Ala. Ex-Sheriff Dies; Civil Rights Foe
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; 4:54 PM
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, whose violent confrontations with voting rights marchers in Selma shocked the nation in 1965 and gave momentum to the civil rights movement, has died at 84.
Clark, who wore a "Never" button on his sheriff's uniform to show his opposition to black voter registration, died at an Elba nursing home late Monday after years of declining health due to a stroke and heart surgery, Hayes Funeral Home officials said Wednesday.
Clark was voted out of office in 1966, in large measure because of opposition from newly registered black voters, but through his life he maintained he had done the right thing in 1965.
He and his deputies joined state troopers in attacking marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of that year, an event that became known as "Bloody Sunday." It prompted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery and got Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
"He was a very, very mean man. His meanness really served simply to express the subtle evil of the system of segregation," said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador who organized voter registration efforts in Selma in 1965.
The Voting Rights Act opened Southern polling places to blacks and dramatically changed the political landscape of the South, including Selma. Some 9,000 blacks registered to vote in Dallas County, where only 350 had been registered even though blacks made up a majority of the population.
Clark lost the Democratic primary in 1966 to J. Wilson Baker, a former Selma director of public safety who supported civil rights activists' right to demonstrate peacefully. Clark then waged a write-in campaign but lost to Baker again that November, garnering about 6,740 votes to Baker's 7,250.
"He was the perfect opposition for the movement in Selma because Dr. King and the other leaders knew he would overreact," said Sam Walker, consultant for the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, where Clark's "Never" button is now displayed.
Baker got a large black vote as well as support from some whites upset about Clark's actions and their impact on Selma.
In a 2006 interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, Clark said, "Basically, I'd do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again. I did what I thought was right to uphold the law."
He also claimed that marchers weren't beaten on Bloody Sunday. "They fell down all at once in one big swoop," he said.
Then-Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom had appointed Clark sheriff in 1955 following the death of the incumbent.
After he lost his re-election bid, Clark sold mobile homes, largely staying out of the spotlight until 1978, when he went to federal prison for conspiring to import marijuana. He served about nine months.
Young said Wednesday he had met with many old adversaries from the civil rights movement over the years and they were "able to laugh and joke about those times." But that never happened with Clark.
"I hope God will show mercy to him even though he showed no mercy to us," Young said.
Associated Press writer Errin Haines contributed to this report.