Watch live coverage of ceremonies in Selma commemorating 50 years since “Bloody Sunday” starting at 11 a.m. ET Saturday on CNN and CNNgo.
It has been a half-century since the march from Selma to Montgomery and the events dubbed Bloody Sunday. Yet not far from Selma University, a one-story bungalow that served as an informal headquarters for the civil rights movement remains little changed.
The chair where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat watching President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Congress eight days after the violent attack on peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge sits in the same spot in the living room, in front of the same old-fashioned television. The rotary telephone King regularly used to speak with the president is still on the nightstand in the guest bedroom. The dining table and chairs where King and others ate, argued and strategized remain just as they were decades ago in the house at 1416 Lapsley Ave.
“This home has so much history,” said 55-year-old Jawana Jackson, who inherited the house from her parents. “This was the home that sheltered the movement. It was the home that gave the people that led this movement comfort.”
Dr. Sullivan and Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson, a black dentist and his wife, often hosted King when he visited Selma, from the late 1950s to several months into 1965. During the push for voting rights here, their home served as both a resting place and a meeting place for King and civil rights activists like Rev. Ralph Abernathy; John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In the segregated South, hotels were often not an option, and the work this group was doing was controversial and dangerous.
King’s keys to the house
King was such a frequent guest at the Jackson home that he had his own key. Richie Jean had known King and his wife Coretta Scott King for years. Coretta Scott had been a childhood friend of hers – they had the same music teacher in Selma – and she had met King as a college student while attending the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church he pastored in Montgomery, Alabama.
“If Martin was in town, our house was a hub of activity. There were always reporters, movement staff and others who wanted to meet or just see the icon staying at the house,” Sherrod Jackson wrote in “The House By the Side of the Road,” a behind-the-scenes account of life in the home during the movement.
After civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death in February 1965, King, Abernathy and other SCLC and SNCC staffers held a series of meetings at the home to talk about their next move, a march from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize the voting rights issue and push for legislation that would guarantee all citizens the right to cast a ballot. King met at the home with John Doar, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, on March 9, two days after Bloody Sunday.
Jawana Jackson, who was then just five years old, remembered King as a kind man who would read her bedtime stories and pretend to eat her mudpies. She said there was always music and activity in a home that often overflowed with guests.
There were times when people had to sign up for bathroom and bathtub space,” Jackson said. “People needed places to sleep. So very often, people would sleep in the bathtubs.”
Sleeping on floors and in bathtubs
James Bevel, an SCLC staffer, was one who often claimed a bathtub. People would even sleep on the floor, wrote Sherrod Jackson, who spent hours washing sheets and preparing food for her guests. In February 1965 that included a lunch for King, SCLC members and a group of visiting congressman. On another occasion she hosted two days of meetings King – a Nobel Peace Prize winner – had with Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to win the prestigious prize.
“Uncle Martin, as I knew him, deemed my mother the Movement Cook,” Jackson said, adding that her mother’s cabbage was famous and that King also loved her smothered steak.
The home was frequently filled with laughter, like the time King held a meeting with the activists Abernathy, Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Bernard Lee in Jawana’s crowded bedroom. When King’s brother, the Rev. A.D. King, came in to join the men and sat down on the bed holding Dr. King and two others, it broke under the weight, prompting an uproar.
Still, there were many solemn occasions. Jackson remembered overhearing the numerous phone calls between King and the president.
“I would hear a voice,” she said. “I could not understand, but I could hear the tones and the intonations of what I now know to be very, very serious conversations about things that were going to change our nation and the world.”
The night of Johnson’s voting rights speech on March 15, 1965, was another emotional occasion at the home, as Lewis, now a congressman representing Georgia but then just 25, recalled. Lewis was moved when the president said the words “We shall overcome,” a reference to a movement anthem.
A tear-filled moment
“He was the first American president to use the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement,” Lewis told CNN during an interview in Selma. “I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. I started crying a little. I didn’t like for anybody to see me cry, but I cried and Dr. King said ‘We will make it from Selma to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act will be passed,’ and he was right.”
Following Bloody Sunday, King and his friends spent the morning of the Selma to Montgomery march, which began March 21, talking and praying in a back room of the home before “booting up” – lacing up their marching boots. The march was able to take place only after a judge issued an injunction allowing it. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, more than 1,800 of whom lined the 54-mile route along with some 2,000 U.S. Army troops, 100 FBI agents and another hundred U.S. marshals to protect the marchers all the way to Montgomery, Lewis wrote, avoiding a repeat of the violence seen during the failed attempt to march to the state capital on Bloody Sunday two weeks earlier.
Less than five months after the march to Montgomery, Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Just a few short years later, after King was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Dr. Sullivan Jackson mused: “If these walls could talk, what would they say?”
His daughter, who is hoping to turn the home into a museum, answered her late father’s question.
“They would tell a story of a family here in Selma that has tried to give and contribute,” she said.