Early in the movie Selma, a pivotal scene depicts a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a young John Lewis when the movement is trying to decide whether to make Selma the main focus of its efforts in 1965. The protest was coming 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 face in Selma someone as vicious and mistake-prone as the police commissioner of Birmingham, Bull Connor, who two years before had given the world the horrendous images of his attack dogs and fire hoses? Or in the sheriff of Dallas County, Jim Clark, would they face someone politically astute like the police chief of Albany, Laurie Pritchett, who had frustrated and defused and, in most people’s minds, defeated the movement with his sensitivity to the movement’s goals and his tactic of mass arrests?
Whether it actually happened or not, the exchange interests me immensely. Eleven years after Selma, in 1976, I had tracked down these dark figures of civil rights struggle, Jim Clark and Laurie Pritchett, with a project for the Southern Oral History program in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Whatever happened to the Southern villains? I wanted to know.
Bull Connor was not available. He had died in 1973. The answer I found was that of the two remaining villains one had moved on to a career of considerable distinction in law enforcement after his confrontation with King, while the other had turned to a life of crime.
I found Jim Clark not in Selma but in the north Alabama town of Ft. Payne. The search had taken me over a month, tracking him from Alabama to North Carolina, Tennessee to Florida, and by the time I found him, I knew enough, maybe too much, about his life to make my approach comfortable. When I came upon him in a restaurant in the Holiday Inn, there was no doubt that this was Jim Clark, the Jim Clark, who I remembered seeing in Selma in 1963 as a young reporter for the Chicago Daily News, with his white military helmet liner pulled down a correct two fingers above his nose, standing with a few posse members, cattle prods dangling from their belts.
He sat alone, with his profile to me, displaying that large head with its flattened boxer’s nose. His hair was graying now. He wore glasses, and there was no button in his lapel reading “Never!”, but there was no mistaking that profile.
I delivered my rehearsed introduction to him haltingly. A professor at a Southern university, I had written a book on the Joan Little case, and so the reputation of the Southern law man intrigued me greatly. He invited me to sit down. He did not ask if I was a member of the ”liberal press” which he scorned and had steadfastly avoided for nine years. He did not ask how I found him, not that I would have admitted that the FBI had helped. Nor did he ask if I knew anything about his legal troubles since 1968, not that I would have told him about two of his Alabama prosecutors who had also helped in my search.
Instead we talked about the caricature of Southern lawmen that had emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. On that subject he was animated.
“Anytime you laugh at a caricature, it’s because you see something human in it, something of yourself in it,“ Clark said with surprising candor. “If you can’t laugh, you’re in trouble.”
Source: Newsweek | JAMES RESTON, JR.