12/18/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

How a Freedom Song Saved Selma

The handful of Golden Globe nominations for the drama Selma should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with American history. The events that took place in that small Alabama city in the winter and spring of 1965 comprise one of the great struggles of the civil rights movement. Perhaps the surprise is that it took Hollywood so long to make this dramatic campaign into a movie. After all, director Ava DeVernay, writer Paul Webb and their talented cast are working with some of the richest, most compelling material in the history books.

It is a heroic story that should be familiar to every American. Long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began challenging the racist power structure in Selma, civil rights groups had been working to address the city's pervasive climate of fear and violence. Led by Sheriff James G. Clark and a particularly brutal posse of heavily armed irregulars, Selma had kept African Americans terrorized for years. The SCLC's peaceful voter registration campaign quickly faced the same obstacles experienced in other Southern cities -intimidation, violence, mass incarcerations and, ultimately, murder.

The assaults on African Americans escalated daily until, following the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the SCLC proposed a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. On the morning of Sunday March 8, hundreds of demonstrators left Brown Chapel AME. Many carried bedrolls, sack lunches and sleeping bags. The marchers included blacks and whites, men, women and children. At the head of the procession was Hosea Williams, representing the SCLC, and a young John Lewis, representing the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.

Unlike previous days, the streets of Selma were virtually empty. As marchers peered down side streets and alleyways, they could see dozens, perhaps hundreds of whites armed with bats and lead pipes, ostensibly under the command of Clark and Gov. George Wallace's Director of Public Safety for Alabama, "Col." Al Lingo. At the opposite end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spanned the Alabama River on the south side of town, stood a small army of heavily armed policemen, highway patrolmen, sheriff's deputies, including a host of officers on horseback. Also on the fringes of the town and river bank, large knots of armed whites jeered at the marchers.

In the face of the overwhelming show of force, the demonstrators did what they had always done. They sang. This time, however, it wasn't a freedom song. It was an old hymn, "God Will Take Care of You." First one voice, then the entire column sang, "God will take care of you/Be not dismayed whate'ver betide/God will take care of you/Beneath his wings abide/God will take care of you."

Lewis and Williams walked until they were within feet of Maj. John Cloud. Fortunately, camera crews caught the moment: Lewis and Williams, dressed against the chill morning, standing quietly before armed and helmeted officer. It is a moment no less transformational, no less blood-stirring than Col. William Travis drawing the line in the sand at the Alamo or Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne responding "Nuts!" to a German general's demand for surrender at the Battle of the Bulge.

Cloud gave the marchers two minutes to turn around. When Williams asked for a chance to talk about it, Cloud signaled his men to don their gasmasks. Moments later, they attacked. A moving phalanx of armed men, many on horseback, surged through the helpless column, their night sticks pounding the demonstrators.

It was a massacre. Hundreds were injured by the beatings, by the teargas, or trampled in the terrified melee and retreat that followed. As the frightened, bloodied marchers tried to find their way in the teargas fog back to Brown Chapel, they were assaulted by the paramilitary groups emerging from the alleyways. All of it was caught on camera. The armed officers and howling irregulars continued rampaging throughout the day and late into the night, attacking African Americans in the streets, in their homes, on the steps of Brown Chapel.

That evening, bloodied, hysterical, and badly injured (Lewis suffered a fracture skull), the remnants of the column huddled in Brown Chapel, too exhausted, too afraid to venture back into the carnage on Selma's streets. In a movement that saw its share of ups and downs, the evening of "Bloody Sunday" was one of the lowest. Many of those seeking refuge in Brown Chapel cried in pain, others cried in impotent rage.

Among those shaking in fear in Brown Chapel that were friends Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, two of the young heroes from Birmingham. The grade schoolers had been King's favorites, singing freedom songs at the mass meetings and on the barricades in that city. As they told Frank Sikora, they sat for a long time in Brown Chapel, hearing only the moans of the wounded and the sounds of the assaults on African Americans outside the church doors.

It was a dark time, survivors recalled, a time of despair. The joyous crowds of Birmingham seemed far away.

And then, someone began to hum.

Soft at first, quietly and solemnly, Webb recalled, like a funeral dirge. "Then I recognized it," she said, " 'Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round.' But it just started to catch on, and the people began to pick it up. It started to swell, the humming. Then we began singing the words, 'Ain't gonna let Jim Clark turn me 'round.' 'Ain't gonna let no state trooper turn me 'round.' 'Ain't gonna let no horses ... ain't gonna let no tear gas - ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round. Nobody!'"

And, in those moments, the singing drew others from nearby homes and apartments and projects who braved the roving bands of whites and walked to Brown Chapel because, Webb said, they knew "something was happening."

"We was singing and telling the world that we hadn't been whipped, that we had won. Just all of a sudden something happened that night and we knew in that church that - Lord Almighty - we had really won after all! We had won! I think we all realized it at the same time, that we had won something that day, because people were standing up and singing like I'd never heard them before."

Sheyann was, of course, right. You know the rest of the story - or you should, I suppose. The nation was appalled by what it saw on the evening news that night and thousands flooded to Selma in support of the demonstrators. A historic march was made from Selma to Montgomery, Selma's ugly violence helped President Lyndon Johnson rally enough supporters in Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the protests resumed, and the movement continued in St. Augustine, Chicago, and Mississippi. There were more beatings, more injuries, more deaths along the way, culminating with that dark day in Memphis.

If Selma the movie captures the extraordinary human drama of that brave, transformational night at Brown Chapel, then it will deserve every accolade, every award it has thus far received and many, many more to come.

As Harry Belafonte, another hero of the civil rights movement, has said, "All of the songs were inspirational. All of the songs had one purpose. It was to reach deep into our moments of the greatest anguish and to say, 'We've had worse moments than this. We can endure.'"

Robert Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)