Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

March 8, 1965

On March 8, 1965, the Chicago Defender carried a United Press International (UPI) story on the violence voting rights marchers faced in Selma, Alabama. “State troopers and mounted deputies bombarded 600 praying Negroes with tear gas Sunday and then waded into them with clubs, whips and ropes, injuring dozens. The troopers and possemen, under Gov. George C. Wallace’s orders to stop the Negroes’ ‘Walk For Freedom’ to Montgomery, chased the screaming, bleeding marchers nearly a mile back to their church clubbing them as they ran” (click to view PDF).

Under a banner headline reading, “Beat Negroes at Selma,” the Defender's front page made this violence visible to readers with a UPI photo of marchers being beaten by state troopers.  One of the fallen marchers was John Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman and future U.S. Congressman.

The March 7 protest became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and images of the violent attacks on peaceful protestors circulated across the country and internationally via newspapers, magazines, newsreel films, and television broadcasts. Part of the power of television and photojournalism for civil rights activists was how the media exposed excessive acts of physical violence to audiences outside the South. In the midst of the voting rights marches in Selma in 1965, for example, Martin Luther King told marchers and the news media, “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”100 These powerful images helped to establish Selma as a defining moment in the civil rights movement, and scholars, filmmakers, and citizens continue to reckon with this iconic event. 

Historical black newspapers provide glimpses of how this iconic story developed on a day-by-day basis. On March 13, 1965, for example, Chicago Defender reporter Betty Washington published “My Night in Hell,” an exclusive from Selma. “To be in Selma, Ala., and not know fear is to exist in a fantasy world,” Washington wrote. “For the dread of being subject to a brutal attack plagues even the most militant rights leaders and palpitates one’s senses into sluggish fright. I have never known such fear as was experienced on my first night here, when I allowed myself the expensive privilege of forgetting my dusky presence alone could be sufficient reason to stir hatred and an attempt at violence” (click to view PDF). A week later, Washington reported on the memorial to Unitarian minister James Reeb, who was beaten to death by white segregationists in Selma. “Shoulder to shoulder Greek Orthodox archbishop Iakovas, paraded alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy,” Washington described. “Also leading were the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Rev. F. D. Reeves, president of the Dallas County voters league and Rev. Andrew Young, one of King’s most hard working lieutenants...The came Selma’s Negro residents, college students, housewives, businessmen, lawyers, laborers, professors, doctors, teenagers and elderly people on canes.  All were on their way to carry the cross of Christ and the burdens of a long-oppressed people to the courthouse and display it where the world would take notice” (click to view PDF).


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