Of all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism experiences, one of the lesser known remains one of the more compelling.
Many people associate King with Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965—even though he wasn’t in Selma when activists there attempted their first march to Montgomery. Others match King with the actual 50-mile march to Montgomery two weeks later—some of which he did walk.
One march between those two, however, stands out as a mark of his leadership in the trenches: the “Turnaround March” of March 9, just two days after Bloody Sunday
Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge had gained instant notoriety after film footage of marchers being gassed and clubbed by Alabama state troopers was broadcast nationwide on Sunday evening, March 7.
After the rout at the bridge, movement leaders called on Americans to travel to Selma and participate in another attempted march to Montgomery on Tuesday. Hundreds of clergy and laypeople heeded the call, swelling the activist ranks in anticipation of another march and possible confrontation.
However, movement strategists had not secured the approval of any government (local, state or federal) to proceed with the march. Though activists did not always consider court approval requisite for demonstration, some (especially King) had major misgivings about proceeding with a march which, by Monday, had actually received an injunction from federal Judge Frank Johnson forbidding the march until he could conduct appropriate hearings. Hence the predicament faced by movement leaders and strategists.
President Lyndon Johnson asked the director of the Community Relations Service—former Florida governor LeRoy Collins—to travel to Selma and mediate the situation; in other words, to prevent more bloodshed on Tuesday. Collins, in recollecting his involvement, stated that “there had to be some kind of way to find a middle ground,” believing that “you can settle something if both sides feel like they are winning.”
Collins asked King and the other leaders if the demonstrators “could symbolically and actually go over the bridge,” then “stop and pray and talk for twenty or thirty minutes,” then “turn around and go back.”
King replied that he did not believe Collins could persuade law enforcement not to molest the marchers. Furthermore, King doubted his own ability to make the demonstrators follow him, even if he did turn back.
Having secured tentative approval from King, Collins then dashed from Brown Chapel (the movement headquarters in Selma) across the bridge to the amassing contingent of law enforcement. There Collins presented his plan to Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and Al Lingo, head of the state troopers, asking them not to attack if the marchers stopped and prayed after crossing the bridge.
Much like King’s expectation of his own followers, Clark and Lingo expressed doubt that “their people” would do as instructed.
Yet, Collins remembered Clark and Lingo agreeing that if the demonstrators “followed a certain route through town and came on over the bridge and at that point, they would not move into them and allow them to stop and pray and all that and then they should go back.” Again, with this sort of tentative approval, Collins then dashed back across the bridge headed toward Brown Chapel.
As if the situation lacked drama, Collins found that the marchers “were halfway to the bridge and coming along.” He joined the marching column, clutching a “little slip of paper” Clark and Lingo had given him mapping “the route to follow,” which was the same route demonstrators took on Bloody Sunday.
King told Collins he would try to turn the column around after crossing the bridge, though he made no promises. The marchers advanced across the bridge, stopping yards away from a wall of troopers. King and various other leaders went forward with a word of prayer, and they even sang a song. King then told the demonstrators that they were turning back.
As Collins remembered, “They had the symbolic accomplishment of crossing that bridge where they were not able to do it before.”
However, as King and the head ranks began to turn, the wall of officers blocking their path “opened up,” creating a gap for the marchers’ passage to Montgomery. Historian David Garrow has noted that Gov. George Wallace allegedly ordered the movement, possibly in an attempt to embarrass King and diminish his credibility with movement activists.
King did not take the bait. He turned around—and the column of marchers followed his lead, returning with him to the chapel.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.