Selma's Bloody Sunday

By Bill Cook


   Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 is the most searing memory from all my years of reporting—and it’s the most important event I ever covered.

   Frustrations had been growing for a long time in Selma. The county was 57 per cent black, but of 15,000 blacks who were old enough to vote, only 130 were registered. Courageous local black leaders had tried and failed to change the situation, blocked by local officials, the White Citizens Council, and the Ku Klux Klan.

   The landmark public accommodations act was passed by Congress in July of 1964, and two days later John Lewis, chairman of SNCC, the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee, led 50 people to the courthouse in Selma to register to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark, who passed out black buttons emblazoned with the word “Never”, arrested them all. A local judge issued an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders. Local people appealed to Martin Luther King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, for help.

   Rev. King defied the injunction in January 1965 with a rally at Brown’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church near downtown Selma. The church soon became very familiar to me. I took a room in the Albert Hotel and began to attend nightly meetings there. The church was filled with local blacks and whites from elsewhere who started filtering into Selma.

   Short Hair: I was always conscious of the fact that I was white, an outsider, and a journalist. I wore my hair short so I wouldn’t look like a New York photographer—the first guys beaten up in difficulties. And I wore cheap suits in the style of ubiquitous FBI agents.

   At one of the gatherings at Browns Chapel AME church, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s second-in-command, a fiery speaker with a booming voice, rallied the audience, citing the injustices blacks suffered. As he neared the end of his rousing sermon, he raised his arms and called to the crowd, “Who wants Freedom? Who Wants Freedom?” He stopped, glared at me sitting in the front pew, and cried, “Oh, Mr. White Reporter, Mr. White Reporter, you didn’t turn around to see who wants freedom. I’m going to ask again,” and he did, and I dutifully turned around to see that, yes, everyone wanted freedom.

   After the rally, Abernathy put his arm around my shoulders, gave me a big smile, and apologized. “I’m sorry, Bill,” he said, “I needed you there.”

   The campaign for voter registration spread from Selma to surrounding counties as King and his aides escalated what they called “creative tension,” tension which they hoped would provoke an incident by violent segregationists that would spur the nation to action.

   In February, an Alabama State Trooper shot a man who was participating in a demonstration in nearby Marion. He died, and Alabama’s SCLC leader Jim Bevel called for a march to Montgomery to protest to Gov. George Wallace. King approved, but Gov. Wallace denounced the proposed march as a threat to public safety and promised to prevent it. As a result, most--including Dr. King, who returned home to Atlanta for weekend, and the bulk of the reporters who had been gathering in Selma--thought the march would not take place as initially planned.

 Young Leaders: But the civil rights movement was anything but monolithic. Younger, tougher leaders went ahead with it, anyway, without Rev. King. On a cold, windy March morning in 1965, 525 civil rights marchers, led by SNCC’s John Lewis and Hosea Williams, a moon-faced man in charge of SCLC voter registration efforts, set out from Brown’s Chapel carrying packs and sleeping bags.

 I was among the handful of reporters who were there that fateful Sunday morning. I walked on ahead, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River at the edge of town, to find helmeted State  Troopers lined up across U.S.

The Battle of Plei Me Special Forces Camp, by Bill Cook

I'd been in Viet Nam barely a month when in October 1965 I covered the historic battle of Plei Me Special Forces Camp in the highlands south of Pleiku. Time put the battle on the cover. All their information came from secondary sources. Newsweek quoted me from inside the camp under fire. This incident was a sidebar to the main story. I made it into a PowerPoint presentation for a group of vets on the 45th anniversary of the battle. Here it's rendered in video for ease of presentation. Click on the symbol next to HD for full-screen display.


  After winning battles in federal courts, another March to Montgomery was scheduled. This one began March 21 with enormous fanfare – and with the U.S. Army and the Alabama National Guard, federalized for the occasion, protecting the marchers.

   The events in Alabama that March had enormous consequences. A week after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson, offered a voting rights bill to Congress.  It passed that summer with overwhelming bipartisan support, and it is still in effect.

   The impact of the law was both immediate and lasting. Black people in the South had long been subjugated both by social custom and by police agencies. The cops and the local elected sheriffs, controlled by a white electorate, were the political instruments of terror. They intimidated blacks on every issue. But once black people had the right to vote, the local sheriff suddenly had a brand-new constituency. Governments at every level soon developed a new outlook. The terror waned.


Postscript. Back in 1965 Alabama, at the end of a month living on the edge and working day and night, I was exhausted. A friend from the New York Times and I decided that when the march was over on Sunday and our publications were locked up, we’d find a place in Montgomery and drink. Then another hard Southern reality confronted us. Blue laws. Alcohol could not be served on Sunday in Alabama. We complained to our colleagues. An Associated Press man from Montgomery advised us to have lunch at the Elite Café, a favorite watering hole for lobbyists in the state capital. He said we could use his name.

   We showed up at the Elite, and were told in no uncertain terms that we could not buy alcohol with our lunch. We asked for the manager who told us the same story even after we invoked the name of the Associated Press reporter. But the manager added that if we wished to stay for lunch we’d be served by certain waitress who could provide a fine selection of teas. We stayed for lunch, and for the rest of the afternoon. Periodically, the waitress could come by, raise the lid of the china teapot sitting between us, look inside, and ask, “more tea, gentlemen?” We’d lift our delicate teacups and nod affirmatively. She’d soon return with another pot of Pearl beer.


Bill Cook served in Atlanta, Saigon, San Francisco, and Washington from 1963 to 1986.

Highway 80 and sheriff’s deputies on horseback. As the marchers approached, a State Trooper, a big smile on his face, said to me, “too bad you haven’t got a gas mask—you’ll be hurting without one.”

   Maj. John Cloud, head of the troopers, bullhorned this message: “The march you propose is not conducive to public safety. . . .You’ve got two minutes to turn around and go back to your church.”

   “May we have a word with you?” asked Hosea Williams.

    “There’s no word to be had,” Cloud replied. Then he gave his men the order, “Troopers, Advance.” It was an order that would help to change American history.

   Tear Gas: Here are my notes from the time, recorded in Newsweek: “The charge was swift and horrible. Impersonal behind their gas masks, the troopers clubbed their way through the screaming demonstrators. Blue-gray clouds of eye-stinging tear gas were released. Hurt and unconscious Negroes lay on the highway shoulder. A trooper walked by and dropped a tear-gas grenade by each fallen Negro. Across the highway, hundreds of white spectators cheered.”

  John Lewis sustained a fractured skull. Seventeen were hospitalized with fractures and other injuries. Seventy more had cuts, bruises, and tear-gas effects. A friend from Time Magazine who wasn’t there called me to beg for details.

   King called for another march and for the nation’s religious leaders to come to Selma, and they did, in droves. Reporters from around the world streamed in. Soon there wasn’t a rental car available for hundreds of miles. I spent a week interviewing every newly arrived clergyman I could find. I discovered an Episcopalian, the Rev. George Entwhistle, one afternoon setting in a pew at Brown’s Chapel. He’d been sent from his home in upstate New York by his Rotary Club. He was anxious to help me but the interview seemed to be going nowhere, and I started to extricate myself. The good pastor, realizing that he was not being helpful, finally blurted, “you have to understand, Mr. Cook, that the only Negroes I’ve ever seen were porters on a train.”

   Bingo. The Rev. Entwhistle made the magazine.

   The resulting Newsweek cover story, Selma, Civil Rights, and The Church Militant, won Ken Woodward, Newsweek’s religion editor at the time, and me a beautiful gold-lettered Award of Excellence from the Episcopal House of Bishops.