You’re a professional journalist – too old to be green, too young to be seasoned – and you land the dream job: a reporter for the New York Times. You go to New York City and are only partially through orientation when you’re dispatched to cover the civil rights movement. You relocate your spouse and two young children from Little Rock to Atlanta, and then spend most of your time on the road because even though there are plenty of things to cover in Georgia, the big story is in Alabama because it’s February of 1965 and although you don’t know it yet, you’re about to become a pivotal part of history.
This was Roy Reed’s introduction to working for the New York Times after two years in the U.S. Air Force and nearly a decade at the Arkansas Gazette.
“I went to Selma one month after I officially went to work at the paper, which was Jan. 1, 1965,” Reed said. “The big blow up at Selma didn’t happen for another little over a month. I just had time to get my feet on the ground.”
Reed witnessed the movement and shared his observations with the world. He attended meetings at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (which was called Browns Chapel Church at the time), and attended marches and rallies every day. He diligently wrote his stories and called them in to the recording room in New York, but his reports got little attention.
“News was being made that would interest the Times, so I was filing stories, but I’m not sure any of them ever got on to page one because they were just routine protest stories that were happening all over the south.”
Then came Bloody Sunday.
On March 7, 1965, six hundred civil rights demonstrators marched to protest the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson, an unarmed protester who was fatally shot by a state trooper in Marion, Alabama, the previous month. Sheriff James G. Clark, his deputies and state troopers stopped the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This became the first of three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery.
Many commemorations have been held in 2015 – 50 years after the marches – and the movie Selma, released in 2014, explores the marches as well as surrounding events.
“[The film’s portrayal of the scene on the bridge] was exactly the way it was,” Reed said. “It’s hard for me to believe that those were actors. I thought at first that they had used old television footage.”
In a Jan. 8, 2015, interview on Fresh Air, director Ava DuVernay discussed how she approached casting and shooting the scene recreating the violent confrontation. Although extremely realistic, it was still a fictional depiction of the actual event.
“In 1965, March 7, that Sunday, they were not actors,” Reed said. “They were for real.”
An actor in Selma named John Lavelle introduces himself as “Roy Reed from the New York Times.” In the film, Reed represents all of the press, but several journalists – print and broadcast – were on site in 1965. Reed’s account of the events informs much of the dialogue and is used as voiceover commentary during the scene on the bridge.
This excerpt from Reed’s March 8 story in the New York Times captured the tone of the event:
The next sound was the major's voice. "Troopers, advance," he commanded. The troopers rushed forward, their blue uniforms and white helmets blurring into a flying wedge as they moved. The wedge moved with such force that it seemed almost to pass over the waiting column instead of through it. The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides. Those still on their feet retreated. The troopers continued pushing, using both the force of their bodies and the prodding of their nightsticks. A cheer went up from the white spectators lining the south side of the highway. The mounted possemen spurred their horses and rode at a run into the retreating mass. The Negroes cried out as they crowded together for protection and the whites on the sideline whooped and cheered. The Negroes paused in their retreat for perhaps a minute still screaming and huddling together. Suddenly there was a report, like a gunshot, and a gray cloud spewed over the troopers and the Negroes. "Tear gas!" someone yelled. The cloud began covering the highway. Newsmen, who were confined by four troopers to a corner 100 yards away, began to lose sight of the action. But before the cloud finally hid it all there were several seconds of unobstructed view. Fifteen or twenty nightsticks could be seen through the gas flailing at the heads of the marchers.
“When the troopers put their tear gas masks on, we knew what was coming,” Reed said. “They threw those tear gas canisters out into the marchers, and of course, it didn’t all stay with the marchers. We all got a snoot full. I hope you never have to have tear gas. It is terrible. You’ve got to breathe, but you know you can’t.
“The crowd broke and started running back across the bridge back toward Browns Chapel Church, and we had to follow them. We did the best we could. And the troopers and the people in the posse, they kept on beating [the marchers] all the way to the other side of the bridge.”
In addition to the tear gas and nightsticks, some unofficial deputies carried whips.
“It’s almost too easy to call what happened there an act of savagery, but that’s what it was. And it was deliberate savagery. It was not incidental to what happened.”
The bloodshed was also captured by broadcast journalists and shown on televisions across the nation. What Clark and Wallace had intended as a warning became a rally cry.
“This was the importance of organizations like Dr. King’s [the Southern Christian Leadership Council] and SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], they made sure that that lesson backfired on the white supremacists. They were out there in the black community every day. Living among the black community, and especially among the leaders of the black community – the preachers, the teachers and the professional people. But beyond that, the run-of-the-mill black folks. Stirring things up. Causing the rallies to happen night, after night, after night. And the white supremacists simply didn’t know what they were dealing with. The warnings of the past had worked. Lynching worked … But suddenly [the warnings] didn’t work anymore.”
The tension continued on March 9, when the group made its second attempt. King, led a group to the Pettus bridge, and they were met again with armed law enforcement. King turned the group around to avoid a second altercation.
In the midst of the turmoil in Alabama, President Lyndon Johnson called for federal voting rights legislation. His address to a joint session of Congress on March 15 challenged the legislative branch to protect African Americans from state-imposed barriers to voting.
On March 21, more than 3,000 marchers left Selma to walk 45 miles to Montgomery. Three days later, after walking 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields along the route, around 25,000 people joined the marchers at the Montgomery city limits.
An excerpt from Reed’s story in the March 21 edition:
Hundreds of Army and federalized National Guard troops stood guard in Selma and lined the highway out of town to protect the marchers. The troops were sent by President Johnson after Governor Wallace said that Alabama could not afford the expense of protecting the march. The marchers were in festive humor as they started. The tone was set by the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, top aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as he introduced Dr. King for an address before the march started. "When we get to Montgomery," Mr. Abernathy said, "we are going to go up to Governor Wallace's door and say, 'George, it's all over now. We've got the ballot.'" The throng laughed and cheered.
Congress met Johnson’s challenge later that year when the Senate passed legislation in May, the House of Representatives approved it in July and Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, allowing for sweeping change in the landscape of the electorate.
“Across the South, there are now several thousand black officials who wouldn’t be there without those legal changes. In a way, it all started that day in Selma, Alabama, because it was all about voting rights. And as a direct consequence of that day, and the brutality that was shown on television screens all across the country, as a direct consequence, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
“It took effect immediately. I mean it began to change the South almost at once. It didn’t wipe out racism, but it really wiped out a vital part of the system that held black folks in that terrible oppression for decades.
“I think I was privileged to have been there that day, when the beginning of the end happened in that little ol’ town.”
---Reed is professor emeritus in the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism. He stayed in Atlanta covering civil rights until 1967. He then had several other assignments from the Times. He had a short stent in the White House bureau and a reporting assignment on how the civil rights movement involved federal agencies. He opened a Times bureau in New Orleans where he chronicled the rapid social, political and economic changes in the South and other parts of the nation. In 1976, Reed transferred to the Times’s London bureau, where he spent his final two years with the paper covering the British Isles before beginning his 16-year teaching career in Fulbright College. He retired in 1995 to write books and freelance articles. Those wanting to know more about his career may read his book Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with the New York Times.