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.
Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride.
-Martin Luther King Jr, writing in The Nation in 1965