Anyone who was not a diehard white supremacist could see the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 for what it was: a myth in motion, advancing east through the Alabama countryside at two miles an hour. It recalled other famous wanderings, like the trek of the Israelites and Gandhi’s 1930 pilgrimage to the sea, and ended in a place of rich historical association. Montgomery was named the first capital of the Confederacy in 1861, and when Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the crowd at the march’s end he stood on the spot where just two years earlier George Wallace had declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” With passage of the Voting Rights Act at hand, there could be no better place to hold the victory party.
The march itself was a spectacle or symbol, hugely necessary and memorable, but what the power of the ballot actually meant—how it would affect the lives of African Americans, especially in the South—had yet to be decided. One answer came in the days after with the first stirrings of a new political party in the county adjacent to Selma. That party, which took the black panther as its symbol, moved the debate from the theoretical equality of the Voting Rights Act to the practical reality of Black Power.
The march to Montgomery took place on Highway 80, a road that traverses Alabama’s Black Belt and narrows to two lanes east of Selma, when it enters Lowndes County. The court order permitting the demonstration stated only three hundred marchers could pass along this section of the road, as one lane had to be left open for traffic. Most of the spots were given to locals, with a few dozen reserved for King’s entourage and other visitors and dignitaries. Not among those three hundred selected was Stokely Carmichael, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, one of the leading civil rights groups of the day. But he went to Lowndes anyway, with Bob Mants, another SNCC member who had stood in the second line of protestors—immediately behind John Lewis—during the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“We trailed that march,” Carmichael later recalled. “Every time local folks came out, we’d sit and talk with them, get their names, find out where they lived, their address, what church, who their ministers were, like that. So all the information, everything, you’d need to organize, we got.”
Lowndes County—where, incidentally, Selma director Ava DuVernay spent her summers while growing up—was rigidly segregated and feudal. Twelve thousand of its 15,000 residents in 1965 were African American. Many worked as tenant farmers on plantations or commuted to domestic jobs in Montgomery. County politics was a strictly white affair since blacks were barred from registering to vote; there was no record of a single African American voting in Lowndes County in the twentieth century. ...