Tuesday 9th March 1965
Well, here I am in the capital of the USA, Washington, and very nice it is too. The drive down was very pleasant and on the way a funny thing happened.
V, the fellow I am now with, said ‘We will pop in and see some friends of mine in a little place in Virginia,’ and we stopped at a little shop and went in. We went through the shop and out into what appeared to be a large barn. Down one end, amid a tangle of electronic equipment, there was a fellow talking into a mike, and interviewing another fellow.
As they saw us he yelled ‘Howdy V!’ and then carried on, and believe it or not, he was actually on the air. He was doing an hour long programme of Hillbilly music – which was going out live at that very moment. Broadcasting here is very casual, but I didn’t think it was that casual!!
Later, when the programme had finished, we chatted to him and I learnt he is quite a big star here in the world of folk music. He has made many records, and in return for the kindness he has received on his visit to England, he gave me one of his long playing records as a memento of our meeting.
As it was Monday the 8th March, it made my one and only birthday present, which was very nice.
On our first evening here we went out and drove around the town. Luckily, although it was dark, all the famous sites are floodlit, and in my opinion look even better, and more dramatic. We saw the Washington Monument, a towering column 555 foot high, and very white.
It can be seen for miles in every direction and looks very dramatic, like a giant rocket ready to shoot off into space. There is an elevator inside and for ten cents you can go to the top, and one day this week we are hoping to be able to take a trip to the top.
This monument was one of the targets in a recent plot to blow up national monuments. The other two destined to go were the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. (I have now seen all three).
The next thing we went to see was the Jefferson Memorial. This is a really beautiful monument and more artistic than dramatic. It’s a massive white monument, circular, composed of pillars supporting a dome shaped roof, and inside in the centre is a gigantic statue of Thomas Jefferson, which is very cleverly lit. I expect you know that he was the man mainly responsible for the drawing up and writing of the Declaration of Independence, and he was also the second President of the country.
In front of this monument is a large lake, and when standing on the steps at the front, if you look out over the lake, the Washington Monument is directly in line with the centre of the lake, and the lights cast a reflection of the monument which reflects across the lake and right up to the entrance of the Jefferson Memorial.
We then went to see the Lincoln Memorial which once again is a beautiful place. It is made of white marble and is enormous. It is square, and inside is the famous statue of Lincoln sitting in a chair – thinking. All around, engraved in the walls, are writings of his, which refer to his freeing of the slaves.
Once again, from this entrance which faces another lake, the same thing happens – a long shadow leads right up to the entrance across the water. Around both of these monuments are cherry trees which blossom in April, and which are said to look very nice.
The next thing we went to see was the White House, and although we have seen it many times on TV and films, it was a great thrill to actually see it. We saw the front and the back, and across the lawn where all the ceremonies take place.
While we were looking at it, a huge crowd of black and white people were protesting outside the house. They were walking around in a large circle clapping and singing Negro spirituals, and carrying banners. They were protesting about the treatment of the Negroes in Selma, Alabama.
Note: Two days before, around 600 marchers gathered in Selma, Alabama, to peacefully demand an end to the voter registration discrimination which was being brutally enforced in the state, violently stopping the local black population from accessing their legal right to vote. The assembled campaigners were attacked by massed police officers using clubs and tear gas. Footage and photographs of the violence were widely shared in the national and international press, who dubbed the day Bloody Sunday. You can find out more HERE.
Last evening we left work early and went to have a look at the grave of President Kennedy, but when we got to Arlington Cemetery we found it closed at 5pm, so we couldn’t get in. So, instead we drove around the perimeter.
It’s a huge military cemetery and there are thousands upon thousands of small white gravestones, in a setting of rolling grassland and trees. It looked very neat and orderly, and somehow from a distance, the small white stones looked like daffodils in a field. This may sound crazy, but that’s the impression I got.
I want to get to see Kennedy’s grave before I leave, and I also want to see inside the White House if I can, but it’s doubtful now as I have now been told I am off to Ohio on Sunday. This has messed up the weekend as V and I were going to drive down to North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains. V knows that area well and would have been a good guide.
However, Ohio is near the Niagara Falls, so I hope I shall be able to see that when I’m there. I am not absolutely sure yet, but I think I am teaming up with Colin again in Ohio.
I expect you have been hearing all about the racial troubles here in America. You probably see all the films on TV, and realise how bad it is. There is a notorious person, Sheriff Clark, the Sheriff of Selma, Alabama. (NOTE: see below) He is frequently on TV being involved in fights and riots. He is a 100% anti-coloured and makes no secret of it.
There is a very odd set up here. The State laws have priority over the Federal laws. This applies to everything, including the colour issue. Although the Federal law says that racial prejudice is now illegal, the State laws overrule this, if a State wants to continue to recognise a colour bar.
This seems to make a mockery of the Federal laws – and this is the case in Alabama.
To be continued…
It’s very sobering to read more about Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, and shocking to think that he was in such a position of power, for so long, over so many people, when he was a publicly violent, corrupt and prejudiced racist.
As Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama from 1955 to 1966, he carried a cattle prod as well as his club and gun, and wore a badge reading ‘NEVER’ (IE: Never integrate.)
When the non-violent student committee SNCC encouraged Selma’s black population to enrol to vote in 1964, Clark recruited a horse-mounted posse of the Ku Klux Klan (working with Highway Patrolmen), to intimidate, assault and threaten them.
Clark himself guarded the Selma county courthouse, beating and arresting those who tried to register. He arrested 300 students holding a silent protest, then force-marched them with cattle prods, three miles to a detention center. By 1965, only 300 of the city’s 15,000 potential black voters had successfully registered to vote.
Clark was present in February 1965 when the police attacked a peaceful march in Marion, Alabama. One officer chased protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, as he fled the violence with his mother and elderly grandfather, and shot him in the cafe they’d sought refuge in. Jimmie later died of his injuries.
These events caused widespread outrage and triggered the 7th March 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. That day was dubbed Bloody Sunday after massed police officers charged and brutally attacked the peaceful marchers, leaving 60 protesters in hospital. When TV channel ABC cut into normal programming to broadcast the scenes of brutality live to 48 million Americans, it triggered national revulsion.
On 13th March 1965, President Lyndon B Johnson ordered Alabama Governor George Wallace (another notorious racist) to stop the state harassment of the protesters.
Two days later, Johnson presented a civil rights bill to a joint session of Congress, declaring: ‘Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’
While Johnson was introducing his bill, federal troops were protecting a march of 25,000 people, led by civil rights leaders, marching from Selma to Montgomery.
The Voting Rights Act was passed that August, banning most of the unfair practices used to prevent blacks from registering to vote, and allowing federal registrars to visit states with a history of discrimination to enforce the law where necessary.
This was considered a watershed moment for the civil rights movement.
At first, progress was slow, with local registrars still using tactics to block African Americans from voting, and federal registrars often not dispatched when requested.
But by March 1966, alongside the 12,000 white voters in Selma, there were also nearly 11,000 African Americans registered. That year, Sheriff Clark was voted out of his seat.
Clark went on to sell mobile homes – and in 1978, was jailed for two years for conspiring to smuggle three tons of cannabis. When interviewed in 2006 about his actions during the 60s, he said: ‘I’d do the same thing today.’ He died in June 2007, still unrepentant.