January 21, 2008

"Walks Singing": The Selma to Montgomery March, March 21-25, 1965

The distance from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital, is about 54 miles. When marchers assembled for the third attempt to make the walk in support of voting rights with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in March of 1965 - the first had met with state-supported violence at the Pettus Bridge and the second stopped by court order, several participants were not fully prepared for four days of walking 12 miles per day and sleeping in tents on the roadside at night. But conviction will overcome these kind of obstacles.

Thousands of people flew into Selma and Montgomery to assist with the march and to give whatever aid they could. The march itself had been limited to three hundred participants at any time. Among the entertainers who attended a rally on the fourth night of the march were Shelley Winters, Tony Perkins, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mike Nichols and Elaine May. On this last full night of the march, the last before the final miles into Montgomery the following day, many of the marchers started falling ill from exhaustion.

Journalist Renata Adler, in her enthralling account of the march, "Letter From Selma," for April 10, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, described the scene:

On its fourth night, the march began to look first like a football rally, then like a carnival and a hootenanny, and finally like something dangerously close to a hysterical mob...Word got out that the doctors on the march had treated several cases of strep throat, two of pneumonia, one of advanced pulmonary tuberculosis, and one of epilepsy, and because of the number and variety of sick and handicapped who had made the march a macabre new joke began to go the rounds: "What has five hundred and ninety-nine legs, five hundred and ninety-eight eyes, an indeterminate number of germs, and walks singing? The march from Selma."

According to Adler, at the staged camp entertainment on Wednesday night, "A number of girls in the crowd collapsed and, because there was no other lighted space, had to be carried onstage, where Miss Winters did her best to minister them."

The march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights laid the foundation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the current presidential debate on this issue, I believe that credit for advancing this particular piece of legislation needs to shared with hundreds of exhausted walkers, the thousands that traveled to Alabama to lend their support and a handful of gutsy entertainers.

Image: Photograph by Peter Pettus. Modern gelatin silver reprint from 1965 negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (30)

See the website for the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail in Alabama.

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