Mike Smith was in a meeting with his non-violent student-protest group in Jackson, Mississippi, when he heard the terrible news.
“We were discussing recent events when, all of the sudden, one of our staff members burst in, shouting, ‘We just got wiped out in Selma!’
“‘The police attacked us – they tear-gassed us and rode horses over us. They beat us to the ground. We need help!’”
The date was Sunday, March 7, 1965. The event described – in which Alabama state troopers blocked and beat 600 nonviolent civil rights protestors on their way from Selma to Montgomery – soon became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a day that shocked the nation and, ironically, became a catalyst for the civil rights marches that followed, as well as the passing of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
To honor the 50th anniversary of these events, filmmaker Ava DuVernays helmed the recently released film, “Selma,” which is screening this week at the Sebastiani Theatre. The film features an impressive cast, including David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Wilkinson, among others, and received numerous nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards this year. It won Best Original Song at both ceremonies.
For Smith, however, the anniversary hits closer to home – which just happens to be in Sonoma – than any movie ever could.
“I went to Selma the day after the attack,” says Smith. “There were people with broken bones and bandages everywhere. There were hostile crowds, too, and I remember that I kept trying to escape their jeers. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. I walked up to one of them and grabbed a Confederate flag out of his hands. Before he could stop me, I moved back into the crowd and lit it on fire. It was my way of protesting black suppression.”
After Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call for “people of principle” to come to Selma, and soon people from everywhere were pouring in. Many people wanted to march again, but Dr. King was conflicted. President Lyndon B. Johnson had urged him to wait to march – until a federal court could grant them protection. What should he do?
“We decided to march,” says Smith. “We were all fired up, and when we took off that Tuesday morning, we all sang, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna turn me around.’ I was right up in front with Dr. King, and he was singing, too ... That was my only complaint about the movie. It didn’t show any of the singing.”
What Smith didn’t know when they started, however, was that Dr. King had decided to stop the second march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the brutal events had taken place just two days previously. When they reached the bridge, rather than oppose state troopers, the protestors knelt down and prayed. Smith was disappointed. “I was eager to march again no matter what. Stopping, to me, felt like admitting defeat.”
After the march, Smith returned to Jackson where he and his friend Ben Brown planned a demonstration at the courthouse. The two were arrested for picketing shortly thereafter and learned of the start of the third and final Selma march on March 21, now federally protected, from their jail cells. Despite their own circumstances, the two were elated. “They put us in solitary confinement because we wouldn’t stop singing,” said Smith. “We couldn’t have cared less.”
These days, Smith is a bit calmer – but only a little bit. The retired 74-year-old spends his days gardening and playing with his dogs. He and his wife, Susan, also enjoy music and dancing. But not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of his time in Selma. In fact, he’s even writing a book about it.
“Selma stands out in my mind as an example of the best in American tradition and history where thousands of people from all over the country put their lives on the line to fight against racism,” says Smith. “Never before had I seen people with so much courage and dignity, and it gave me a sense of purpose and determination to stand up for what I believe in – no matter the cost. What’s sad is that racism is still alive and kicking, and I’m hoping my fellow Americans realize this and will continue to fight the good fight. No one is justified in using force and violence against their fellow American. No one.”
“Selma” is showing March 10 and 12 at 7 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre, 476 First St. E. Check out sebastianitheatre.com.
‘The police attacked us – they tear-gassed us and rode horses over us. They beat us to the ground. We need help!’
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