The history of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery Freedom March and how the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson inspired it.
Late on the night of February 18, 1965, a young African American church deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful protest against discriminatory voter registration practices in the small town of Marion, about 30 miles outside Selma.
This incident was not regarded as “big news” at the time, and so to cover it, The Birmingham News dispatched one of its newest and youngest photographers.
His name was Spider Martin.
In two years, Alabama had moved to the forefront of the civil rights efforts.
When Spider later asked the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. why the civil rights leader had chosen to focus on Alabama, King responded, "Alabama offers the best theatre.”
The state provided an over-the-top cast of characters that included an outrageously segregationist governor, George Wallace, and openly brutal lawmen like Bull Connor, the Public Safety Commissioner in Birmingham.
Alabama, in the words of Dr. King, had become "the symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil rights movement in the Deep South."
And that was before the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Afterward, Civil Rights leaders were determined more than ever to make a stand.
And the place to do it was Alabama.
Under the leadership of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a march from Selma to Montgomery was planned to protest Jackson's death and the larger issue of voting rights for African-Americans throughout the South.
So, as protest organizers began planning their historic march, Spider Martin began his own journey both professional and personal, during which he compiled what is likely the largest single photographic collection of the Civil Rights era.
Over the next several weeks Spider remained in the area, chronicling the day-to-day events of the Selma campaign, from church rallies and strategy sessions to the marches themselves.
An Unlikely Civil Rights Hero & His Remarkable Legacy
Spider Martin's photographs speak for themselves as they depict the Civil Rights struggle for blacks in Alabama.
However, they tell another story:
The coming of age of a young photojournalist and his personal struggle with the inhumanity of the leaders of our native Alabama. "Selma 1965" changed the state, the region, the nation and the entire world.
It also changed Spider.
Americans in many parts of the country assumed that equal rights had become a non-issue.
After all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed. It was, at least on paper, the law of the land.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become President of the United States because of an assassination, was elected in his own right despite signing the controversial bill. And the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr. -- to the delight of many, and derision of others. Those victories had to do largely with the desegregation of public places, and the law was enforceable only to the extent public officials were willing to enforce it.
In the South, many weren't.
Below the Mason-Dixon line, blacks still could not register to vote with the ease and dignity afforded white citizens. They faced "take-a-number" schemes and were required to pass so-called "literacy tests," in offices that were seldom open, effectively preventing them from registering, let alone voting, let alone electing officials who would acknowledge the Civil Rights Act. This foil effort was especially intense in the heart of the Heart of Dixie, an area sometimes referred to as the Black Belt. Many say the Black Belt was so named for its rich dark soil, but let's not kid ourselves. The area as easily could have been named for its citizens, the majority of whom were African American.
The right to vote would give them power and control.
By then, Spider Martin was a young but seasoned photographer for The Birmingham News, and, among other things, had photographed black protesters as they confronted the police dogs and fire hoses.
But he only sporadically covered the Movement, interspersing Civil Rights assignments with the social scene at the country clubs, Alabama football and other news items.
Also, he had the tacit protection of law enforcement, because even Bull Connor knew not to mess with a photographer from the state's largest daily paper. In Selma, by contrast, Spider was just another outside agitator. A traitor. A "white nigger." He carried to this new frontier certain advantages.
Raised in Hueytown, he could talk with the rednecks in their language. And his slight frame -- five-foot-two, 125-pounds -- posed no threat to the bullies who seem to hang around bigotry. Nevertheless, because of his continual presence in and around Selma, Spider and his camera became easily identifiable targets -- despised by racist whites and public officials whose acts of violence and intimidation suddenly were being exposed.
Often the target of violence himself, Spider stayed on the scene when he could have asked for relief. In fact, he argued with the editors at The Birmingham News who wanted to pull him out of Selma. Beyond the job itself, something happened to this young photographer who once had solemn chills when he heard "Dixie" played before a football game. Those same chills were transferred to a real battle field for human rights, and there arose in Spider a rage for the atrocities committed by his fellow Alabamians against his fellow Alabamians.
Spider fought back with his cameras, and photographs that didn't lie. They appeared in national and international publications and were seen around the world. Dr. King himself credited them with playing a major role in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His perseverance earned him the respect and admiration of local and national civil rights leaders. John Lewis, in particular, became and remained a close friend.
-by Hubert Grissom, Jr.