Justice  /  Comment

Let Justice Roll Down

"Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of complacency were shocked into reality by Selma."

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue.

When 1963 came to a close, more than a few skeptical voices asked what substantial progress had been achieved through the demonstrations that had drawn more than a million Negroes into the streets. By the close of 1964, the pessimistic clamor was stilled by the music of major victories. Taken together, the two years marked a historic turning point for the civil rights movement; in the previous century no comparable change for the Negro had occurred. Now, even the most cynical acknowledged that at Birmingham, as at Concord, a shot had been fired that was heard around the world.

Before examining 1964 in greater depth, some comment is necessary on the events currently unfolding in Alabama. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and with the defeat of Barry Goldwater, there was widespread expectation that barriers would disintegrate with swift inevitability. This easy optimism could not survive the first test. In the hard-core states of the South, while some few were disposed to accommodate, the walls remained erect and reinforced. That was to be expected, for the basic institutions of government, commerce, industry and social patterns in the South all rest upon the embedded institution of segregation. Change is not accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism.

Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of complacency were shocked into reality by Selma and Marion, Ala. In Selma, the position was implacable resistance. At one point, ten times as many Negroes were in jail as were on the registration rolls. Out of 15,000 eligible to vote, less than 350 were registered.

Selma involves more than disenfranchisement. Its inner texture reveals overt and covert forms of terror and intimidation–that uniquely Southern form of existence for Negroes in which life is a constant state of acute defensiveness and deprivation. Yet if Selma outrages democratic sensibilities, neighboring Wilcox County offers something infinitely worse. Sheriff P.C. Jenkins has held office in Wilcox for twenty-six years. He is a local legend because when he wants a Negro for a crime, he merely sends out word and the Negro comes in to be arrested. This is intimidation and degradation reminiscent only of chattel slavery. This is white supremacist arrogance and Negro servility possible only in an atmosphere where the Negro feels himself so isolated, so hopeless, that he is stripped of all dignity. And as if they were in competition to obliterate the United States Constitution within Alabama’s borders state troopers only a few miles away clubbed and shot Negro demonstrators in Marion.