SELMA, Alabama, March 7, 1965 (UPI) – State troopers and mounted deputies bombarded 600 Negroes with tear gas on Sunday when they knelt to pray on a bridge, then attacked them with clubs. — Troopers and possemen, under orders from Gov. George C. Wallace to stop the Negro “walk for freedom” to Montgomery, chased the marchers nearly a mile through town, clubbing them as they ran.
Sixty-seven persons were wounded and scores suffered gas burns.
Good Samaritan Hospital and Burwell Infirmary said 17 Negroes had been hospitalized for injuries ranging from a possible skull fracture and broken arms and legs to hysteria.
A spokesman for the treatment center said another 50 Negroes were treated and released.
Among the injured was John Lewis, chairman of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Lewis, at the head of the column when the troopers waded in, had a possible skull fracture.
The Rev. Martin Luther King announced in Atlanta Sunday night that he would lead a renewed Selma-to-Mongomery march Tuesday.
But Dr. King, who was to have led Sunday’s march to protest to Wallace the denial of Negro voting rights in Alabama, revealed that his aides argued him out of it at the last minute.
“It was agreed that I not lead the march because of the revelation of the fact that state troopers would block our move forward. It was suggested that I remain in Atlanta for my Sunday church responsibilities and mobilize support for a larger thrust forward.”
“When I made a last minute agreement not to lead the march,” he statement read, “I must confess that I had no idea that the kind of brutality and tragic expression of man’s inhumanity to man as exited today would take place.
“As a matter of conscience and in an attempt to arouse the deeper concern of this nation over the evils that are perpetrated against Negro citizens in Alabama,” Dr. King said, “I am compelled … to lead a renewed march from Selma to Montgomery on Tuesday … in spite of the dangers.”
He also said he would go into federal court immediately to seek to restrain Wallace and his state troopers from the “unconstitutional and unjust attempts to block Negro citizens in their quest for the right to vote.”
The Justice Department said in Washington that FBI agents in Selma had been directed to make a full and prompt investigation and to gather evidence whether “unnecessary force was used by law officers and others” in halting the march. The inquiry was already under way, a Justice Department spokesman said.
At his office in Montgomery, Wallace said “Those folks in Selma have made this a seven-day-a-week job but we can’t give in one inch. We’re going to enforce state laws.” Wallace announced Saturday he would not allow the march, and authorized his troopers to use “all necessary means” to stop it.
Several hours after the melee, Selma was quiet but tense. Sheriff James G. Clark announced on a local radio station: “This is Jim Clark, sheriff of Dallas County. I plead with everybody to stay off the streets.”
A few hours earlier, ambulances were driven in relays between Good Samaritan Hospital and Browns Chapel Church, where the Negroes were herded by Sheriff Clark’s possemen. Hysterical men, women and children were carried out on stretchers to waiting ambulances.
Some of the injured were kicked and trampled by the possemen’s horses in the chase to the church. Two blocks from the church, Selma Public Safety Director Wilson Baker stopped Clark and said, “Let me handle it. Just wait a minute and they’ll be all right.”
“I’ve waited too long already,” Clark snapped, and drove away.
The Negroes, after praying to God to lead them “through a wilderness of state troopers,” had set off from the church under leaden skies Sunday afternoon for their march to Montgomery.
When the head of the column crossed the long Edmund Pettus bridge just outside Selma, it was met by about 50 blue-helmeted state troopers. The troopers gave the Negroes two minutes to disperse.
Instead of dispersing, they knelt to pray. About two dozen state troopers charged them, pushing and shoving, then swinging their clubs.
The Negroes retreated about 50 yards, then stopped. Suddenly the troopers fired round after round of tear gas into the crowd. The cheers of white spectators turned to screams as the yellow smoke drifted into them.
The Negroes, coughing, choking and screaming, stumbled, fell and tried to flee in every direction. The troopers charged from the front and the possemen from the rear.
Some fled between buildings and the horsemen darted after them, driving them through the city. Whites cheered as officers clubbed the Negroes.
Several witnesses said they saw the possemen use bullwhips and lengths of rope to flog the fleeing Negroes.
The bridge was enveloped in tear gas. The troopers and the possemen all wore gas masks. Clark directed his horsemen from his car.
The gas lifted to reveal three Negro women laying on the spot where they fell under the first wave of troopers. A highway patrolman launched a tear gas bomb directly at them. It exploded nearby and three other Negroes rushed up and dragged them away. One of the women dug her toes into the ground as if she didn’t want to leave. Her shoes came off as the men dragged her away.
The bridge was littered with bedrolls, hats, pocketbooks and shoes. Newsmen counted more than 50 spent tear gas canisters on the street and around the automobile dealerships, drive-in restaurants and service stations that line the road.
Some of the Negroes gathered at the First Baptist Church, a block from Browns Chapel Church. Deputies fired tear gas at them and rushed in with their clubs to drive them to Browns Chapel.
Otis Cleveland, 25, said he did not go on the march and was standing near the church when about a dozen members of Clark’s posse – none of them mounted – surrounded him. One, he said, told him not to run.
But “one of them said he would kill me, so I broke loose and ran.” Cleveland said he was hit in the head, knocked down, then got up and ran again. He had a severe head wound.
At the church, some of the Negroes hurled a few bricks and bottles at the pursuing possemen. One rider was struck in the head. Within moments, a contingent of nearly 50 troops and possemen led by Clark marched down the street outside the church.
The Negroes quickly cleared the streets.
Before the marchers left the church Sunday, one of their leaders led them in a prayer in the school yard.
“Almighty God” he prayed. “Thou hast called us to walk for freedom. We pray that as we go through a wilderness of state troopers, Thou will hold our hand.”
When they reached the foot of the bridge, highway patrol Maj. John Cloud, speaking through a bullhorn, ordered the Negroes to stop.
“This march you propose is not conducive to safety,” he said. Several hundred whites lining the road cheered him. “This march will not continue.”
“You have two minutes to disperse,” he said.
Hosea Williams, a Negro leader at the head of the column, asked Cloud if he could “have a word with you.”
“You may disperse or go back to the church or we will break it up,” Cloud replied. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Silence fell across the road as the two minutes passed, the Negroes and the troopers staring at each other. Then Cloud ordered the troopers in.
Jimmie George Robinson, a national States Rights Party member who slugged Dr. King when the integration drive began here in January, was arrested Sunday night. He was charged with assault and battery – on an FBI agent who was observing the melee.