Sunday, February 4, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights
Local students stood in solidarity with protesters in the South

By Rebecca Nappi
Interactive editor

photo
File - The Spokesman-Review
This picture, published March 27, 1965, ran on Page 3 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. About 230 marchers, mostly college students, demonstrated at the Spokane County Courthouse. It was described as a "sympathy march" for voting rights for black people living in the South. Verda Minnix Lofton, the African-American woman, left of center in the picture, marched with her brother Sam Minnix, to the right.

Photographs allow a glimpse back into history in a quiet way. You can look at a photograph for the finer details and through those glimpse the larger vision put in perspective only by the passing of time.

So in this photograph from 1965, you notice first some of the trivial details. The eyeglasses worn by the marchers, for instance, are dark-framed, thin spectacles, now back in vogue. The slogans on the signs catch the eye next, and some carry language no longer in vogue. "Why should the Negro be denied the Vote?" The other slogans speak the obvious now, but the sentiments seemed radical 36 years ago. "Prejudice is a national problem."

The photograph was taken March 26, 1965. A story about the march ran on Page 1 of The Spokesman-Review the next day. The opening paragraph read: "About 230 Spokane college students marched around the Spokane County Courthouse twice Friday afternoon in what they described as a sympathy march on behalf of Negro voting rights in the South."

The marchers are students from Whitworth, Gonzaga, Eastern and Fort Wright College. Three marchers are mentioned by name. Carl Maxey, attorney and Spokane activist, addressed the crowd. Bill Johnson, described as a "white guitarist," and Pat Carter, described as a "Negro singer" led the demonstrators in song. There are four black faces only. Three are marchers, young people walking together. A fourth black man hangs back, in the street, and it's unclear whether he's participating or debating whether to join in. He looks middle-aged. Two of the three young black marchers are Sam Minnix, a junior at Eastern Washington University and his sister, Verda Minnix, an eighth-grader at Grant Elementary. Both remember the day clearly, though decades have passed and they no longer call Spokane home.

The rest of the marchers are white, young, dressed in conservative clothes -- skirts and cloth coats on the women and on the young men, V-neck sweaters and windbreakers.

The students handed out printed sheets that contained their statement of purpose for the march: "Help us as citizens to look within our hearts at our own community to become aware of elements of racial discrimination and intolerance here."

Meanwhile, the rest of the country marched, too. This chapter in civil rights history has become known as the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights. Selma, the county seat of Dallas County in Alabama, was chosen as the starting point because only 333 out of the county's 15,000 voting-age blacks could cast ballots in elections. The all-white board of registrars made sure of that, disqualifying some for failing to cross their "T's" on the registration form.

The first attempt to march came March 7, 1965. Gov. George Wallace ordered law enforcement to block the march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge which spanned the Alabama River as it wound its way out of Selma. Law officers attacked protesters. The march and beatings were seen by viewers across the country on the evening news and became known as "Bloody Sunday."

On March 9, 1965 Martin Luther King Jr., led a second march. More blood was shed; Boston minister James Reeb, beaten by Selma segregationists, died two days after the attack. On March 21, a third attempt commenced. The march took four days; 3,200 marchers began the walk. By the end, 25,000 had joined in. Sympathy marches, including the one in Spokane, attracted thousands more. A civil rights worker, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, was murdered as she ferried a group of civil rights marchers to Selma. The white mother of five was killed by Ku Klux Klansmen who fired into her car after seeing her riding with "Negro youth."

These marches throughout March 1965 made a difference. In August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it. The bill allowed federal workers to register voters in counties where locals had rigged the process to exclude black voters. It also eliminated literacy tests.

History can be packaged so neatly in retrospect. Black voters were denied rights. Marches ensued. Violence made the evening news, outrage followed. Reform happened. A bill was passed. But come back to Spokane for a moment to better understand the complexity. Journalism is called history in a hurry. Skim the Spokane newspapers surrounding the days before and after the date of this photograph, March 26, 1965, and better understand the complexity, the obstacles.

On the editorial page of March 25, 1965, syndicated writer David Lawrence warns Congress not to go too fast on the Voting Rights Bill. He wrote: "How easily constitutionalism can be brushed aside in an emotional era wherein street demonstrations and marches exert a controlling influence on Congress." In Olympia, the legislature killed a bill to discourage discrimination in housing. African-American faces were found in the sports pages and in the stories of the civil rights marches, but no where else. Women were ghettoized into a society page and shown at teas and showers. The want ads were still segregated into help wanted, male and help wanted, female.

But the march story made the front page, as did the violent murder of Viola Gregg Luizzo. And an opinion article by a Spokane Daily Chronicle editorial writer showed that the times they were a changin.' "This is a free country -- for most citizens but not yet all -- and Mrs. Liuzzo had the right to be where she was. She was determined at personal risk to fight for a cause, as are the many others who have assembled around Selma and Montgomery."

Jerrelene Williamson, an African-American woman from Spokane, said the marches changed the world -- for black people and for white people, too:

"If there wasn't an open demonstration of the things that were wrong, then it would not have been changed. It would still be like it was."

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