This weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma marches, as you have probably read in the newspaper. Three times protesters walked the 54 miles from Selma to Alabama’s capitol, Montgomery, to call attention to the failure of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect African American’s voting rights.
The third march, which began on March 21st, brought as many as twenty-five thousand people to Montgomery. Governor George Wallace refused to protect the protestors, despite the violence which hung over the previous marches, including the murder of a minister from Boston and the widely-published and shocking photograph of Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten unconscious by police officers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Contrary to the way he is portrayed in a recent film, President Lyndon Johnson acted to protect the protesters on the third march, taking federal control of the Alabama National Guard on March 20th, and sending a thousand military police and two thousand army troops to escort the marchers to Montgomery.
Famous musicians who participated and performed together on March 24th include Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez and Nina Simone, who of course mentioned Alabama in her powerful protest song “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The route today is called the Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, and is a U.S. National Historic Trail, protected by National Park Service. Amelia Boynton Robinson, whose image brought international attention to the marches, attended the ceremony at which the Voting Rights Act was signed. At 103 years old, she attended President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year.
Over the years, the Voting Rights Act has become on of the most important changes to come out of the civil rights movement, truly changing the landscape of American politics. In a shocking reversal, the US Supreme Court struck down several of its provisions in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. One result of this decision is that the state of Alabama re-drew its legislative borders in a way which many contend packs African American voters into as few districts as possible, diluting their voting influence. The Supreme Court has yet to hear an appeal the the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, although it has agreed to do so. Five other states passed new voting legislation after the Shelby decision which critics contend were designed to suppress voting rights.
The song we chose for today’s post is actually from a few years earlier — John Coltrane wrote it as an elegy for the four girls who were killed by a terrorists bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr called the crime “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
Coltrane’s song appeared on his Live at Birdland album, although it was actually recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio (the album’s first side was recorded at the legendary jazz club). When it was first released, the label accidentally put both two takes of the song on the album, which is why Coltrane’s solo suddenly stops and then there’s a re-statement of the theme.
Coltrane performed the song in his original intended form on a show produced by National Educational Television (the early version of PBS), Jazz Casual. You could watch the whole episode below, or skip to about 9:35 to hear “Alabama.”