David James Randolph is seen directly beneath the fist of the Trooper
in this photo from “Life” Magazine with the cover story “Civil Rights Face-off at Selma: The Savage Season Begins,” March 19, 1965. This photo is a detail from page 33.
He recalls the experience and lessons learned in this passage from “More Candles in the Dark” (New Way Media 2010) pp.78-81. Randolph writes:
“I know how challenging that day (in Selma) was because I was there,
one of some 450 clergy who responded to Dr. King’s call and joined another 1,550 or so for the march. Then teaching at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, I said goodbye to my wife then, Juanita and five year old son Dave and three year old daughter Tracey and headed for Selma.
Inside Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday morning we were inspired by preachers and warned by a doctor on how to respond if tear gas was used. We might be blinded, but only temporarily. When it came time for Dr. King himself to speak he was eloquent but more somber than he had been in the March on Washington. He dealt with the sacred dimension of our action and of Civil Disobedience. The outcome of this march could not be foretold but we needed to establish the right of people to demonstrate for their beliefs. When he told us to put on our marching shoes we did so and followed him into the streets.
When I first saw the police with their actual clubs the size of baseball bats I was shocked. We marched through town, across the bridge and came to a halt in a moment when those at the front of the line were face to face with those who had bloodied them two days before. This time marchers knelt to pray as some led in prayer and witness. The police did not attack. When the point was made, we reversed our march singing “We Shall Overcome.” Later that day marcher James Reeb was clubbed to death.
Some felt betrayed because Dr. King had turned around rather than force the march forward. But history has shown that the turnaround created the conditions for a negotiating process leading to the successful later march.
I left Selma committed to extending the march into our town and state. I thanked God on returning to my wife and children. I consulted with faculty colleagues who officially sent a delegation of three professors to conclude the march into Montgomery on March 25, a major step to an institutional commitment. I spoke in a variety of public forums and on March 14 gave the keynote address at a countywide demonstration. Many others acted across America and on August 6 the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land.
Lessons learned then have meaning now. In the face of overpowering odds the action of a committed minority can transform society. Religious leaders can provide the spiritual and moral foundations for action while religious and educational institutions can inform and mobilize people. Media can draw attention to injustice and bring pressure for change. The President of the United States can use his “bully pulpit” as did Lyndon Johnson. Legislators can pass better laws, courts justly interpret them and police humanely enforce them. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when called upon by true leaders.
As we face new challenges it is good to know that history is transformed not only in those shining moments when the winners enter the city but in those shadowy moments when people commit themselves to the Cause, win or lose.