Volatile Figure Looks Back on Selma March

Forty years ago tomorrow, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. Passage of the bill was aided by a civil-rights march in Selma, Ala., in March 1965 — and the nation was transfixed by images of a violent suppression of the demonstration. At the center of the violence in Selma was Sheriff Jim Clark, a segregationist who came to symbolize white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Recently, commentator John Fleming tracked down Sheriff Clark.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Forty years ago tomorrow on August 6th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Earlier that year, passage of the bill was uncertain, but televised violence against civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, spurred lawmakers to pass it. At the center of the violence in Selma was Sheriff Jim Clark, a segregationist who came to symbolize white resistance to the civil rights movement. Recently, commentator John Fleming tracked down Sheriff Clark.

JOHN FLEMING:

In his old age, Sheriff Jim Clark is drawn to the place most home to him. He's gone back to the big white houses, the softness of the neighborhoods and the quiet streets in the town of his boyhood. He is in self-imposed exile in Elba, Alabama.

Four decades ago, he was omnipresent during the worst of times in Selma. His enraged face caused the eyes of the nation to look sympathetically upon the civil rights struggle. To relive those days, to probe the nature of race, pull up a chair beside his creaky La-Z-Boy. It's stuck way in the dark, little room in the back end of the Elba Nursing Home. The person I met there is a very old man of 83, a broken figure with a bad heart who motors around in a wheelchair. He is hard of hearing.

Still, when I finally got him to understand my tough questions, he responded with an amazing lucidity. He has a steel trap memory for details of 40 years ago. I also found Sheriff Clark settling deep into his own Southernness or his sense of the way the South once was and the way he insists it should always be--a society where everyone knows their place. What I found slumped in that recliner in Elba was a man filled with the particular contradictions of a Southern white still woven to the past social and political fabric and still mourning its passing. Yes, he's chock-full of many of the old notions, yet he has a capacity for essential humanity. He is supremely fond of the cluster of nurses who dote on him, many of them black. But he won't eat with them in public.

When Jim Clark talked to me about race, I realized that his feelings were so similar to others I know. And a good many of these people aren't old folks in nursing homes. Many of them are politicians and policy-makers. They're our business leaders. They are the people who form not only the fabric of today's South but the rest of the country. And for that reason, we need to turn our attention back to the law President Johnson signed. The anniversary of the Voting Rights Act gives us the opportunity to measure just how far we've come in the South since Jim Clark wreaked havoc in Selma. But it also gives us the opportunity to debate whether some provisions in the act should be allowed to expire in 2007.

These provisions address federal oversight of elections and election procedures in jurisdictions that have a history of violating the rights of minorities. Not surprisingly, most of these jurisdictions are in the South. You'll begin hearing calls for an end to this oversight in the near future. Many will say the South has reached a point of political maturity, that the feds don't need to be looking over our shoulders anymore. And if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit how far the South as come since Selma, March 1965.

But we also have to be honest with ourselves about this. Sheriff Clark's way of thinking has not died. It is very much alive, even outside the nursing home.

BLOCK: John Fleming is editor at large for the Anniston Star in Anniston, Alabama.

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