In mid-march 1965, six of us from New England colleges showed up at the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) office in Montgomery, Alabama, on our way to the Selma to Montgomery March. Stokely Carmichael told us, "What are you going to Selma for... we need you here!" So like dutiful soldiers, we went downstairs, dropped off our sleeping bags, and got ready to march downtown to the state house for the right of black people to vote. Opposing us were horsemen with big sticks and motorcycle policemen, with license to beat the hell out of us. As we attempted to move out from the corner of Jackson and High Streets, the horsemen rode into our ranks, whipping anyone and anything within in the radius of their wild swings. People ran, horses reared and crashed down upon those unable to get out of the way. In a few minutes, there were many bloody faces and heads.
SNCC organizer Willie Ricks called it, "The Battle of Montgomery". This SNCC campaign with local people and college students went largely unnoticed, while Dr. King led thousands of people from Selma to Montgomery. Moviegoers who recently saw Selma will learn nothing about SNCC in Montgomery -- and SNCC's role in Selma was marginalized.
SNCC began organizing in Selma in 1963, invited by the Dallas County Voters League, headed by Amelia and Samuel Boynton. The DCVL began advocating for the right to vote in the1930s. SNCC organizers Bernard and Colia Lafayette set up Citizenship Schools, teaching people to pass literacy tests to get registered. Later that year Worth Long became the Director of the Central Alabama Voter Education Project for SNCC. "When they didn't have me in jail, I coordinated a staff of 8 people," Worth said.
In Selma, SNCC and DCVL began having regular mass meetings. They set up "Freedom Houses", where local high school and college students picked up literature, and knocked on doors to encourage people to register. Sheriff Jim Clark and the KKK targeted people who tried to register with arrest, and beatings. In the early 1960's, in Dallas County, only 130 blacks were registered out of the 15,000 eligible black voters; and in nearby Lowndes and Wilcox counties, virtually no blacks were on the voting rolls.
So the groundwork had already been laid when King came to Selma. In the movie, King and his staff suggest SNCC was unsuccessful based on actual numbers registered. In actuality, SNCC and DCLV built an organized base, and it was because of this base that King and SCLC were able to mobilize successfully.
Dr. King took the voter rights campaign to a higher level of attention, attracting whites and other people from around the world as only he could do. But SNCC and the local people endured and were the vanguard of the struggle. SNCC Chairman John Lewis (now Congressman, from Atlanta) led the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery on "Bloody Sunday".
SNCC opted out of the March, allowing individuals like Lewis to subsequently march with King. Thousands of people poured into Selma, angered by the violence televised about Bloody Sunday. SNCC focused on Montgomery, initially with Tuskegee college students, to increase the pressure for federal intervention.
At one point, with SNCC numbers growing each day behind the barricades erected by the police and the cowboys to keep us hemmed in at Jackson and High Streets, Dr. King left the march on the highway and came to Montgomery. In my book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power, I explained what happened when King joined us behind the barricades:
...With King at the head of the procession, the police moved the barricades and we headed toward the Capitol. ... But King, and his entourage, slowly marched us in a circle, right back to Jackson and High Streets... Clearly, this was a move by SCLC to take the heat out of Montgomery, because the Selma march was to be the focus! .....When we turned around and went back, the cops threw peanuts at us. And after King left, we were right back behind the barricades! ...
We eventually made it off the corner, fortified by another 200-250 students from nearby Alabama State College, and community people. Those of us in the first wave were arrested at the Alabama State Capital. After a week in Kilby State Prison, some of us were bailed out, and gathered at the St. Jude complex just outside of Montgomery for the final stage of the march the next morning.
When I went back to Amherst College to graduate, I had a chance to think about my first experience with SNCC:
Montgomery was more than a sidelight to Selma... SNCC was able to get local residents, high school and college students, to stand up to white terror; tie up the city's police resources for two weeks; bring in white student support; fill the jails and Kilby State Prison (with at least three waves of arrests)... And it controlled and directed the anger of the masses.... as a release for those of us who were tired of being the only side that was non-violent.
History will credit SNCC, SCLC, CORE, NAACP and many local organizations throughout the South in many campaigns, to get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Tom Hayden, co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), told me in the spring of 1965, "With Selma, The Civil Rights Movement is over", as he recruited me to come to Newark, NJ to work on the "more complicated urban problems of race and class."
SNCC in Montgomery was a training ground in discipline, survival and how to channel anger into winning strategies through organization and confrontation. I felt ready for Newark.
Junius Williams is the author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (www.randomhouse.com); and the Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, Rutgers University Newark