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“Photographer Helped Expose Brutality Of Selma’s Bloody Sunday”: The ‘Segregation Beat’ That Helped Shape American History

This month Selma, Ala., will mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That’s the day police beat demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Some of the most iconic images of that day were captured by a white photographer — the late Spider Martin.

Spider Martin’s real introduction to the civil rights movement came on a late night at home in February 1965. He was 25, a photographer for The Birmingham News. He explains in a video from 1987 that he got the call because he was the youngest staff member and no one else wanted to go. That assignment would lead to his most famous work.

“About midnight I get this phone call from the chief photographer and he says ‘Spider, we need to get you to go down to Marion, Ala.’ Says there’s been a church burned and there’d been a black man who was protesting killed. He was shot with a shotgun. His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.”

James “Spider” Martin grew up near Birmingham. Small in stature, he earned the nickname “Spider” for his quick moves on the high school football field. He said while he grew up with a few black friends, he was largely ignorant of the injustice blacks faced. That changed once he started covering the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, according to his daughter Tracy.

“He realized that it was history and that it was important,” she says. “He got wrapped up in it.”

Jackson’s killing helped spur the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches a few weeks later. Martin was in Selma for Bloody Sunday when state troopers attacked protesters. Holding a camera made him just as much a target. He recounted in an interview with Alabama Public Television, what happened when a police officer saw him.

“He walks over to me and, blow! Hits me right here in the back of the head,” he said. “I still got a dent in my head and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees and I’m like seeing stars and there’s tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt and he looks straight in my eyes and he just dropped me and said, ‘scuse me. Thought you was a nigger.'”

Martin kept covering the marchers until they reached Montgomery two-and-a-half weeks later.

Martin’s collection contains thousands of photographs, clippings and other notes — much of it previously unpublished before it was purchased by the University of Texas. Even producers of the movie Selma used his pictures to recreate scenes for the film. Exhibitions of his work are going up around in Selma for the anniversary, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, and in New York.

The exhibit at ArtsRevive includes his most noted pictures from the marches. Executive director Martha Lockett says some of her favorites are less recognized including a close-up of an officer’s leg with his billy club.

“It’s very still, but very energetic,” she says. “You know what’s getting ready to happen and to me that’s one of the most dynamic pictures that’s in the show.”

That artistry was calculated, according to Morehouse College history professor Larry Spruill. He says Martin was one of a handful of photographers on what’s dubbed the “segregation beat.” They were mostly college-educated, white men in their 20’s who reflected the liberal optimism of a post-World War II generation.

“They took complex issues layered in race and made them very simple,” he says.

Spruill says the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., understood the power of visuals and tipped off photojournalists. And while the optics of Bloody Sunday were credited with shocking middle America — leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — back then the pictures were considered disposable. That was partly because in the mid-’60s, photojournalism was beginning to take a backseat to the flash and immediacy of television. Spruill says he found pictures newspapers didn’t run with holes punched through them.

“It’s like finding original copies of important American history documents trashed,” he says.

A similar thing happened to the photographers. Martin’s daughter says it was decades before he became known for his civil rights pictures. He died in 2003 and she says he’d be excited about exhibiting his work around this 50th anniversary. But in his interview it’s clear he was uncomfortable with the attention.

“I mean it’s kind of fun sometimes being a celebrity, you might say, or a little bit famous. But then again, I’d rather not be famous,” he said.

Still the attention he offered through his camera, helped shape American history.

 

By: Andrew Yeager, Code Switch; Cross Posted at NPR, March 6, 2015

March 9, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma Alabama, Spider Martin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Universal Suffrage Is Still Under Assault”: Some Long For The Old Order Where Certain People Controlled All Levers Of Political Power

Historians refer to that day 50 years ago as “Bloody Sunday” because of the indelible images of brave men and women beaten to their knees — some knocked unconscious — as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It hardly seems possible, now, that they were attacked so viciously for something that seems so ordinary: the right to vote.

In fact, universal suffrage isn’t ordinary or mundane or inconsequential. It’s a radical notion, still rejected in much of the world. And the legacy of those marches in Selma proves that the opponents of black voting rights were right about at least this much: If they allowed black citizens to vote, the nation would be changed.

The most obvious symbol of that powerful tide of progress, President Barack Obama, occupies the Oval Office. But the inheritance that those marchers bequeathed to the nation is evident in so many other subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our political and civic life. If the election of a black governor or U.S. senator, for example, is still unusual, it’s no longer historic. Nor is the elevation of a black secretary of state or attorney general.

But that progress has not pleased all Americans. Some long for the past, for an old order in which certain people controlled all the levers of political power, where only those who looked and spoke a certain way were allowed to hold political office, where many citizens were excluded from a government allegedly by and for them. That helps to explain why reactionary forces have spent the last 15 or so years snipping at the universal franchise, cutting away at the edges of the right to vote.

Conservative Republicans label their campaign — which centers around strict voter ID laws — “voter integrity,” as if it’s a righteous project designed to uplift democracy. It’s just the opposite: It’s designed to block the ballot for a few voters, mostly poor and black, who are inclined to support Democrats. In close elections, a few votes can decide the outcome.

To be sure, no voters get their heads bashed in. No state troopers or sheriff’s deputies wait with billy clubs to attack those who dare exercise their constitutional rights. No would-be voters are asked to number the bubbles in a bar of soap in order to register.

Still, the voting restrictions that have been passed over the last several years are just an updated version of the poll tax. Make no mistake about it: The universal franchise is under assault.

Just take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s astonishing ruling in 2013, which gutted a significant portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the key federal legislation prompted by the Selma marches. An ultraconservative majority did a most unconservative thing: It tossed out a law overwhelmingly passed by Congress, declaring, in effect, that the legislative branch was wrong.

The Supreme Court had earlier endorsed voter ID laws, ruling in 2006 that an Indiana requirement for photo identification at the polls was in keeping with the state’s “legitimate interest” in protecting against voter fraud. But the fraud such laws are intended to prevent — in-person voter impersonation — is as rare as the northern white rhino. It’s pretty clear that blocking the ballot is the aim here, as Republican factotums have occasionally, if inadvertently, admitted.

In reality, they don’t want certain voters to have the ballot because it has the potential to upend the old order. Think about it: If the black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, which is 67 percent black, start to religiously exercise their right to vote, they can change the town’s leadership — and change a police department and court system that are shot through with racial bias, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There is power in the franchise, which is why its expansion has met resistance throughout American history. Courageous patriots have given their lives to secure the ballot for every citizen.

But the struggle is not over.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, March 7, 2015

March 8, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma Alabama, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The GOP’s Noticeable Absences In Selma”: Republicans Are Apparently Satisfied With Only Having Its White Base

A wide variety of American political leaders will be in Selma tomorrow to honor the 50th anniversary of the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Among the attendees will be President Obama and former President George W. Bush.

Politico reports, however, that the Republican congressional leadership will not be on hand for the event.

Scores of U.S. lawmakers are converging on tiny Selma, Alabama, for a large commemoration of a civil rights anniversary. But their ranks don’t include a single member of House Republican leadership – a point that isn’t lost on congressional black leaders.

None of the top leaders – House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group – will be in Selma for the three-day event that commemorates the 1965 march and the violence that protesters faced at the hands of white police officers.

It’s not just the House GOP – Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also skipping the event.

In fairness, it’s important to note that, as of yesterday, 23 congressional Republicans have said they’ll be in Selma for tomorrow’s ceremony, so it’d be an obvious overstatement to suggest a complete GOP no-show. But the Republican leadership – all of which was invited to attend – plays a unique role in representing the party overall. And yet, these leaders declined.

It’s reminiscent of August 2013, when a massive rally was held at the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Organizers encouraged the congressional Republican leadership to participate in the event, but GOP leaders declined those invitations, too.

To be clear, each of the Republican leaders who declined the invitations – both to tomorrow’s event in Selma and to the 2013 commemoration – may have a perfectly good excuse for their absence. There’s no evidence to the contrary.

But at a certain point, the party needs to realize that it has, among other things, a problem with appearances. On the one hand, the GOP sincerely seems to want to expand its outreach to minority communities, building the party beyond its overwhelmingly white base.

On the other hand, Republican leaders declined to participate in the Lincoln Memorial event in 2013; they’ve declined invitations to Selma; they had no public concerns after learning Steve Scalise attended a white-supremacist event; they’re slow walking the first African-American woman to ever be nominated as Attorney General; and they’re blocking a proposed bipartisan fix to the Voting Rights Act while their brethren at the state level impose new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect people of color.

It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the Republican Party simply must do better than this.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 6, 2015

March 7, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights Movement, Selma Alabama, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”: Beyond Selma – Writing The Next Chapter In American Civil Rights History

In November 2012, I worked with the Obama campaign’s anti-voter suppression efforts in Florida. I was shocked when I saw that voters in largely Hispanic and African-American areas were forced to wait hours and hours to vote by design. The state had cut early voting from 14 to 6 days and added 11 constitutional amendments to the ballot (some written out in full) to make it more time consuming to vote such that one legislator compared the ballot to the Book of Leviticus. I also was told authorities did not deploy all available ballot boxes.

Tasked with encouraging voters to wait for over 3 hours until 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I was struck with how little needed to be done. They knew why they were waiting and that only made them more determined to vote. I was reminded of the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and the voting rights marches in Selma during the Civil Rights era and thought how sad it is that here we stand nearly 50 years after Selma and African-Americans still had to fight for their right to vote.

The next year, the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that enabled the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting restrictions in Shelby County v Holder. The Act had been reauthorized in 2006 without a single vote of opposition in the Senate, but in the Obama-era a bill to revive the provisions got nowhere last year despite bipartisan support.

The struggle in Selma is now on movie screens across America for viewers to relive the brutality of Bloody Sunday and the ultimate triumphant march that drew Americans from all races and faiths from across the nation to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate.

In March, however, the world’s attention will once again return to the Edmond Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It will be a tempered celebration because it has been a difficult two years for race relations in America. Obama’s reelection victory unleashed a torrent of racist hate across social media, then came the killings of Treyvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York and the divisions their cases brought.

More importantly, throughout the period we have steadily moved backwards on voting rights as states across the south and elsewhere took advantage of the Shelby County decision to enact a number of restrictive voting measures that are designed to suppress the African-American vote.

I have one resolution for 2015 — I’m going to Selma.

As a child of Generation Jones, we always looked up to our Baby Boomer brethren who marched for civil rights when we had no need to for the victory had been won. That victory is in jeopardy. I’m going to Selma.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner among others were killed for this most fundamental right — the right to vote. They cannot cry for justice, instead it is the duty of the living to do so for them. I’m going to Selma.

I do not expect a House of Representatives that has no shame over having a white supremacist in its leadership to listen to our pleas for action on voting rights legislation. I’m going to Selma.

Martin Luther King once said, “[h]istory will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Similarly, Benjamin Franklin said that “[j]ustice will not be served until those who are as unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” I’m outraged and I’m going to Selma.

We are a generous nation that has come together to help those in need as we did after Katrina or to take a stand that we are one as we did after 9/11. The story of civil rights in America is not relegated to our history books or a movie but is still being written today. It is time to write the next chapter for civil rights in America. Once again we are called to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate. I’m going to Selma.

 

By: Bennet Kelley, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014

January 2, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Selma Alabama, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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