'd go into a housing projects, the church and rest and when it rained they had stuff to But when the press showed up they would all come out and you'd see 3 or 4 thousand people in the street - looked like we had the Berlin Wall, they called it the Selma wall. Like we were denying the people the right to go into the Courthouse, well they had the right to go in 4 or 5 down the sidewalk, but not a body of 2 or 3 thousand down the middle of the street without a parade permit. And uh, so these are the ways the press did their job uh because naturally they were sympathetic with the, uh Martin Luther King and the black movement and the right to vote and of course, all Southerners I have to say all Southerners, practically all Southerners, recognized that the South was wrong that, everybody should have had the right to vote, but it's not just the South, you had it in other parts of the country.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU HAD TALKED TO KATZENBACH, DID YOU HAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH ANYBODY ELSE IN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AT THAT TIME?
Baker had most of them, uh, Wilson Baker. John Doar was in here from the Justice Department, and uh, mine mainly was with the uh Governor's office because you know, it was, you didn't want to fool with any Federal people you know because everybody accuse you of a secret meeting and this sort of a thing. And uh, we've had Congressmen that come in, all would do their politics here, black Congressmen, come from Detroit, Conyers I think he was from New York uh, all of those would come in here and try to get publicity and uh, we'd have crazy things happen, we became the march capitol of the world. Kids would come in, students to get their spurs in Selma, I remember I had a phone call from University of Minnesota and some young girl said, we're coming to your city tomorrow, I don't know what I told her really, I didn't care for it, but they chartered an airplane brought a group of students to Montgomery Airport, landed rented a bus, came over here marched two hours, got in the bus went back caught the plane back and, I find today in dealing with Federal Agents many of them with prominent jobs marched here in Selma, that's part of their portfolio, that uh, I remember dealing with an Under Secretary of HUD, later on we went on to Federal Programs, I said you know uh, back then you wouldn't take the Federal dollar and we had so many things that needed to be done. Today all of our streets are paved, all the houses have collection line sewage, and things of this sort. We got, we figured, it's our tax dollar, let's go after it and use the name Selma.
WELL NOW, AFTER, AFTER THE INCIDENT AT PETTIS BRIDGE, COURSE UH, KING PUT OUT THE CALL FOR ALL THESE MINISTERS TO COME DOWN INCLUDING JIM REEB, WHO WAS ONE OF THE MINISTERS WHO CAME DOWN, HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT ALL THESE PEOPLE COMING TO YOUR TOWN?
Well, you, you it was disgusting, I mean you didn't want these people and you always fell back on, regardless of the mistreatment and not the right to vote, you fell back if these outsiders would get out of here, I'm going to be frank with you, some of them were very scummy people and uh, you know we even had some people in there sometimes we questioned who they were and now we had some scummy people trying to stop em. But, I remember and I, you know, I've got some closest Catholic friends in the world, we have an excellent Catholic community cuz we have lots of preachers down here wasn't preachers, I remember one catholic nun had a collar on and she was standing in line, I was stopping a march down there. And she winked at me several times, so, I don't believe she was a catholic nun, I think she rented the uniform, but uh, and we had a lot of preachers - everybody was a preacher, they'd just, you'd go rent those collars, or say you were a preacher here or there, now we had very legitimate ministers in here too. we had people from some of the largest uh, institutions, uh, Notre Dame, I forget the father's name that came here, and you know they were convicted especially after this incident in front of the bridge. And…
FINALLY THE MARCH WAS APPROVED, EVERYBODY FINALLY LEFT TOWN AND STARTED MARCHING, DID YOU THINK YOUR PROBLEMS WERE OVER THEN?
Yeah, but they wasn't, they'd just really started because they had not gained anything at that time other than Lyndon Johnson announced that he was going to give them protection, they were going to march to Montgomery, and with the army and so forth and so on. Uh, but then, it fell back on the local leaders and Dr. King came back in and out of here on a number of occasions. And then you had the local leaders that uh, we had marches on and off for four, five years. And a pattern had been set, and uh,
ON THE DAY WHEN THE MARCH GOT UNDERWAY TOWARD MONTGOMERY WITH PROTECTION AND EVERYTHING, YOU DIDN'T THINK THAT…
I thought they were gone, I thought that was it. Uh, you know they're out of Selma, Montgomery's got ‘em - that's great, but uh, they just went to Montgomery and course, they didn't march all the marchers, they just uh, marched bout 3 or 4 miles and then trains carried some of them to Montgomery but bout three hundred and fifty or some what marched all the way to Montgomery and you had movie stars flying and all that but, uh you had Walter Ruther with the AFL-CIO, you had all those people in here, the whole world it seemed like came in here from the news media all your big broadcasters were in here at least for one day.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WAS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE THAT WAS MADE AT THAT TIME?
Well, obviously the foot of the bridge, well you know, in retrospect, I don't think we made a mistake based on the prevailing conditions, [overlap] uh_
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UH, THERE WAS ONE POINT DURING ALL OF THESE CAMPAIGNS, I THINK THERE WAS EVEN TALK ABOUT TRYING TO GET A RECALL AND GET YOU OUT OF OFFICE, WHAT KIND OF RISK DID YOU HAVE?
Get a recall, no I got out of office one year.
NO I MEAN IN THE MIDST OF THE SELMA CAMPAIGN WHEN ALL THE DEMONSTRATIONS WERE GOING ON…
Oh yeah, well yeah, Uh, I was new in office and uh, you know because I didn't overreact or react as strongly or did Baker react as strongly because he was in charge of the police under me and the City Council then, but directly under me Baker was and because of the, his reaction, a more professional, moderate approach to allow them to march but peacefully and keep whites from getting involved. Uh, radical elements of whites, uh, there was an element that tried to organize a recall vote of me, that's the only way they could get rid of Baker and uh, but it never came off.
WHAT KIND OF THREATS DID YOU HAVE DURING THAT TIME?
What kind of what?
WERE YOU THREATENED DURING THAT TIME?
Oh yes, I've had threats and one time they even marched on my house, um you know, uh, we've had every type march, one time we had uh, Jewish Rabbis from up East, embarrassed the local Jewish community here and they tried to, we wouldn't arrest them, we put ‘em in the courtroom and let ‘em sit there and call the local Jewish people down to talk ‘em into going back home.
HOW ABOUT THE WHITE CITIZENS' COUNCIL, DID THEY THREATEN YOU DURING THIS TIME TO KIND OF SUPPORT CLARK?
Oh yes, it was political threats, economic threats, your friends were threatened uh, all of this economically. Economic threats were mainly what we had here, you know, uh, the whites would turn on you and not speak to you it was a bad feeling, uh, one day you was a hero and you know, you'd love to uh, see Martin Luther King would not break the law, we'd go down and stop him in the station area and we wanted to arrest him cause we wanted our hurrahs too. And we knew what Clark was going to do when he got to the courthouse and he was getting to be so popular locally and Alabama wide we'd say, what you in here breaking the law, you can't go. He said, tell me how I should go to the courthouse, I'm a law abiding man, I do not wish to break the law. Wilson Baker would tell him uh 2 and 3 down the sidewalk. He would very, with his demeanor and all, do that. Get to the courthouse you'd have one of his leaders react and you'd have a big scene – Clark would come out the hero to the local whites, but finally about the 16th day or whatever, I can't remember exactly, but uh, he told Wilson Baker I do not recognize your law, it's an unjust law. He already had his literature made out to be arrested in the Selma jail, I think he would have preferred the county jail, but uh, and you know to send out. And so he said, I do not recognize and so we arrested 284 and I'll never forget Baker said anybody knows why they're being, don't know why they're being arrested hold up their hand and about 20 did and told ‘em to go on home, but we put ‘em in jail and let all out but Martin Luther King and Rev. Abernathy, they refused to bond out. And then here comes the press and uh, he sends out his literature I mean, the Selma Jail and uh, so forth and so on. But uh, after about 5 or 6 days, I'm not sure, he did decide to get out he had accomplished his purpose on that day.
WHAT WAS THE BIG DEAL? I MEAN WHAT WAS IT THAT DROVE THE WHITE PEOPLE GENERALLY TO FEEL THAT THAT…
Well, okay, well the biggest thing that was used, and it's uh, somewhat political uh, you hardly hear it now, but the biggest okay. The biggest that was said and you grew up with that, if you give into those black people they'll end up marrying your sister. Uh, it was a racial uh, bitterness from that standpoint, you want ‘em marrying your sister, and uh, your son marrying a black and this sort of thing, that was one of the overriding things, they would always use that on you. And even though, you had people that grew up and blacks had a good relation with whites, poor whites and they worked together, they would always split and I think with jobs scarce in the agricultural area then, the whites were threatened with their jobs, you know, in a sense, if you can't do better and you won't work for this price, we'll get a black to do it, and they didn't say black you know, uh, so it was two things - race mixing and uh, economics. And you know, politicians in those days worked, worked that issue. They worked it, uh you got elected that way in the South and I imagine they do it up in Boston with the Catholics and the Protestants, I know they uh, do it in Ireland, I guess. You have, uh it's the same similar type thing, it may be more sophisticated, and not as out in the open, but uh, uh, they built up those things, fears, of losing the Catholic faith, or the Baptist faith, uh, fears of losing your white skin or losing your job.
OK JOHN, I THINK I'M DONE [overlap]
Even some of your north Alabama areas are more progressive but you had uh, anyway…
LET ME, THROW UH, AND THIS IS PROBABLY GOING TO BE THE FINAL ONE, BUT HERE IT GOES. UH, WHEN ALL OF THIS STARTED TO HAPPEN IN SELMA, THERE WAS A GREAT DEAL OF PRESSURE BEING PUT ON IN WASHINGTON TO TRY TO GET THIS VOTING RIGHTS BILL, DID YOU SENSE HOW BIG THIS THING WAS GETTING, WHEN DID YOU KNOW WHAT WAS HAPPENING HERE?
well, I really didn't know til way after the incident at the foot of the bridge, how big it was. Course we knew certainly when the act passed, or when Lyndon Johnson came on, I remember we were around Brown Chapel, I was in the area and you had all of these people marching around because after that they were in the staging area, we wouldn't let ‘em march 3 or 4 thousand. And uh, we had the radio on and all the blacks had the radio on, and you know, you'd mill around like a roman holiday until they got ready to march and everybody was regiment. I remember at one time I had 400 State troopers, Conservation Officers, and Game and Wildlife, everything, ABC agents under my direction and we ringed around that 16 block area. Nobody could come out of it, unless they were going back and forth. Uh, not in constitute a march. But Lyndon Johnson came on, the late President and said, We shall overcome. And that just like, uh, you'd stuck a dagger in your heart or something like that, I mean, you know, what's this guy doing, and you know you had respect for your country, the South's very patriotic, but it just destroyed everything you'd been allegedly fighting for** and uh, he said, we shall overcome and he called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. And uh, uh then you'd felt it was hopeless and then it just kept going down hill from the resistance side at that point, and then the, we went through a recovery stage, I guess for 3 or 4 years after that, of pulling people back together because the whites had split and uh, the county and the rural and city people had split, taken different positions and, the blacks were disenchanted.
He had, he had gotten involved in states rights, that was a big issue, you know we still believe that the state had the right to govern itself and set its standards, if we wanted a poll tax, if we wanted to set standards for qualified people to vote, we felt we had that states rights. That a state had that, when it joined the union, you know, we still believed that. People today will say they didn't but they did then. States rights was a big champion, but the states rights almost segregated public facilities and all those things, and uh, that part we didn't look at, big part we looked at it was our right, it's hard for people away from here to understand a battle was fought right in this particular city in the war between the states and you know, uh obviously the South lost, but you grew up uh, respecting that battle between the states, our right to secede and all of these things. And you know, you had very little, see, everybody thinks that everybody in the South lives in a big mansion home with columns and magnolia trees and horses running around, that's less than one half of 1% of the people, if that much that has that. Most of your south was moderate and low income people that rural people that grew up very hard, but uh, you grew up I guess it might be with pride in your uh, southern part of the country and all of these things, and uh, uh, you would read in your history books about how gallant the south was and the war between the states and that we were used and misused that, so all those things. But states' rights was a big political issue and we really believed that and to some extent sti11 believe it today, leaving out the racial thing.
WHAT HAD BEEN DONE TO ACCOMODATE THE 1964 ACT UH, ABOUT THE TIME, I MEAN THIS WHOLE CAMPAIGN OF KING'S CAME ON TO YOU ABOUT 6 MONTHS AFTER THE 64 ACT HAD BEEN PASSED, WHAT HAD BEEN DONE TO ACCOMODATE THAT?
No, it, oh it came after King was here.
WELL, I, BUT NOT 65, THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT, THE 1964…
Oh, well, when it came through few people obeyed it you know, and uh, few of the blacks had the courage to go in and integrate a restaurant and few blacks went to the theater, you had three floors, the ground floor, balcony for the whites, and thirdly you had a place for the blacks and they just continued to go there because they would get the economic pressure from various uh, groups, uh like your Citizens' Council and so forth that, you know you'll lose your job. Economic pressure. But you know, it's awfully hard in looking back in retrospect how you put economic pressure on somebody that's got no economics. But they'd try.[unintelligible background conversation] Well even in the 5Os as a merchant, or salesman of appliances, and okay, even in the 5Os as a merchant or salesman of appliances having grown up in a poor background with a widowed mother and blacks lived on the street behind me and all around me, and yet we were totally segregated I saw cruelty to blacks, I didn't like it, I, you'd feel ashamed of it, but you, there wasn't anything you could do, and even when I was in the appliance business uh, you know, you'd see these people that were good customers and when they were the only ones in the store you could be friends, and they can tell, you know, you can't fool people, they knew you were playing out a role and while I didn't believe in integration, I didn't believe in integration, uh I had a real, uh, I think a common bond with the black people and I think they could tell it and they knew it, they knew who had to act out what and I think had they had the right to vote, and certainly even though there weren't but about 150 in Selma that vote, I think I got the majority of those that voted because, they saw the things that I was for, industry, paved streets and these are the very things that would benefit low and middle income whites which was my coalition but it would also help the blacks and so yes uh, now we go among the blacks and seek their vote, and uh, you know I can do things now that I couldn't do then, uh, this is…
DO YOU THINK IF YOU HADN'T HAD THE PRESSURE FROM THE WHITE CITIZENS' COUNCIL ON YOU, DO, WOULD YOU HAVE CAMPAIGNED FOR MORE BLACK REGISTRATION?
I doubt it, uh, you know, it just was not. You just felt, and I guess this sounds silly today, but you just felt the blacks were satisfied with the type life style they had that uh, and I know that's very demeaning to say that, but you thought that you know, they were just satisfied with living in these shacks and uh, being and they were happy people and uh, hell they wasn't, you know, I mean you just grew up with that sort of thing, uh cause you grew up among a lot of poverty yourself. But uh,
OK THAT'S ENOUGH, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
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