March 7 marks the 53rd anniversary of a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement: Bloody Sunday. Henry Hampton traveled to Selma, Alabama after Martin Luther King issued a call for support from civil rights activists.
On Sunday March 7, 1965 civil rights activists first attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama but were met with brutal resistance from state troopers and deputized citizens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This confrontation had been building for some time as members of various civil rights groups attempted to register African Americans to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. Local organizers including Amelia Boynton Robinson worked with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help people to register to vote.
Resistance to African Americans registering to vote throughout the South has existed for decades and in 1961 out of 15,000 eligible African American only 130 were registered to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. In Amelia Boynton Robinson’s interview for Eyes on the Prize, she talks about the arduous process people were forced to go through to register,
At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people…and we would show them how to fill out these blanks, how to present themselves when they went down to the registration office. At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.
In the fall of 1964 and early part of 1965, as more African Americans attempted to register to vote in Dallas County they were met with resistance and violence culminating in an incident on February 18, 1965 when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in a cafe after a protest by Corporal James Bonard Fowler. Jackson died eight days later and was the inspiration for the original march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers, with John Lewis and Hosea Williams at the front of the line, set out on March 7. They were met by a line of state troopers and numerous men who had been hastily deputized by Sheriff Jim Clark. Commanding officer John Cloud spoke briefly to Lewis and Williams and then the troopers attacked the marchers.
That same night ABC broke into its scheduled film Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast images of violence from Selma. A small Southern town became the focus of the entire nation and after the images of the brutalized marchers were broadcast Martin Luther King issued a call for civil rights activists to come to Selma to help continue the march. A young Henry Hampton, originally from St. Louis but working for the Unitarian Universalists in Boston, was among the people who arrived to support the marchers. Major Cloud’s behavior and that of the subordinate state troopers, all led President Lyndon B. Johnson to finally take action. Within days of Cloud’s orders to gas and attack the peaceful protesters, Johnson decided to proceed with the voting rights proposal by quickly submitting it to Congress. Cloud’s excessive actions were seen across the nation on news broadcasts and made people aware of the resistance blacks faced. The federal government, which had been stagnant and seemingly unresponsive, finally took action by passing the Voting Rights Act.
Many other people who were involved in this event were interviewed by Blackside, including Sheyann Webb, Rachel Nelson West, Amelia Boynton Robinson, John Lewis, Mayor Joseph Smitherman, Sheriff James Clark, George Wallace, and many others. These interviews and many others can be viewed at the Eyes on the Prize Interview page.
Hampton was a firsthand witness to the events in Selma during the march on Turnaround Tuesday and later spoke about what he experienced there during an interview,
I was in Selma, and it was a story that at that point—literally it was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic—it was a moment when we were standing there on the bridge, the Pettus Bridge, in Selma. There were cameras buzzing overhead…the president and federal government in all its power was there. We had terrific villains. There was a man named Al Lingo, who was the head of the Alabama State Police, that most don’t remember. They remember George Wallace but together they were a formidable opposition who were literally killing people, and I looked around and said to myself, not being a native Southerner, I looked around and said, ‘This could make a terrific movie,’ and put the idea away for twelve or fifteen years…something fundamental changed in the country on that bridge and rarely do you get that kind of visual moment that confirms this massive shift in the way that people are going to feel about each other.
–Interview with Henry Hampton. Conducted by Chris Lydon, 3/31/94
The marchers were only able to begin the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21 as 8,000 people set out to cover the fifty-four miles to Montgomery to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace. At the end of the march 25,000 people joined in to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his speech Our God is Marching On on the steps of the Capitol building. It would take Hampton more than twenty years to fulfill his dream of a televised history of the civil rights movement. Eyes on the Prize debuted on PBS in 1987 attracting millions of viewers, and the series has become the definitive documentary program on the subject of civil rights.