Martin Luther King Jr. liked to joke that I was the one member of his legal team who would help him go to jail rather than using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out. I’d originally connected with King after returning from travels in India in 1949, soon after Gandhi was assassinated. My wife and I had followed Gandhi’s trail and gotten to know many of his supporters. And while I was learning everything I could about Mahatma Gandhi, King was doing the same.
After I returned home from India, as a young lawyer, I volunteered to help King apply the Gandhian strategies that interested us both so much in the United States. Before the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, E.D. Nixon, leader of the Montgomery NAACP, had shared with King a Hampton University talk in which I argued that the burgeoning American civil rights movement should embrace Gandhian civil disobedience as one of its core tactics. In the years ahead, I had a fascinating window into the movement King was creating.
This weekend, we mark half a century since Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, the last of three marches begun in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965 to champion a voting rights act. But it would be a mistake to remember only that third march, which triumphantly reached the capitol steps in Montgomery—or the first terrible march, which ended in “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. To fully appreciate King’s skill as a leader, we need to remember the second march—the one that was cut short when King made the hard decision to comply with a temporary federal court injunction prohibiting a march and turn back to Selma instead of continuing on to Montgomery. At that pivotal moment, the quintessential American advocate of civil disobedience chose to obey the law blocking his path. And in so doing, King paved the way for the successful third march and then passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later.
Selma came after a decade of what King considered seasons of non-violent protest. After a first attempt at a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by John Lewis, ended in violence on “Bloody Sunday,” he issued a nationwide call for participants in a second Selma march. Then news arrived that Federal Judge Frank Johnson, a strong supporter of civil rights, had issued a temporary injunction. He ordered that there be no march until the legal argument for a march and the issue of ensuring marchers’ safety could be discussed in his court. (Judge Johnson’s injunction and King’s response to it are an important part of the story not told in the compelling film Selma.)
King faced a quandary: When should a reasoned follower of Gandhi decide to obey the law? Although Gandhi had advocated nonviolent civil disobedience in opposition to unjust laws, this temporary injunction did not seem unjust.
A number of us in Selma argued against a confrontation with the federal judiciary. King was accustomed to breaking discriminatory state laws, but had never before violated the orders of a federal court. Martin listened to our case: that we march towards but not to Montgomery and ask everyone to return when the injunction was lifted to complete the march. He asked me doubtfully, “Do you think people really would come back?”
King knew that if he obeyed the injunction and postponed the march, Judge Johnson could ultimately provide federal protection for a future march. But King also understood that if we did not march right away, he risked losing control of the impassioned civil rights supporters who had gathered from across the country and were demanding a response to Bloody Sunday’s brutality at the bridge.
As we walked together toward Brown’s Chapel, where the would-be marchers had gathered, King said, “This was a prayerful decision. Sometimes you don’t know whether you are making the right decision or not, but you have to decide. We have to march today.” He added softly, “But we may not march very far.”
To the hundreds of marchers, King announced that we would march peacefully in obedience to a higher law. He often liked to invoke the Constitution, and as a former Notre Dame constitutional law teacher I wanted the justification of the First Amendment if we were going to break the injunction. Writing on my yellow pad, “First Amendment” in large letters, I passed the note up to King as he spoke. He was eloquently invoking the Bible to support the march, and then, glancing down at the note, he added, “And we march in the name of the Constitution, knowing the Constitution is on our side. The right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances shall not be abridged. That’s the First Amendment.”
So the march began, silently, two abreast. From the windows and sidewalks of Selma, hundreds of white residents watched wordlessly. We marched up the Edmund Pettus Bridge and saw ahead a thin blue line of state troopers and a great mass of police cars blocking the road. From a loudspeaker came a command to halt and disperse.
We stopped, and many knelt on the pavement as Bishop John Lord of Washington D.C. delivered a prayer—asking for the highway to open like the Red Sea for Moses. As if in response, the Alabama troopers suddenly moved aside, leaving the way to Montgomery miraculously clear, seemingly inviting us to violate the injunction.
As the marchers surged forward behind King, he suddenly turned around and led the way back toward Selma, calling out “Back to Brown’s Chapel!” I watched with amazement as the marchers turned and followed King.
Back at the chapel there was relief mixed with the fury of those who wanted to push on into the billy clubs. Many of the young militants in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee dubbed him “Martin Loser King.” Some of the religious leaders who had come from across the country felt an opportunity had been lost. Bishop Lord was disappointed that we had not taken advantage of the troopers’ retreat, but said to me, “I suppose if he had let the word out that he intended to turn back, half the line would have rebelled and marched on toward Montgomery.”
We later learned that King had informed John Doar of the Department of Justice in advance that he would not violate the court order. This may have been why the state troopers were directed to get off the road. Skillfully using the element of surprise in turning the marchers back, King succeeded in achieving the hard balance of symbolically protesting while not violating a reasonable federal order. He saw that breaking the court’s order would be self-defeating. Not only would the State Police have resumed their Bloody Sunday brutality, but much of the public would have found fault with King for disobeying a legal order. He was a leader who was willing to disappoint his own followers in order to move the cause towards victory.
Eight days later, Judge Johnson lifted his injunction, ruling that King and his followers had a constitutional right to march, and President Lyndon Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the participants. On March 21st, with the law and law enforcement on our side, thousands of us did return to Selma. My plane in from Washington was late, and the marchers had long since crossed the bridge. As I trotted along the highway to catch up, a white man called out mockingly from his car, “Hurry up, or you’ll miss your march!”
Army MPs lined the road, and Air Force helicopters circled overhead. The procession swelled with dozens, hundreds, and then, as we halted on the outskirts of Montgomery, thousands of new marchers. King announced, “We have a new song to sing tomorrow. We have overcome.” The next morning, reaching the capitol in Montgomery, King led 25,000 marchers down the broad avenue where Confederate President Jefferson Davis had held his inaugural parade.
Later that night we were reminded of how much further the civil rights movement still had to go when Viola Liuzzo, a young white mother, was shot to death by Klansmen while driving a marcher back to Selma. Victory in Montgomery certainly did not stop future blood spilt or lives lost. King himself was killed three years later in Memphis. Yet the marchers had won the support of the public and of the president of the United States. Within a few months, the Voting Rights Act would be passed by Congress and happily signed by Lyndon Johnson.
Fifty years later, while commemorating that day, we should remember that success came not just because King’s message was eloquent and the cause just. It came because he had the courage to march ahead and then the wisdom to turn back.
What I Saw at Selma – Harris Wofford – POLITICO Magazine.