Ron Benedict took the interstate into town on a Sunday. It was only a three-mile jaunt into Selma, Ala. and at one point, he’d need to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But he couldn’t make it across on that day in March 1965 — blocking the bridge were more police cars than he’d ever seen in his life, he said, and a throng of people on foot. He pulled over.
The state troopers and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark — as well as Clark’s so-called “posse” — were waiting on the near end of the bridge, as the column approached.
They were marching toward the state capitol in protest of the shooting death of an African-American deacon that had occurred during a peaceful protest a week earlier as well as the oppressively segregated climate in the deep southern town. The authorities tried to turn them away.
“Just about that time, when they said they weren’t going to do it, it all broke loose,” said the 72-year-old Benedict, an Ashtabula man who witnessed one of the most formative moments of the civil rights movement.
They called it “Bloody Sunday.”
“The sheriff, his deputies and the state police went after all these folks with whatever they had in their hand — baseball bats, billy clubs, cattle prods, tear gas,” he said.
The melee formed quickly and spread as some protestors broke from the march and the deputies — some on horseback — closed in. Many marchers were left on the ground, beaten or stomped, Benedict said.
“They didn’t care if they were an adult, a child, a protestor in the march. They didn’t care what they hit them with.
“It was just utter chaos,” he said. “I’m thinking to myself … I’m witnessing history. They’re going to read about this down the road.”
Just a year prior, history was made when black citizens were given voting rights with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The then 23-year-old Air Force serviceman was transferred to Craig Air Force Base near Selma in 1965, and he brought his wife of two years and infant daughter with him. He said his northern upbringing made the segregated south seem like a foreign country.
“There was a lot of racial tension during that particular period,” Benedict said. “Even my wife and I got criticized for how differently we treated black people. We were raised differently in the north to respect everybody.”
There were the sideways glares when the couple would hand their daughter off to the owner of a local laundromat near the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a kindly black woman who would dote on the girl while Benedict’s wife finished the wash.
There was the young black stock boy at the shopping center, whom Benedict’s wife addressed as “sir.”
“There was a white woman standing nearby. She looked at my wife and said ‘You don’t have to call him sir,’” Benedict recalled. “My wife said, ‘I will call him sir if I want to.’”
One day, one of Benedict’s fellow servicemen, a flight line worker from Missouri, took a piece of chalk to the tarmac, writing the “N”-word in large letters. He was investigated and reprimanded, he said.
Benedict avoided discussing race relations with others on the base — it would likely lead to a “heated” argument, he said.
The military told servicemen to “stay out of” the brewing civil unrest altogether, he said.
“(They told us,) ‘If you have to go into town for anything, make sure you wear your uniform — make sure they can distinguish who you are,’” he said.
There were acts of civil disobedience, like when peacekeepers would try to dissuade blacks from registering to vote — Annie Lee Cooper famously punched sheriff Clark after being prodded as she waited for hours in line outside the Selma courthouse.
However there were no mobs setting fire to buildings or looting, as recently seen in Ferguson, Mo., when a grand jury chose not to indict the white officer who killed an unarmed black man in August. Benedict said it was likely Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership and emphasis on peaceful demonstration that kept the situation from spiraling to that point.
There was little support from local or state officials. Yet, the Edmund Pettus Bridge clash was the catalyst for the nationwide social shift, Benedict said.
“After ‘Bloody Sunday,’ the news went international,” he said. “The mayor (Joseph Smitherman) had just been elected and so, he didn’t want any bad vibes from Selma.
“But there were undercurrents of ‘There’s going to be more problems — there’s going to be another march,’” Benedict said.
Then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace was opposed to desegregation. It wasn’t until President Lyndon B. Johnson allotted a National Guard detachment to escort King and the Selma marchers on the road to Montgomery, which they began walking on March 21, that the activists’ vision could be realized — the modern-day story of Exodus, leading a people out of bondage, to a “Promised Land” that King spoke of.
It took Benedict and his wife an hour and a half to drive the three miles to Craig Air Force Base that day. “Thousands and thousands of people” — many of whom were willing to risk their lives for their cause, he said — were making history and changing the lives of African-Americans for generations to come.
“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” King told those gathered at a Tennessee church in 1968. “And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It was his last speech. King was assassinated the following day.