George Wallace and Bull Connor and Jim Clark were considered the greatest help that we have received in the whole civil rights thrust. They're the ones who brought it about. More quickly and completely than anything else that was done.
Selma is the county seat of Dallas County, Alabama. In 1961, the county was home to about 15,000 African Americans of voting age, but a mere one percent of them were registered to vote. By early 1963, national civil rights leaders had joined Dallas County activists in their efforts to increase this percentage. However, despite their unification, the combined force faced intense and often violent opposition from state and local officials. Most famously, Jim Clark’s tenure as county sheriff (1955-1966) was characterized by police violence against civil rights activists and black citizens attempting to become registered voters (Times - June 7, 2007).
The height of violence in Dallas County occurred on March 7, 1965. That morning, over five hundred civil rights demonstrators gathered to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Upon arriving at the state capital, the marchers planned to request Governor George Wallace’s protection for African American voters. However, when word of the march reached Wallace, the Governor declared the demonstration a threat to public safety and promised to prevent its progress.
The march, led by John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams, was only allowed to proceed six city blocks. Having reached Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the demonstrators were met by Sheriff Clark’s “posse” and state troopers under the direction of Governor Wallace (Times - June 7, 2007). The lawmen, some mounted on horseback, attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas.
The confrontation – armed officers against peaceful demonstrators – received widespread media attention. The news reports shocked the nation and inspired increased public support for the activists’ cause. Similar to the irony of Birmingham’s Commissioner Conner, Sheriff Clark’s orders helped the movement he had intended to stop – African American voters would soon be protected under federal law. Just five months later on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Signed by President Johnson, the Act prohibits discrimination in voting practices on the basis of race or color.