Look Back In Disappointment

It is said that the only meaning in some lives is to serve as a warning to others. Former Selma sheriff Jim Clark’s viciousness doubled back on itself to defeat him in the long run. Unfortunately, he seems to have been one of those examples.

Newsweek has a fascinating interview with Rep. John Lewis, talking about the death of Jim Clark, formerly the Sheriff of Selma, Alabama — and the nemesis of Lewis during the civil-rights movement. Lewis shared a particularly noxious moment in history with Clark, one that defined the movement and shocked America into acknowledging the continuing injustice of Jim Crow.
Lewis had planned to march to Selma with a few hundred followers in order to register black voters in the city. He had run afoul of Clark on several occasions, the most recent an arrest for attempting to take the literacy test used by Alabama at that time to deny the vote to blacks. Lewis expected trouble, but he got much worse. Clark ordered his men, some on horseback, charge the demonstration, beating and trampling the peaceful and unarmed men and women on a bridge coming into town. National media captured the attack on film, and it provided a turning point for Lewis, and Clark as well.
Lewis recounts the story in the interview, but what is striking is the fact that Clark never reconciled himself to the freedom he inadvertently brought to black Alabamans. Unlike other segregationists like George Wallace, who later sought Lewis’ forgiveness, Clark refused to repent for his brutality:

Did he ever apologize for his actions, or express any remorse?
No, he never did. I know there were press people that tried to interview him in a little town near where he died and he never, ever showed any sense of remorse. He never asked to be forgiven for what he did. He even told one reporter that he didn’t beat John Lewis, that he never hit anyone, that some of us were beaten because we were trying to date some of the local peoples’ wives and girlfriends. He was never able to see the light; he was just never able to come around. There were other people in Selma—the mayor—who called us troublemakers and agitators at the time, [who] came around and said he thought I was one of the bravest human beings he had ever known and if he had been black he would have been doing the same thing. And when we went back to Selma for an anniversary a few years ago as honorary mayor, he hosted a luncheon for us and gave me the keys to the city. Gov. [George] Wallace, who was a friend of Sheriff Clark, asked to be forgiven, but Sheriff Clark never did. …
To some extent it was the brutality of people like Sheriff Clark that brought the country around on civil rights. Is their some level of appreciation for what his actions did for the movement?
I can appreciate that. I think it was President Kennedy who said that if we ever passed a Civil Rights Act, and he was talking about the act he didn’t live to see passed, he said we would have to give credit to Bull Connor. I think we have to give a lot of credit to Clark and other people who beat us because Americans were able to see the contrast. They saw unbelievable, brave, courageous people believing in a dream and participating in nonviolence being beaten and brutalized. And it was the contrast that I think did change America and hasten the day of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In early 1965, President [Lyndon] Johnson told Dr. [Martin Luther] King we didn’t have the vote to pass the Voting Rights Act, but with the reaction of people like Sheriff Clark he created the environment to get the votes to pass the act. That cannot be denied.

I may not agree with Rep. Lewis on policy, but I have tremendous respect for his efforts to ensure the respect for civil rights and the end of Jim Crow. People of my age and younger have grown up with the big battles of the civil-rights movement as history rather than current events, and we don’t really have the context of the difficulties that men and women like Lewis had to overcome. It’s important to tell the stories of these fights and to understand how an entire nation could have willed itself to avert their eyes to a century of injustice after the end of the Civil War.
Stories of repentance are equally valuable. The men who participated in that oppression who later repented, such as Wallace or the mayor Lewis mentions, shows that we can forgive and heal eventually, and most can finally step outside themselves and allow for empathy with the people they once considered their enemies. Clark, on the other hand, showed that some people can never let go of the bitterness, hatred, and lies that perpetuated Jim Crow. His failure to come to terms with his personal bigotry and his role in brutalizing the citizens of Selma feels like an opportunity lost, a life wasted, a lesson eternally unlearned.
It is said that the only meaning in some lives is to serve as a warning to others. Clark’s viciousness doubled back on itself to defeat him in the long run. Unfortunately, he seems to have been one of those examples.
UPDATE: I did write Selma, Georgia at the beginning of the piece, even though I wrote Alabama everywhere else. Yikes. Thanks to Roger in the comments for pointing out my mistake.

16 thoughts on “Look Back In Disappointment”

  1. Uhm, that would be Selma ALABAMA, not Georgia. Great story though, very moving.

  2. “the only meaning in some lives is to serve as a warning to others” I agree that Clark seems to fit this bill (I don’t know if he had redeeming qualities within his family).
    Anyways, I wanted to mention that Sadaam and Al Qaeda have been at least as bad as Clark was, and much worse if you go by beheadings and body-count. How is it that Repr. Lewis and so many “civil rights” activists now encourage the victory of the world’s KKK-on-steroids, Al Qaeda, over our own (often black) volunteers?
    Shame on them, and they sure risk sharing Clark’s fate if they stay as hardened as him and don’t eventually change their hearts.

  3. Tyrone31
    The left think they are right and the right is wrong. The left have strange ideas. Some still think of Stalin as Uncle Joe. Today, for example, Muggerbe and Chavez/Fiddle Castro still rule because of the left and their strange ideas.

  4. Rep. John Lewis deserves his heroic place in civil rights history, but he’s like the stubborn old general always fighting the last war–not the new war. He seems stuck in the LBJ Great Society era, wanting to fight poverty principally with high taxes and wealth redistribution. It’s never worked before, but he’s always willing to give it one more try.

  5. T31, it is stretching it a bit to compare the civil rights movement with the phony War on Terror. How is it that the right can always find fault with everything the dems do, but can ignore the many crimes committed by their own party? Great republicans like Strom Thurmond left the democratic party because they passed the civil rights law. He could not stand the thought that blacks were going to have the same rights as they did. These are the things we need to be debating, not the perceived idea that somehow the dems are responsible for the Bush failure in Iraq. The republicans will never be comfortable with helping the less advantaged among us. I am 50> now and have worked everyday since I was 14 years old. Sometimes working two or more jobs. I have never been able to have enough money to be a republican though. I have never excepted one thin dime from this government though and never will. But some must have help. And as Christians we should stop with the massing of personal wealth and help the poor and needy survive here. These are the things we white people should be doing. Not blaming a political party for our own personal failures.

  6. I remember as a child visiting my grandparents in Virginia. My aunt worked at a small resturant in town. There was a sign on the door – ‘Whites Only”. I asked my Dad why it was there (I must have been all of 7 or 8 at the time). He said something like “that’s the way people are down here.” I was too young to understand what he meant.
    About ten years later (early 60’s), I remember going to Richmond with my cousins to see my oldest cousin’s apartment at college. We were on a back road and ran a black family off the side of the road. Luckily they weren’t harmed, but I felt like I had just seen a side of my cousins I hadn’t known existed. I think that, more than anything else in my life, affected my outlook on race relations. It was just so downright wrong. It’s something I can remember as clearly as though it just happened. It’s over 40 years ago. Funny how some things just stick with you.

  7. Dwyvan, You have every right to support needy people with your income. You don’t have the right to force me to do the same. I grew up in Lower East Side, New York City. I know what’s it’s like to be poor and on welfare. I WILL NOT allow MYSELF or my family to fall back into that again. How did I separate myself from that? I didn’t do drugs..I went to school…I didn’t get my girlfriend pregnant. It’s something called personal responsibility. I am a success now because I chose to be. It would have been extremely easy for me to fall into the same pit my former collegues are in right now, but I chose different. If I can do it, anyone can (I’m not the smartest guy in the world). I pay my taxes, I pay my 10% tithe, and I do community service. Not because someone like you forces me to, but because I WANT TO. Isn’t that nice? It’s called free will.

  8. History for Some

    Life’s agonizing and triumphant events for others.I think it was President Kennedy who said that if we ever passed a Civil Rights Act, and he was talking about the act he didn’t live to see passed, he said we would

  9. John Lewis wrote a great book about his role in the civil rights struggle, including a chapter on my old friend and neighbor, Mickey Schwerner.
    In addition, there’s another excellent narrative of the civil rights struggle by Diane McWhorter entitled “Coming for to Carry Me Home”.
    Many people don’t know that George Wallace started his political career as a liberal, pro-civil rights Democrat. He switched to racist positions when he realized that his career prospects were limited by his liberal idealism.

  10. simple Tyrone – and you should know this.
    Iraq is not American – so Saddam is not American.
    So Saddam was Iraqi
    so americans have no business in Iraq telling Iraqis how to be Americans.
    Iraqnam is YOUR war – not ours. Now go cry about that disaster in silence.
    your war – your problem.

  11. dwyvan and asmodai are both right, i see no conclict here.
    asmodai does claim that “since he did it anyone can” – whereas dwyvan beleives that there will always be some who simply are not capable of making it.
    one philosophical difference between the men. and the difference bet. dems and reps.
    dems beleive (as do I) that no matter how effective a society is at rallying a civic sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility – there will ALWAYS be a few constitutionally incapable of surviving without some form of aid – due to physical/mental problems.
    The unstated beleif is that the self made successful democrat does not assume that everyone else is just like him!!
    Whereas – I hear over and over from successful republicans “I made so anyone can” – if I got a penny for each time I’ve heard that from a republican – I’D be a millionaire!!
    Rep. assumption is that we are all the same and that there is no-one who cannot make it if they truely want to. I reject that philosophy. we are not all the same and “I made it so you should to” is hubris. I assumes you know that person as well as yourself and have walked in their shows and lived in their mind. Both impossible things to do.
    Sure 9 out of 10 on Welfare may indeed abuse it (then reform it!!). the other 1 – 10 needs it, and without it would be dead or living on the street as the living dead.
    Republicans simply refuse to set up a platform or formal policy of some sort to address the poor and to offer solutions to help. Their “Personal Responsibility” shick is all well and good – but looks more like “you desirve it” to those outside the Party. If you want to gain more coverts you guys are going to need to address the “Two Americas” and offer SOLUTIONS to Health Care and Poverty problems. 8 more years of “personal responsibility” (i.e. ignoring the issue/spouting those two words only) will get you guy in the Dog House pernamently!
    Esp. Health Care – folks turn to the Dems for solutions here because YOU GUYS IGNORE THE ISSUE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! – to your detriment, YOU WILL SEE!!

  12. I agree GOP tends to ignore or minimize Health Care and it has, and will continue to cost them. Not that it should be nationalized, it shouldn’t, but greater concern, reorganization, and targeted programs are necessary. The system is broken for many.
    Regarding the world’s KKK, we share this planet, and just because you want to act like the GOP toward healthcare and say this problem isn’t a big deal, it is. By your reasoning, we should never have attacked Italy. And perhaps not even Germany (they didn’t do much to us, and Al Qaeda has declared war on us a lot longer than Germany ever had. While we’re at it, attacking Japan’s navy was okay, but that could have stopped as soon as we did to them what they did to us; after all, they just wanted us out their hair, out of their “-ism”. Sound familiar?

  13. I believe John Lewis is a genuine American hero, as is John McCain.
    I also believe neither is right about everything they passionately believe. To me (and I believe to most people), being a hero does not make one right about everything.
    Clark, on the other hand, was a proven bigot who passionately believed in a cause (white supremecy) that most of us in the US now believe was abjectly wrong. Notwithstanding a profound shift in popular opinion, he never lost his conviction that he was right about his “cause”.
    I suspect he had a family who nevertheless loved him and saw some good in in his life. I also suspect he was a Democrat (as were 99% of white Alabamans in 1966) when he brutalized John Lewis and his colleagues.
    Don’t forget that without Republicans like Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965 would have never passed, even with LBJ’s armtwisting prowess.
    If you doubt me read the second volume of Robert Caro’s bio of LBJ.

  14. “I agree GOP tends to ignore or minimize Health Care and it has, and will continue to cost them. Not that it should be nationalized, it shouldn’t, but greater concern, reorganization, and targeted programs are necessary. The system is broken for many.”
    whos talking about Nationalizing? not me.
    Not for or against that – since I’m too ignorant on the pros/cons of this. All I now it that the current system costs all of us 17-percent more EACH YEAR (for the SAME COVERAGE)……that to me means it is BROKE!
    if there is a Free Market solution – GREAT!!!
    the key word here is “solution” and the GOP has not offered squat on this issue!!
    Republicna Party is seriously lacking leadership on this one issue – and mark my words, the dems will get 20-percent of the pupular just for offering ANY PLAN to fix the problem while you guys offer NO PLAN.
    whether the plan works or not is irrelivant to the said 20-percent (at least for the next 8 years or so).
    but go ahead and DO NOTHING and OFFER NOTHING – fine by me. I’m not a Republican and more than happy to see the Dems win in 2008.
    not a Dem either – but since Iraqnam I side with them.

  15. as for attacking others.
    ONLY they attack us first.
    Premption is bullshit, bad policy and makes the world less stable.
    and NO the US is not her Brother’s keeper. If the Iraqis have Saddam’s boots on their necks and Iraq the Nation presents no threat to the existance of the United States, that boot is the People of Iraq’s problem to solve or accept.
    as we all know Germany had far more power and great plans of world conquest than Iraq ever had. Germany presented a true threat. However we probably could have made a truse with them and attacked only Japan instead.
    In hindsight – dealing with the Third Riech in Europe could not have been more dangerous than the USSR over the same time period – afterall we came VERY close to WW3 in 1961 over Cuba.
    Cold War is Cold War – with Germany or USSR or soon to be China.
    same song.

  16. (sorry I’m not online enough to respond more quickly, this may be an empty echo.)
    Preemption is B.S. Yes. I agree, and without knowing, I bet the Capt’n agrees too since he has much respect for the Catholic Church’s teachings. I don’t like how Bush started talking about justifying preemption–a mistake, even though he qualified it.
    That said, I don’t think it was “preemption” for us to attack Italy in WWII. Germany had plans for Europe, (with buffers into Asia/Africa), not for North America. Al Qaeda has “Caliphate” plans for All Muslim nations this generation, and all nations with Muslims within a couple generations–more than Germany or Japan. Bin Laden and others have spelled it out clearer than Mein Kampf.
    Repeating myself, Al Qaeda is the KKK on steroids. Should we win, or them?
    The following is using gaffo’s same words/argument, with a couple substitutions:
    “And NO the North is not her Brother’s keeper. If the Southerners have any KKK boots on their necks and the Southern culture presents no threat to the existance of the Northern States, that boot is the South’s problem to solve or accept.”
    For almost 100 years it seems gaffo’s argument won the day in America. Then, times changed, awareness changed. There was greater interconnection realized. The South affected the North, and intervention was once again called for, and in fact, it had been long overdue.
    Well, this is 2007, not 1930 (or whatever). Times have changed, the world is smaller, it’s shrunk, (Baghdad is now closer to New York than Selma once was)–and Al Qaeda & Co. has killed 4,000+ Americans and counting and is trying to kill many times more. Their evil plans must be taken seriously, and stopped.
    And if KKK had taken over Canada with beheadings and Lynching, or the Soviets planted nukes in Cuba, Our threat to intervene should have been commensurate and credible; and all the more so if they had a track record of murderous acts, broken promises, tangibly helped those who declared war, and otherwise promoted terror.
    Gaffo’s argument is “it’s once upon a time”–no need to invade Germany, it’s just we don’t understand their culture and troubles. That argument made some sense in 1930, but not after Hitler consolidated power and began to weild it.
    FYI, regarding Iraq, Gaffo, it is no longer once upon a time.

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