We are standing inside the bedroom at the front of the single-storey house when Jawana Jackson picks up a carrier bag.
She removes a blue garment that is neatly folded in a cellophane wrapper.
“These are Uncle Martin’s pyjamas,” says Jackson, who is aged 55.
“They say I should handle them with white gloves, to protect them, like in a museum. It’s one of the things I need to do.”
I ask if I can touch the pristine clothing – it is a reflective impulse – and Jackson, after a slight hesitation, obliges and hands me the dark blue pyjamas, trimmed in sky blue piping. I handle them like a holy relic, placing them on the gold bedspread that remains unchanged from the time Uncle Martin came to stay 50 years ago.
It is an unsettling experience. I have seen the bullet that killed the man who wore these clothes. He was gunned down, aged 39, in Memphis, Tennessee, three years after he decamped from this modest house.
Jackson, the daughter of a black dentist, Dr Sullivan Jackson, was four years old when Dr Martin Luther King was welcomed into the family home in Selma, Alabama.
The civil rights leader and his advisers stayed here during the tumultuous months that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It was here, at 1416 Lapsley Avenue, that King sat in the living room and watched as US President Lyndon B Johnson urged a joint session of Congress to back legislation guaranteeing voting rights for African Americans. He ended the historic speech with the words “We shall overcome,” echoing the rallying cry of the civil rights movement. King, who was renowned for keeping his emotions in check, wept openly.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark victory secured in the Deep South’s cauldron of racial bigotry, intimidation and violence. Selma, on the banks of the Alabama River, is indelibly linked with the darkest days, and triumphs, of the struggle due to the march that started here and sparked America’s own Bloody Sunday.
The events of Sunday, March 7, when peaceful demonstrators were attacked by state troopers and local police, is depicted in the film “Selma,” due for UK release on February 6. It is strange driving into this town, its name forever linked with the horrors and inhumanity of racial spite, crossing the iconic yellow Edmund Pettus Bridge where the defenceless marchers were beaten with billy clubs and bullwhips.
The march was inspired by the fatal police shooting of a young black deacon and civil rights protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson. The protesters had intended to march to Montgomery, the state capital, but such was the ferocity of the police attack that they had no choice other than to retreat on the day that became known as Bloody Sunday.
Two days later, King led a second march to the bridge but turned back. That night, the Rev James Reeb, a white minister who travelled to Alabama to support the campaign, was beaten by white segregationists and died from his injuries.
Under the protection of the National Guard, King led the successful crossing of the bridge on March 21. The protesters walked the 54 miles to Montgomery and when King arrived he delivered his famous “How long? Not long” speech:
“… it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
My guide in Selma, Alston Fitts, was a Harvard classmate of civil rights campaigner and Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who answered Dr King’s plea for support on the march and assisted with voter registration in Alabama. Daniels died while protecting a black girl from a police shotgun blast, promoting King to say: “‘One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”
Fitts heard reports about the killing while he was working in Chicago. “It built on my feeling that segregation was wrong. Every time there was an atrocity my mother made it clear these [white] people were disgracing the South,” says Fitts, who is 75.
He moved to Selma in 1977 to assist the Catholic Edmundites Missions in its work with the black community. “The Edmundites needed a Southerner, a Catholic and someone who was sympathetic to the black cause. I scored on all three points,” says Fitts.
Before we set out, we refuel on soul food and sweet iced tea at The Downtowner restaurant on Selma Avenue.
It is tradition round here to have “meat and three” – a hunk of protein, such as meatloaf or a fried pork chop, accompanied by three vegetables, maybe candied yams, collard greens and squash casserole. Corn bread is obligatory – and do not miss The Downtowner’s lemon meringue pie, one of Alabama’s “100 Dishes To Eat Before You Die.”
We walk a short distance to the former site of the Silver Moon café, the Klan haunt outside which James Reeb was attacked. There is a memorial plaque marking the spot where the Unitarian minister fell, one of two tributes to the clergyman in Selma. The second, situated outside the Old Depot Museum, features text written by Fitts.
A white-washed brick wall near the scene of the minister’s murder, overgrown with creepers, frames a fading mural dedicated to the struggle for voting rights, trumpeting the final passage of legislation on August 6, 1965.
To understand the central role of the pulpit in the fight for racial justice, we take a five-minute car drive to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) at 410 Martin Luther King Jnr Street. Brown Chapel, whose early incarnation was a place of worship for freed slaves, was the only black church in Selma to defy court injunctions prohibiting mass meetings in black churches in 1965.
Situated six blocks from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the church became the headquarters of Dr King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Selma campaign. It was from here that the marchers set off, including on Blood Sunday. Another nearby local church, First Baptist, acted as the headquarters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Brown Chapel’s twin towers and its Romanesque Revival-styling stands in stark contrast to the neighbourhood’s low-rise social housing for the black community. For the best interior view, take the backstairs to the upper storey where the seating is just as it was when Dr King addressed churchgoers and activists. Malcolm X also spoke at the church, in support of Dr King, just weeks before he was assassinated in Harlem.
The King connection has ensured Brown Chapel is a place of pilgrimage for advocates of minority rights and for those seeking political endorsement in the black community. The then Senator Barack Obama spoke at Brown Chapel during the 2008 race for the White House and paid tribute to the Bloody Sunday protesters who “marched for our freedom.”
Despite its assured place in civil rights history, Brown Chapel is not immune to the secularisation of US society. In its heyday, the church had 750 parishioners. Today, there are 75.
There are scores of sites in Selma that resonate with the story of the civil rights movement, including the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, which is located at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But I am left with overriding memories of two places, the Jackson home, to which I am taken, and a second site that I stumble across.
If anything it is the ordinariness and homespun simplicity of Lapsley Avenue that make it so special.
“I can remember that once there was a house with a mother and father that was very happy,” Jawana Jackson tells me. “And suddenly the house was very busy with traffic. There was Uncle Martin and Uncle Ralph.”
Uncle Ralph was Dr King’s close associate Ralph Abernathy, who famously helped King organise the Montgomery bus boycott in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks. This December marks the 60th anniversary of Parks’ defiant protest.
Jackson shows me through to the middle bedroom, where King preferred to write his sermons, relax and sleep. It was quieter than the front bedroom, she says, and it was more difficult for Ku Klux Klan to bomb. The cream coloured phone is the one King used to speak to President Johnson.
We walk into the kitchen where Jackson’s late mother, Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson, prepared informal meals as unofficial “Movement Cook.” Her sweet potato pie was a favourite of Dr King’s.
Among the civil rights leaders and dignitaries Dr King met in the open-plan dining room was fellow Nobel Peace prize-winner Dr Ralph Bunche. Jawana says: “My mother’s dream was to get the third black Nobel prizewinner, Barack Obama, at that table.” That may yet happen.
My trip to Selma is part of a 1,700-mile road-trip of Alabama with former Reuters correspondent Verna Gates. It has been a long day and we have been invited for drinks at the home of her cousin, Rex, in the suburbs.
The well-manicured district is home to stunning ante-bellum Southern mansions and picket-fenced family homes. We are sitting on Rex’s veranda, sipping bourbon and discussing the events of 1965, when he suggests Verna and I take a walk down the alley next to the house. There is something that might surprise me, he says.
It is approaching dusk but the light is still good. The ramshackle buildings we come across, clapboard walls and tin roofs, are bathed in late afternoon sunshine.
There is evidence that homeless people have taken refuge here in the past but the tumbledown properties are empty today. I am puzzled by the origins of the buildings and why Rex has suggested we take a look.
Then the penny drops: they are former slave houses.
Among the broken fireplaces and litter inside the houses, there is a discarded prayer card in a stitched frame. It begins: “I said a prayer for you today/And know God must have heard/I felt the answer in my heart/Although he said no word.”
There are no historic monument signs and it is unclear who owns the land, which is badly overgrown. The buildings are not on the official tourist trail.
Yet the old slave houses are as much a part of the story of 1965 as the Edmund Pettus Bridge or Brown Chapel. This is where it all started. In Selma, the past in inescapable, like the Spanish moss that drips from the ancient oak trees.
A series of events is being held in March to commemorate the heroism of Dr King and the thousands of anonymous foot-soldiers who fought for racial justice in 1965. There will be a bridge crossing re-enactment and a march to Montgomery. No doubt there will be calls for tolerance and unity but tension is not far from the surface in this town in Alabama’s Black Belt, so named because of the rich soil. Politics and race remain intertwined, like the moss that clings to the trees.
Fitts says: “In any town, there is any amount of friction between different groups competing for power. Some blacks get upset about celebrations of the Confederacy. For them, the war is not over.
“Some whites will say segregation was wrong and wicked, but they wish people would shut up about it. The old grudges are not buried so deeply that a clever politician cannot stir them up.
“We have a black mayor but for some people he is not black enough.”
- All words and pictures copyright Richard McComb/Yeti Media