In jail, "outside agitators" were a curiosity

In jail, "outside agitators" were a curiosity

Protest at White House of Bloody Sunday in 1965. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress.

I'd much rather be talking about Israel or the NCAA regional in Omaha this weekend, but I started to tell about my experiences going to the march on Selma 50 years ago, so I had better finish the job. At the end of last week's article, I had been one of about 40 people arrested marching around the Alabama State Capitol building on March 19, 1965.

We were taken to the Montgomery City Jail. Of course, with the pictures of brutality that we had seen back home, we were expecting the worst. The booking process went quite smoothly and professionally. I was put into a holding cell with a young black man from Montgomery. I suppose I was there about two hours in the late afternoon.

There must have been other attempts to picket the state house because the jail rapidly filled up, and we were informed that we would be transferred to Kilby State Prison just outside the city. That did little to allay our fears, as you might imagine.

It seems there was an old wing of the prison that was currently not being used. We were divided into four groups and sent into that wing. We were segregated first by sex and then by race.

My white colleagues and I were put into a large bay about the size of a small basketball gym. It had one part walled off as a shower and bathroom block. There were a few metal tables and a lot of old, musty mattresses at the far end.

The place smelled unused and there was no heating when we got there. The guards told us that they would get the radiators turned on in the morning. There were probably 30 of us, and many had been in the jail from other demonstrations. These guys told us that they had begun a hunger strike so some bright individual (I know it wasn't me) immediately piped up that we would all refrain from eating as well.

When supper came, they told the guards that we wouldn't be eating. The guards left a cart full of ham and beans, greens and corn bread in the bay for nearly an hour, hoping the smell would dissuade us from continuing the hunger strike. I had eaten on the plane (airline food was not a standing joke in those days) so I was fine for the time being. I just pulled out a mattress and stretched out. As the evening got cooler and it began to drizzle outside, I pulled another mattress over me for warmth.

This would be home for the next few days. The plan was for us "outside agitators" to refrain from bailing ourselves out of jail until the locals were also able to bail out. This was for their safety.

There was very little to do. A few books were available. I remember waiting my turn for a chance to read one of the James Bond novels. Daily newspapers were also sent in so we could follow the progress of the march. Usually someone, occasionally me, would climb up onto the wall around the shower/toilet block and read the news to everybody.

The best entertainment we had was when the African Americans sang. We didn't know where they were and couldn't see them, but we could certainly hear them. They were singing songs that had begun as hymns and revival songs, had been appropriated and adapted as union songs and were now being fashioned into civil rights anthems.

I also remember one of the group making a presentation about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and how it was imperialism. This was 1965, so we had few troops in Southeast Asia and nobody knew anyone who had been sent there.

We knew that we were making a contribution to the safety of the local African Americans when the FBI began calling some of us out into an interrogation room to ask if we had seen or heard of any mistreatment of prisoners. Obviously, someone back home had enough clout to get the feds to interview some of us. Luckily we had nothing to report.

The hunger strike was irritating but not terribly painful. After a couple of days my stomach sort of stopped grumbling. The strangest sensation however was being able to feel my heartbeat in my stomach at night when I was lying quietly and trying to sleep. When I got out, I found that I had lost almost 15 pounds.

The guards seemed truly perplexed by us. They occasionally asked why we were there, butting into a local situation. But I never observed them becoming angry or abusive, nor did I hear sounds of any abuse coming from other cells.

My incarceration lasted parts of six days and five nights. On the last day, we knew that the marchers were arriving in Montgomery and having a rally at the State Capitol building. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to be the main speaker, and the crowd would be entertained by Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

After the rally, we were released. Missed the march. Missed MLK. Missed Peter, Paul and Mary. On the other hand, we didn't have to walk the 50-odd miles from Selma to Montgomery. They just bused us back to town and turned us loose.

First we went to a church where we were fed a fried chicken dinner. They warned us not to eat too much or too fast since our stomachs had been pretty idle for a while, but I don't think anyone paid too much attention. I know that I had no problems tying into some Southern-fried goodness. Next I went back to the Ben Moore Hotel to find my bag just where I had left us. Then we saw outside a church where a summit meeting of the non-Martin Luther King groups seemed to be hammering out a strategy. I remember seeing Stokely Carmichael of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others coming out of the meeting.

That night, we were divided up among several houses where we would sleep on the floor. Just as I joined about 20 others in the living room of a small clapboard house, we heard that one of the Northern volunteers (whom I later found out was Viola Liuzzo of Detroit) had been killed by the Klan while ferrying marchers back to Selma. There were rumors that "nightriders" might terrorize the black part of Montgomery that night. I was particularly concerned because my patch of floor was right in front of the front door. Still, I managed get to sleep and nothing happened.

The next day I flew home to Kansas and back to school at Emporia. To some of my friends, I was a hero, to others just a curiosity. To my landlord I was a dangerous radical and he declined to allow me to have the apartment for the next school year.

Five months later, President Johnson strongarmed the Congress into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law is still on the books but had its enforcement teeth pulled by the Stevens Supreme Court. And state officials like Kris Kobach continue to make it more difficult for many people to vote. I guess I take that somewhat personally.