The Stanislaus County Insider

The 60’s were a tempestuous and turbulent time. Along the southern black belt in Selma, Alabama civil rights violations reached the boiling point. Blacks wanted the right to vote. They wanted to register to vote without fear, intimidation or white suppression. The Voter Rights Project encouraged black residents to line up at the courthouse almost daily, but instead of registering them to vote they were subjected to a process that was meant to taunt and humiliate them. Representatives from the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee begin staging protests over white resistance to black voter registration in 1963. Large gatherings at Brown Chapel to discuss a plan of action were met with anger from the white community and Judge James Hare issued an injunction making it illegal for three or more black’s to discuss civil rights or voter registration. It was yet another roadblock to overcome, but the black community defied the Judges order and continued to gather at Brown Chapel. Protests continued throughout much of 1963 and 64.
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In October of 1964, Joe T. Smitherman was sworn into office as Mayor of Selma. Despite the fact that Smitherman was a member of awhite supremacist group (White Citizens Council) and a segregationist, he fostered a policy of inclusion by allowing anyone to visit his office.
There’s no question though that Smitherman didn’t want Martin Luther King, Jr coming to Selma. King publicly called Selma “The most segregated, biased city in the south”. Smitherman took offense to King‘s remarks and in a statement Smitherman referred to King as Martin Luther Coon, Jr,  but opened his office doors to black leaders in an attempt to defuse rising tensions.
In December 1964- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other black leaders create a plan (Project for a Alabama Political Freedom Movement) to mass register black voters in Selma and the entire county.  In January of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr led a group of 300 out of Brown Chapel to the courthouse to register to vote. They were left along side the courthouse in an alley and not one person was registered to vote, but after a series of events throughout January and February, the black community had changed the course of history forever, as they stood their ground and demanded their constitutional right to vote. They continued to line up at the courthouse, protest, march and rally against repression, and corruption.
The Selma to Montgomery Marches marked the political peak of black voter registration discrimination as well as other civil rights atrocities. On March seventh, 700 people began a march from Selma to Alabama’s state capital of Montgomery. The march was led by futureCongressman John Lewis in response to the murder of  26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was shot and killed by Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler at a restaurant in Marion, Alabama.  At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (where the county office of the White Citizens Council was located), marchers were stopped and warned to disperse. The marchers were then confronted by state troopers as well as Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies, with batons and tear gas.  John Lewis received a fractured skull. This tragic event is known today as ‘Bloody Sunday’. Over 50 people were injured, some hospitalized.
Two day’s later Martin Luther King, Jr leads a symbolic march knowing in advance they would be turned away at a barricade on the bridge.
On March 21, 1965 more then 3,000 people march under the protection of federal troops. Four day’s later the marchers reach the state capitol in Montgomery, with as many as 25,000 people joining in. Five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 cleared the path for the black community to vote with federal protection. It was the beginning of a new era.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. They made a movie about it starring Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding, Jr, but it didn’t mention Joe T. Smitherman. He was Mayor of Selma for over 35 years. Events surrounding his early years in office will never be forgotten. Neither will his roll in it. I recently bought a brass key to the City of Selma that belonged to Mayor Joe T. Smitherman. I had no idea who he was, but I won’t forget who he was now. When purchasing a piece of history, be prepared...
‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ - Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have a dream - Martn Luther King.