Sunday, March 8, 2015

SELMA, ALABAMA: Then and Now

Marching to Selma, 1965. More photos.
The Selma march precipitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The violence against peaceful marchers on that "Bloody Sunday", March 7, 1965 shocked the nation. It led to Martin Luther King's 25,000-person strong Selma-to-Montgomery march, 18 days later.

The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson within five months.

The Act outlawed "Jim Crow" literacy tests, poll taxes, and other subjective voter tests widely used in some southern states to deprive African-Americans of the vote. The law required Federal oversight of voter registration in states and voting districts where such tests were used.
President Obama Visits Selma, 2015

The Political Climate in 1965

As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1962-64 I was trying to learn how politics worked by getting involved. I served as the General Agent of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), which in those days approximated the range of views of the Democratic Party in the United States. I got to know many of the people who were on the cutting edge of what became Britain's Thatcher revolution and our Reagan revolution.

I enjoyed our cerebral deliberations about the benefits of the free market. But what carried these ideas turned out to be an emotional tide, a lingering resentment by some about the intrusion of national governments in local affairs. The theoretical arguments of academics objecting to government interference would be paired with what - for lack of an adequate term - can be called a fear of change.

In the Catholic Church at that time, Vatican II had just finished its work and left traditionalist Catholics in shock at, for example, the loss of Latin in the Mass. Many Catholics were therefore open to conservative complaints. Whether from reaction to actions in the Vatican or in Washington, Catholics were ready to turn inward, which was the call of Republic poachers in the United States.

Whereas during the American Civil War it was Republican Abraham Lincoln who championed the rights of slaves, parties had become realigned by FDR, JFK and LBJ. Now the Democrats were the champions of the oppressed and the GOP was the party of those who felt that enough had been done for the poor and minorities.

During 1964-66, after finishing my two years at Oxford, I started work at the Federal Reserve Board as a financial economist in the International Finance division. I reported on what central banks were doing in the newly independent nations of Africa in those Cold War days, when the fear of infiltration of Communist agents in Africa was a major concern in Washington. Those who objected to excessive government within the United States were often at the same time demanding that the nation spend more defending the Free World against Soviet or Chinese Communist influence.

During 1965-66, Baron Patten of Barnes, who has been Oxford's Chancellor since 2003, was in a good position to observe sentiment in the southern states, where local people felt the sting of national outrage over the handling of peaceful demonstrations by law enforcement, and then the consequences in the form of federal agents. Chris Patten, as he then was, read Modern History at Oxford, going down in 1965 and visiting America on a Coolidge Traveling Fellowship.

Why Pennsylvania Plates Were Red Flags

His traveling fellowship took Patten in the summer of 1965 around some southern states in a car with Pennsylvania license plates. He told me a few years ago at an alumni reunion event that he was puzzled by the open hostility that his car quickly provoked after crossing into Alabama.

It finally dawned on him, he said, that his Pennsylvania license plates falsely flagged him as a civil rights "troublemaker". While many southerners were deeply embarrassed by the actions of white supremacists, resentment was high in the south. The Ku Klux Klan was powerful and deadly.

Pennsylvania was closely connected to two events involving volunteers from the north seeking to help Rev. Martin Luther King obtain voting rights and other civil rights in the south.
  • The previous summer, three members of a Penn Law School contingent to Mississippi were killed by white supremacists in Philadelphia, Miss. (One of them was from New York.)
  • On March 7, 1965 a Pennsylvania-born volunteer was killed by three KKK members.
Viola Liuzzo, 1925-1965
The volunteer was Viola Fauver Gregg, born in the town of California, Pa. on April 11, 1925. After a failed early marriage and with two children, she married Anthony Liuzzo, a Detroit Teamster union official. They had three more children, five in all. At 36 she returned to  Wayne State University and soon graduated with top honors, becoming a medical lab technician. She was also a committed Unitarian Universalist and a member of the NAACP.

On March 25, after the second march to Montgomery, Viola volunteered to drive people from downtown to Montgomery Airport. Her co-driver was Leroy Moton, a young African American. Coming back from one such trip, the volunteers were passed by a car carrying three KKK members from Birmingham plus an undercover FBI informant. Here's what ensued:
Tombstone, Viola Liuzzo, Holy
Sepulchre Cemetery, Southfield, Mich.
  • The KKK members were outraged at seeing a white woman and black man together in the car. They decided to kill them.
  • Collie Wilkins pulled alongside and fired his gun twice.  Viola was hit in the head and died instantly. Leroy was not hit; he was covered in Viola's blood and pretended to be dead. He was recently interviewed by a Connecticut newspaper. Besides Wilkins (21), KKK members William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42) were caught. The FBI man, Gary Rowe (34), testified against them. 
  • Later, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, aware that the FBI's presence in the car did not look good, initiated a campaign to discredit Liuzzo. He told LBJ she was a drug addict, had sex with Moton, and was married to someone with ties to organized crime. The FBI planted these stories and several newspapers repeated them. Liuzzo daughter Penny says that the FBI propaganda campaign "took the life right out of [my father] ... he started drinking a lot."
  • An autopsy in 1965 showed no traces of drugs in Viola Liuzzo's system, and no evidence of recent sexual activity,
  • The FBI's role in the smear campaign was uncovered in 1978 when Liuzzo's children obtained case documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Despite Rowe's testimony, the three KKK members were acquitted of murder by an all-white Alabama jury. The acquittal was widely reported in the media, outraging national officials.
  • LBJ's Justice Department responded by using an 1870 federal law to charge the three men with conspiring to deprive Viola Liuzzo of her civil rights.
  • All three KKK members were found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
  • Rowe was placed in a witness protection program because of threats from the KKK.
  • Civil Rights Memorial was erected in Montgomery, Ala. to Viola and 39 other murdered civil rights activists, in front of the Civil Rights Memorial Center - which was formerly the office building of the Southern Poverty Law Center, founded in 1971. At least two memorial tombstones have been created in Liuzzo's memory in 1989 and 1991.
Bill Buckley's Upstart Conservative Campaign in New York City

Patten returned north to New York City to work in the campaign of John Lindsay, doing what today would be called "oppo research", tracking the television and other appearances of Lindsay's rival Bill Buckley. Young Patten arrived in New York City at a time when both NY State's Senators liberal Republicans -- Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. It was near to the high point of liberal (Ripon Society) Republicanism. Buckley never expected to win, and did not, but he developed a series of campaign strategies that could be considered a template for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign.

Buckley, a Roman Catholic, saw something that became a crucial part of American politics for the next half century. He saw that many Catholic voters could be carved out of the Democratic base, appealing to their sense of tradition and mainstream morality, persuading them to vote Republican even though it was likely to be against their economic interest. This strategy was later described in Thomas Frank's 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas?

As a Catholic educated at a Benedictine school (as I was), Patten was well-positioned to pick up on Buckley's message in 1965 and how it might actually have traction. Buckley was viewed as extreme - but he was just ahead of his time. It would have been hard for someone in New York City to visualize a conservative-libertarian uprising. The Republicans were not much less progressive than the Democrats on many issues. Nixon created the country's Environmental Protection Agency. Bill Ruckelshaus, Nixon's appointee as the first head of the EPA, has said more than once in recent years that he doesn't recognize the Republican party he once served. Mayor Bloomberg was an exception, cut from the same cloth as the liberal Republicans of an earlier day.


Civil rights issues are still with us. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act in 2013 as obsolete and freeing nine states, including Alabama, to change election laws without advance approval. The recent Ferguson, Mo. investigation shows continued systematic bias against minorities, and this city is in no way an isolated example. New areas of contention have arisen such as gender-related rights. The battle between tradition and change that Buckley envisioned in 1965 is still on, but as President Obama's speech in Selma stressed, much has changed for the better

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