“‘That night, they blew up King’s motel, and every police car they had in Birmingham got torn up. I left. I didn’t have anything in common with Bull Connor.’”
Early in the Hollywood movie Selma, a pivotal scene depicts a 1965 conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a young John Lewis. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are trying to decide whether to make Selma the main focus of their efforts. The protest came off several years of frustration in Albany, Georgia, and desperately needed a transformative success if the push for voting rights was to succeed.
Of paramount importance was the opposition. Would the movement in Selma face someone as vicious and mistake-prone as Bull Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, whose tactics a year earlier had led to horrendous images of fire hoses and dogs attacking civil rights protesters? Or would Jim Clark, the Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, deploy less violent methods by taking up the strategy of Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett? Pritchett had frustrated and defused the movement in 1961 and 1962 by claiming to sympathize with its goals and launching a strategy of non-violent, mass arrests. “Is Jim Clark a Bull Connor or a Laurie Pritchett?” King asks Lewis.
Whether it actually happened or not, the exchange interests me immensely. Eleven years after Selma, in 1976, when I was teaching in the English Department at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I set out to find these dark figures of the civil rights struggle with a project for UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. Whatever happened to these consummate southern villains, as the rest of the nation viewed them? Bull Connor of Birmingham, it turned out, was not available. He had died in 1973. The other nemeses of the movement, Clark and Pritchett, were alive. One had moved on to a career of considerable distinction in law enforcement after his confrontation with Martin Luther King Jr., while the other had turned to a life of crime.