Eyes on Racism, Part 2

Dr. C.T. Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma, Alabama
Dr. C.T. Vivian and Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Eyes on Racism, Part 2 (Konch, Winter 2008)

I don’t think I ever lost my temper.” – Sheriff Jim Clark

The final episode of the first Eyes series, “Bridge to Freedom,” dealt with the Selma campaign and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Motivated by the fact that less than 2% of Selma’s voting-age black residents had been allowed to register to vote, John Lewis and SNCC began a campaign of protests in 1963, joining local activists from the Dallas County Voters’ League. In January 1965, Dr. King and SCLC joined the effort, prompting new media interest. Selma city officials like Mayor Joe Smitherman and Wilson Baker, the town’s public safety commissioner, hoped to use Pritchett’s low-key law-enforcement tactics on protesters, but the focal point of the demonstrations was the board of registrars at the Dallas County courthouse, which fell under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Jim Clark.[1]

A stereotype of the thuggish southern lawman, Clark possessed a savage temper and a range of Pattonesque uniforms. He and his volunteer posse were an intimidating presence in Dallas County, and Governor George Wallace also deployed them on missions in other Alabama localities. In June 1963, they stood with Wallace “in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama and, later that same year, they joined state troopers in a series of attacks on black demonstrators in Birmingham.[2]

On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when state and county lawmen savagely broke up the first Selma-to-Montgomery march, Clark’s mounted posse charged the demonstrators, beating them with bullwhips while Clark shouted: “Get those goddamned niggers! And get those goddamned white niggers!”[3] But the moment for which Clark is best known occurred a few weeks earlier, when the Reverend C.T. Vivian, a member of SCLC’s executive committee, confronted the sheriff on the steps of Dallas County courthouse. Vivian criticized Clark for barring black voter registrants and he compared the sheriff’s tactics to Hitler’s. Clark responded by charging down the stairs and punching the minister in the face. His mouth bleeding, Vivian yelled back, “You beat people bloody so they will not have the privilege to vote!” and the sheriff ordered him arrested.[4]

National outrage about the events in Selma crystallized support for the Voting Rights Act, and in 1966 Jim Clark became one of the new law’s first casualties. He entered the race for governor, but dropped out after George Wallace (who could not legally succeed himself) announced that his wife would seek the office. Clark then campaigned for re-election as sheriff, and even hosted a (sparsely attended) barbecue for black citizens, but Wilson Baker defeated him in the Democratic primary, thanks to overwhelming support from newly registered African-American voters.[5] The loss effectively ended Clark’s political career,[6] and he later worked various jobs, including one as a mobile-home salesman, his position at the time of his 1986 Eyes on the Prize interview.[7] Clark died on June 4, 2007.

Crossley and DeVinney also produced the Selma episode, and DeVinney spent a great deal of effort trying to get Clark to grant an interview. When the ex-sheriff finally agreed, the producer discovered that his schedule prevented him from meeting Clark on the proposed day. DeVinney therefore asked Prudence Arndt, a white associate producer on two of the series’ other episodes, to fill in for him, using his list of questions.[8] Blackside staffers worried how Clark might react, given his violent behavior during his law-enforcement career. “Prue was a little scared of him,” DeVinney recalls.[9] Arndt says that she made sure to bring an all-white crew and she also dressed conservatively and upscale, because she expected the ex-sheriff to have old-fashioned ideas about proper dress. However, she felt out of place when she and her team arrived at the poor neighborhood where the former sheriff lived in a small mobile home.[10] Clark was dressed casually and the crew had difficulty fitting their equipment into the trailer.[11]

The former sheriff remained calm and polite throughout the interview, never raised his voice, and even smiled at the camera when it zoomed in close while setting up for each take. Arndt started with some general questions, asking Clark to describe race relations in Selma during the years before 1965. He replied that “there was no discontent on the part of either [race] as far as we could tell,” and he blamed the demonstrations on the usual suspects: “outside agitators.”[12] Clark patiently explained that the voter-registration campaign was unnecessary because “blacks were allowed to vote . . . when they could qualify.” He also claimed that the conspiracy of civil rights agitators included not only the press, but also his long-time rival, Wilson Baker of the Selma city police. Clark said that Baker had breakfast with Dr. King every morning during the voting rights campaign and that they “laid out the day’s program for what they were going to do and how they were going to do it.”

Arndt slowly worked the conversation toward the subject of Clark’s own actions, and her first question on that score dealt with one of the many scenes where the sheriff drove protesters away from the courthouse by hitting them with his billy club. When asking her question, Arndt indicated that she had seen footage of the event. “When those teachers marched to the courthouse and the cameras were filming,” she began, then lowered her voice as she came to the point, “as you pushed [local activist] Reverend [Frederick] Reese down the steps, can you give me your explanation or description of that whole incident?” “I did not move until I had a lawyer there to advise me on it,” Clark replied. “They were creating a breach of the peace.”

He pointed out that the board of registrars was not in session that day (it rarely was in session) and that Reese and the others had wanted to go in anyway. (They wanted to sign the book in the registrars’ office to indicate that they had been there.) “They insisted on coming in and I [pause] tried as easy as possible to push them back.” Clark added that a school-board official who was also a lawyer told him to do it, and when Arndt asked why he did not simply arrest the demonstrators, the ex-sheriff’s story took on a familiar ring.

Arndt: Why not arrest them?

Clark: I don’t know. That was his decision.

The former sheriff’s account of his attack on Reverend Vivian was the one segment of the interview to appear in the series. It provided a memorable look into the depths of rage achieved by a segregationist in the face of public criticism by a black man, and Clark’s calm manner made his remarks more disturbing. The lines that appeared in the final episode are in bold. A shot of the sheriff punching Vivian was cut into the middle of the interview footage.

He started shouting at me that I was a Hitler, I was a brute, that I was a Nazi—I don’t remember all, everything he called me—and I did lose my temper then. And it seemed that a red skim came over my eyes and the next thing I knew, he was on the, at the bottom of the steps, picking himself up and that the deputies helped him. I don’t remember even hitting him, but I went to the doctor and got a [sic] X-ray and found out I had a linear fracture in a finger on my left hand.

Arndt replied: “Wow. Do you feel like he pushed you into this situation?” Grinning, Clark answered: “Very definitely, yes. He pushed me into it . . . I just don’t even remember hitting him.”

Clark’s bizarre account of his arrest of Amelia Boynton is even more telling, offering a graphic example of the segregationist view of African Americans as filthy and immodest: “Amelia Boynton led the group to the courthouse and directed them to come inside and to take over the offices and to urinate on top of the desks and throw the books on the floor.” The former sheriff adopted a somber demeanor and a low voice when he concluded, “I was forced to arrest her.” A news crew filmed the incident and the footage (which appeared in the series) shows Clark manhandling Boynton and forcing her to run to the police car. However, Clark argued that film can be deceiving:

She was a tall woman, the best I remember, but it may look like she was a tiny woman from the angle of the cameras, and that I was taking advantage of her. But there was no violence there at all . . . I just laid my hand on her shoulder.

Arndt allowed Clark’s mendacious tales to follow their own course, before moving on to the next topic with a quick “okay.”

A key question is whether Clark realized how much his conduct helped the civil rights movement. In January, 1965, during the early days of SCLC’s effort in Selma, the organization’s leaders considered moving the site of their campaign to another town in Alabama or Mississippi, but when Clark’s violent arrest of Mrs. Boynton made national news, they decided to stay put.[13] Shortly after that incident, Rev. Ralph Abernathy joked that the Dallas County Voters’ League should induct Clark as an honorary member.[14] Following the sheriff’s assault on Rev. Vivian, a Newsweek commentator wrote that Clark “has been almost the ideal patsy for King’s demonstrators in Selma. At various times he has been goaded into using his club and his fists but never his head.”[15]

Arndt diplomatically broached the topic of whether Clark knew that he was a valuable poster boy for the movement. The ex-sheriff tried to forestall the whole issue with another blunt denial.

Arndt: Did you ever feel as if you, had you only not lost your temper at crucial moments, could have held things together?

Clark: I don’t think I ever lost my temper, except the time with, oh, [the] C.T. Vivian incident.

Arndt’s standard response of “okay” carried a stronger note of surprise than usual.

In an attempt to be affable, Clark tried to put a humorous spin on the story of his arrest of marcher Annie Lee Cooper. During a demonstration in front of the courthouse, Clark elbowed Cooper hard in the course of his usual crowd-control exercises and she responded by hitting him. Clark and two of his deputies subdued the woman and the sheriff beat her with his club. Discussing the incident with Arndt, he claimed that Cooper hit him in the head with a purse that contained a horseshoe, but contemporary press accounts state that she simply punched him.[16] When Clark concluded by saying, “From then on, I wore a hard hat,” Arndt responded with a nervous-sounding laugh.

By the time the discussion turned to the Bloody Sunday attack on marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Clark’s lies had lost any capacity to surprise. He claimed that demonstrators assailed the state troopers with “ice picks and straight razors and, and [sic] one of them even had a piece of glass. I don’t know why.” Arndt knew that contemporary news footage contradicted Clark’s account, but she did not challenge him on it. She had considered setting up television and video equipment so that whenever the old sheriff made a claim about an incident, she could ask him to watch the footage and give a running, on-camera commentary. She ultimately rejected the idea: “I knew we’d lose the interview if we brought in a tape.”[17]

The most direct confrontation came when Arndt asked Clark about his use of cattle prods on marchers. He said that the practice was more humane than using nightsticks, and that anyway the prods his officers used were much less powerful than a standard cattle prod. Arndt broke in: “But you’re still using something that’s used against animals against people.” Clark calmly replied: “No, these were designed for use against people. They had only two batteries, where the ones they used against cattle have six, seven, eight large flashlight batteries.”

Probing once more for any sign of remorse, Arndt asked if Clark had “any regrets about how law enforcement was handled during that whole period, [by] you personally as sheriff? ’Cause there’s so much, so many [sic] times when things broke out of control.” The phrasing, especially at the end of the question, was thoroughly neutral and offered Clark a chance to show regret without accepting full blame for his actions. Yet he did not soften:

My only regrets were that they did get out of control sometime[s], but basically, I was under orders from the laws of the state of Alabama and the constitution of Alabama to enforce the law, and to use what force was necessary to do it. And if they didn’t obey lawful orders, then I had to take further action.

Clark’s stance was typical of segregationists interviewed for the series: he stuck to his old position and tried to talk away the evidence. The most striking aspect of the discussion is the ex-sheriff’s gentle tone, which he maintained even while using the most inflammatory language. He was not worried that viewers would think that he was a racist. Rather, he was concerned about the long-standing impression that he was a stupid hothead whose outbursts furthered his enemies’ cause. This time at least he would keep his cool. It was as if the sheriff had finally, two decades later, decided to use Pritchett’s methods. However, in the one segment that appeared in the series—Clark’s description of his attack on C.T. Vivian—his calm tone merely intensified the scene’s chilling qualities.

[1] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 35-45.

[2] McWhorter, Carry me home, 433-34; Carter, Politics of rage, 126-27.

[3] Charles E. Fager, Selma, 1965 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 94.

[4] Clark actually struck Vivian twice during their confrontation. He hit him in the stomach with his billy club some time before punching him. C.T. Vivian, telephone interview with the author, January 11, 2004.

[5] David Garrow, Protest at Selma: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1978), 187-88.

[6] Ibid., 187-89, 304, n44.

[7] Prudence Arndt, interview with the author, May 19, 2004.

[8] Ibid.; DeVinney, interview, April 6, 2004.

[9] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[10] Arndt, interview, May 19, 2004.

[11] Ibid.

[12] All references to Jim Clark Eyes on the Prize interview refer to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Containter number: 26701) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 001142, Container numbers: 11308, 27513). Interview conducted by Prudence Arndt, February 19, 1986.

[13] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 42-43.

[14] Fager, Selma, 1965, 26, 31, 34; Raines, My Soul is Rested, 200.

[15] Kenneth Crawford, “Right to Vote,” Newsweek, March 1, 1965, 39.

[16] Garrow, Protest at Selma, 45-47.

[17] Arndt, interview, May 19, 2004.

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