“I am calling into Federal service selected units of the Alabama National Guard, and also will have available police units from the Regular Army to help you meet your State responsibilities. These forces should be adequate to assure the rights of American citizens pursuant to a Federal court order to walk peaceably and safely without injury or loss of life from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.”
These were the words of President Lyndon Johnson on today’s date, March 20 in 1965 as he responded to Governor George Wallace’s insistence that Federal Troops would be needed to protect the protest march from Selma to Montgomery demanding equal voting rights for the African-American voters in that state. LBJ had been double crossed by the Alabama Governor and he was none-too-pleased about it.
Voting Rights in Alabama in 1965
African-Americans made up more than half the population in the city of Selma, Alabama by 1965. Yet when these citizens attempted to register to vote, they were met with resistance in the form of intimidation and outright discrimination. A group of 600 demonstrators had staged a peaceful march on the Alabama
capitol of Montgomery on Sunday March 7 to protest this violation of their constitutional right to vote. When the marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge, they were met by Alabama State troopers who assaulted them with tear gas and billy clubs. These scenes were caught on film (above) and caused a national reaction against the police tactics. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized another march for the following Tuesday (3/10) but stopped the marchers at the Pettis bridge until a court order could be obtained guaranteeing their safety.
“Don’t you shit me, George…”
Meanwhile, President Lyndon Baines Johnson had been monitoring the situation and attempting without success to contact Alabama Governor George Wallace to discuss the marches and calm things down from the violence. LBJ was eventually able to contact Wallace through an intermediary, former Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington. A meeting was arranged at the White House between LBJ and Wallace on Saturday, March 13. LBJ, who at 6. 4″ fairly towered over the comparatively diminutive Wallace sat the governor down, pulled up his rocking chair and gave Wallace (below) a nose-to-nose grilling over the whole messy
situation. When he asked why Wallace wouldn’t see to it that the black voters were registered, Wallace attempted to dodge the question by saying that it was a matter for local officials, LBJ wasn’t buying it: “Don’t you shit me George about who runs Alabama!” After a long meeting Wallace left, saying that he would extend state protection to the marchers if the court order said he must. LBJ was very reluctant to send in federal officials because that would bring up the old specter of the post-Civil War era of reconstruction, and it would make progress on voting rights even more difficult. On March 15, LBJ addressed Congress and proposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was designed to clear the path to full voting powers for Black citizens all over the United States.
LBJ Orders Federal Protection for the Marchers
The court order came through on March 17, with Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ruling in favor of the marchers, saying “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups.” On the 18th, LBJ and Buford Ellington both spoke to Wallace over the phone, and he assured them that he would try to keep it a state matter by using the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers. But later that night Wallace went on TV and demanded that LBJ send in Federal troops to take care of the marchers. At 9:00 that evening, a furious LBJ spoke with Ellington: “LBJ: Buford. BE: I’m sorry I left; I thought you were through. LBJ: I thought so too. You’re dealing with a very treacherous guy. You all must not come in even quoting him anymore. Because he’s a no-good son of a bitch!” So the following day, March 20, LBJ had a press conference (below) and issued the order quoted at the top of this posting. Quoting his telegram to Wallace, LBJ pointed out:
“Responsibility for maintaining law and order in our Federal system properly rests with the State and local government. On the basis of your public statements and your discussions with me, I thought that you felt strongly about this and had indicated that
you would take all the necessary action in this regard. I was surprised, therefore, when in your telegram of Thursday you requested Federal assistance in the performance of such fundamental State duties.”
Then the President acidly continued,
“Even more surprising was your telegram of yesterday stating that both you and the Alabama Legislature, because of monetary consideration, (the emphasis is LBJ’s) believe that the State is unable to protect American citizens and to maintain peace and order in a responsible manner without Federal forces. Because the court order must be obeyed and the rights of all American citizens must be protected, I intend to meet your request by providing Federal assistance to perform normal police functions.”
Then the President went on to comment:
“It is not a welcome duty for the Federal Government to ever assume a State Government’s own responsibility for assuring the protection of citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights. It has been rare in our history for the Governor and the legislature of a sovereign State to decline (once again, the emphasis is LBJ’s) to exercise their responsibility and to request that duty be assumed by the Federal Government.”
On March 21, 1965 some 3,200 people marched out of Selma, Alabama, headed for Montgomery (above) and they did so under the protection of federal troops. They progressed @ 12 miles a day and slept in the local fields at night. And on March 25, they arrived at the state capitol of Montgomery. By then, their number had swelled to nearly 25,000. There, they heard Dr. King declare:
“The end we seek, is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
Five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by the U.S. Congress. President Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965.
America” by Nick Kotz, 2006