Ala. Sheriff James Clark; Embodied Violent Bigotry

Sheriff James G. Clark, left, stops a marcher trying to register to vote in 1965 in Dallas County, Ala. Clark told marchers the board of registrars was not in session.
Sheriff James G. Clark, left, stops a marcher trying to register to vote in 1965 in Dallas County, Ala. Clark told marchers the board of registrars was not in session. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

James G. Clark, 84, an Alabama sheriff and foe of the civil rights movement whose legacy of violence toward protesters culminated in the March 1965 "Bloody Sunday" clash in Selma, died June 4 at a nursing home in Elba, Ala.

No immediate cause of death was reported; he had suffered strokes and underwent heart surgery in recent years.

Mr. Clark was a terrifying figure to African Americans and civil rights supporters in Dallas County, Ala., where he served as sheriff from 1955 to 1966. Tall and beefy, he dressed in military-style helmets and jackets and wielded a .38-caliber pistol and a nightstick -- even, at times, a cattle prod.

For many, he came to embody aggressive bigotry, along with such peers as Eugene "Bull" Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., and Lawrence A. Rainey, the Neshoba County, Miss., sheriff long suspected of involvement in the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers.

Mr. Clark displayed his opposition to civil rights by sporting a small white button that read "Never." Referring to the protest anthem "We Shall Overcome," he said civil rights workers "will never overcome me." He called his ideological opponents communists and dupes. He viewed African Americans seeking voting rights as demanding "black supremacy."

With the initial support of Dallas County's white establishment, he sent his police force to intimidate black people who tried to register to vote at the courthouse in Selma. As of 1965, only 300 of the city's 15,000 potential black voters were registered. As civil rights organizers pressed the local black community to register, Mr. Clark and his deputies arrested hundreds of activists.

Mr. Clark seemed to relish confrontation. He hit at least one organizer, C.T. Vivian, in the face, though he later said he did not recall doing so until an X-ray exam showed he had a linear fracture in a finger on his left hand.

In January 1965, Mr. Clark prompted a violent encounter with a 54-year-old black woman, Annie Lee Cooper, who stood in line waiting to register to vote at the courthouse.

Mr. Clark prodded Cooper in the neck with a billy club. She turned around, decked him with all the strength in her 226-pound body and sent him sprawling. The sheriff's deputies then held down Cooper as Mr. Clark hit her repeatedly with his club.

Later, Mr. Clark blamed Cooper for starting the brawl. "She had stolen the club from one of my deputies, and all I was doing . . . was trying to get it out of her hand," he told the New York Times. "But those damn newspaper fellows made it look like I was beating her."

Mr. Clark's most visible moment came March 7, 1965, at the start of a peaceful voting rights march from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery.

Mr. Clark and his men were stationed near Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Alabama State Trooper John Cloud ordered the hundreds of marchers to disperse. When they did not, Mr. Clark commanded his mounted "posse" to charge into the crowd. Tear gas heightened the chaos, and protesters were beaten.

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