Margaret Long: March on Montgomery

Margaret Long: March on Montgomery

By Margaret Long

Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 9-11

EDITOR’S NOTE: Margaret Long, editor from 1961-1966 of New South, the Southern Regional Council publication that was one of the forerunners of Southern Changes, died in February in Tallahassee, Fla.; she had been ill for several months. Her recounting, below, of the conclusion of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March remains as a testament to her gifts as writer and observer. Thc article originally appeared as Long’s regular column, “Strictly Subjective,” in the March 1965 issue of New South.

A pearly light glowed gray-bright through the rain clouds over Montgomery and bathed the beautiful old city in a humid, soft glare. The overcast day of the March on Montgomery was deceptively luminous so that the spacious, serene streets, the great trees fuzzed green and gold, the romantic old white houses behind magnolias and sugarberries, the teeming mud-soaked squalor of the back streets of Darktown and the commodious suave slow white downtown with its low skyline, crowned by the State Capitol at the high end of Dexter Avenue, all showed themselves in picturesque pause as “the Negroes” and their white Yankee friends–from 25,000 to 50,000 strong–marched from the red brick buildings and brown mud quagmires of Catholic St. Jude City three miles to the Capitol.

We hastened late to St. Jude City to meet the March, which was two or three hours late getting started, with plenty of time for the familiars at such events to greet one

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another as we moved about, pulling our shoes precariously out of the sucking mud each step–journalists, radio men black and white interviewing Negro notables and oddly talking their stylized air-waves talk into their little mikes; obscure young Negro heroes from the violent vineyards of the Deep South; a middle-aged Jewish devotee of Civil Rights, jail and the heady camaraderie of the Movement; hurried notables hastening to the front line of the March forming inside the gate of St. Jude.

The March gathering inside St. Jude–to the hideously amplified sound of some emcee or other insistently shattering the pearly expectancy of the air with his banal bellowings–took shape with famous figures in the front line: Dr. Martin Luther King and his handsome young wife Coretta, her curly dark hair blown black in the damp breeze; Dr. Ralph Bunche, moon-faced and beaming with the felicity and pride he brings to such occasions; Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League, massive, handsome and smiling; Bayard Rustin, tall and gracefully genial; John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, tenderly baby-sitting a little brown girl he held by the hand; and other leaders black and white. James Baldwin, small, black and bug-eyed, hung back with the field hands and marched, some ten thousand people behind, with James Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC, Forman wearing his Snick trademark denims. Baldwin marched in a grave business-like way, and occasionally exhibited an elegant, warm charm in a quick smile or wave to an acquaintance.

They were all very grand, the leaders, great white churchmen, dramatic and girlish nuns and the famed black and white entertainers. Somewhere in the crowd which the press estimated at 4,000 to 25,00 and 30,000 and Rev. Ralph Abernathy called more than 50,000, were Anthony Perkins, the actor, Shelley Winters, the actress, Dick Gregory, a bunch of famous folk singers, distinguished Negro entertainers and, I think, Leonard Bernstein. At any rate, the great maestro appeared the night before at the St. Jude program of celebrities come from all over the country to show they want Deep South Negroes to vote and be free Americans, even in Alabama.

Bearing Witness

Thus they bore witness to the best American feeling for our civil rights and liberties, and as one beset and outcast white Montgomery liberal (who had to cook for one hundred of the distinguished visitors crowded out of hotels and restaurants) said, they were “the conscience of the country converging on Montgomery.”

Still, with all their beauty, talent, distinction and feeling I felt the biggest and most absorbing show was staged by the Negroes of Montgomery as the thousands, black and white, marched through their ghettos to downtown and the Capitol.

As dun-colored white boys of the Alabama National Guard, formidable in heavy helmets, boots and khaki coveralls, and sternly impassive perhaps in confusion at their federal role of protecting Negro marchers and Yankee outsiders, lined the sidewalks and as Army helicopters rattled above in the gray sky, we passed a sagging, paintless house where six or eight Negro children watched the march from their porch, the shy, pigtailed little girls in doe-eyed, docile wonder and the little brown boys smiling. And a fat three-year-old man child suddenly attacked a buzzing helicopter in a fierce show of joyful valor. He laughed, he shouted, he threatened, he shook his fists and waved his arms, he flung himself about mightily, stomping and hollering to drive the intruder from his sky–baby refutation of the popular thesis of the demeaned Negro male–while his brothers and sisters giggled and rejoiced at his ragings.

Walking on “Nice” Streets

We walked on Cleveland Avenue, a “nice” Negro street with a white columned apartment house, a tasteful big gray house and grassy yards with budding trees and gold-showering forsythia and the faint scent of crabapple blossoms in the beginning pink bloom, and the well-dressed Negroes on the sidewalks watched their protesting, marching friends blandly and non-commitally.

The March broke into song off and on–“We Shall Overcome” on one block which drifted offend swung into “Which Side are You on, Boy?” two blocks ahead, started by the five thousand Negro high school and college students Snick organizers go out for the March (young Negroes who have never before set foot in the street, ten years after Dr. King’s Montgomery bus boycott) and the parade tramped smiling and dense into the muddy streets and lanes of “niggertown,” dingy stores, ramshackle houses, big trees, budding white spirea and yellow Dutch broom, slick dirt sidewalks, and the poor, black, brown and golden people, beaming, waving, clapping, beholding their Negro greats marching for their freedom, and the strange, comradely whites from North and South come, at

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last, to befriend them.

An old patriarch, a sallow, mustached ninety-year-old color of a green olive, sat in a rocking chair on his paintless porch, watching with aged, narrow eyes, while his brown daughters waved and smiled at the marchers and his great-grandchildren ran about and shrilled out “We Shall Overcome.”

Half a dozen boys on the dirt sidewalk hollered at a round-faced black boy in the March and he smiled and waved at them, and a group of dark women waved and called to their high school girls and boys walking by. Some old men and young women raised their voices to join in the March’s chorus of “We Shall Overcome, black and white together, brothers we shall be-ee,” and a nun’s high soprano met the clear contralto of a young mother holding a fat golden baby in dirty diapers in the soaring, mournful assertion of “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

Smiles in Grateful Greeting

An old black grandmother in a white apron over her colorless dress raised her heavy eyelids to look at, smile at and wave at white women in the March, to welcome the strange friends from far away. On porches, on the dirt sidewalks and in the mud streets, the young and old women with shy grace and great effort met the white faces to smile in grateful greeting. A brown slattern, her belly distended with another baby under her streaked and faded red dress, her crisp hair swathed in a dirty head rag, her feet in shoes run down to the soles, lifted her weary, bitter face to nod and smile at a white woman walking by.

Nicely garbed young and old Negro women and Sunday-dressed children waved and clapped as the marchers passed, in sweet hospitality for the marching guests.

We passed a drab stretch of sagging houses, dirty store fronts and grassless yards, and suddenly blooming like a brilliant zinnia bed in a dirt alley were a dozen or so children in a baby delegation marshaled by two pretty young colored women, who exchanged grown-up smiles with the marchers and passers-by appreciating the lovely little ones. Their deep-eyed, tender faces, black, beige, nut brown and nearly white, smiled shyly and their little pink-palm hands waved like petals in a wind. I can’t imagine what the black two-year-old boy or the bronze, pigtailed ten-year-old girl in a starched yellow dress thought it was all about, but their welcome was entrancing.

Here and there a watching Negro joined the March. A thin old black lady in a white dress, beside herself in the wonder and pride of the event, left the March to greet by-standing friends and pull some of them into the parade with her.

And, when the throngs got to town, passing a poor white section edging on the Negro neighborhoods where white girls amiably took pictures, workmen watched wondering and undecided and a shabby fat man cursed the marchers and reporters and photographers, they were a great army of Negroes, distinguished white Americans, foreign delegations, and the black poor of the Alabama countryside from Selma to Montgomery.

Negroes in the movement are always talking about the “confrontation,” of which it seems to me, for all their efforts, they have had very little, since the white folks they would “confront” like to turn their eyes away, put the Negroes in jail and behave as if their dark neighbors are somebody from New York, Moscow or Peking. But in Montgomery there was a “confrontation” when what looked to me like 40,000 or 50,000 Negroes and white people walked up Dexter Avenue, past the big hotels and office buildings and the stunned, solemn, smiling whites on the wide streets and in office windows and hotel balconies, and proceeded singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, toward the State Capitol of Alabama, which loomed like an alabaster dream palace in the sky at the end of the avenue. This first Capitol of the Confederacy must be the most beautiful state building in the country, with its elegant high dome, its white columns, graceful wings and tiers of marble steps, splendidly gleaming on bright greensward and among high old trees.

Easter Egg Troopers

And that March Thursday, a row of state troopers with bright green helmets, green ties, khaki shirts and green trousers stood guarding the dream ramparts of the Old South in bright and gala array like so many festive Easter eggs as the black and white Americans marched singing to the steps. Behind the Easter egg troopers stood hundreds of white state officials and employees, while scores more leaned out of office windows to hear the glorious singing, the great oratory, the outsiders’ American assertion and the Alabama Negroes’ vows to vote, sit in the legislature and equally participate in political power in Alabama.

I don’t know what the white folks so spectacularly confronted thought. But they stood on the marble steps for four hours hearing every pounding song, every surge of laughter, every black shout of ridicule and every rousing ring of the orators’ echoed promise to march, vote and demonstrate until Alabama belongs to black and white together.