Chanting and singing, some 4,000 voting rights marchers jammed the steps of the gleaming state capitol here today to seek freedom for two black women convicted of voting fraud in rural Pickens County.
After lengthy negotiations, the threat of mass jailings was averted when city officials agreed to let them walk nearly the full length of historic Dexter Avenue, past the brick church where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor and organized the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
"We've come here today to turn the cradle of the Confederacy into the crib of democracy," shouted the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We've come here to say, 'Free Maggie Bozeman; free Julia Wilder.' "
Last month, the two black women began serving what are believed to be the stiffest sentences ever handed down in an Alabama voting fraud case after they were convicted of illegally helping elderly, illiterate blacks fill out absentee ballots. Bozeman, 51, a school teacher and rural civil rights activist, got four years. Wilder, 69, a county official with the SCLC, got five years, the maximum. Both are now in work-release programs in Tuskegee.
Their case, said Lowery, illustrates the need for a strengthened Voting Rights Act to safeguard black voting rights in the South.
The judge who denied their parole requests and ordered the women off to prison last month gave a white police chief probation after he pleaded guilty to voting fraud, Lowery told the marchers.
A handful set out 13 days ago from Pickens County to retrace the steps of the historic 1965 voting rights march that left three dead and many bloodied, but led to the landmark civil rights legislation. They collected hundreds of sympathizers today as they marched arm in arm, numbering 4,000 by the time they reached the capitol, where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy 121 years ago.
Albert Lee Turner, a black tenant farmer from Perry County, one of several counties where officials have ordered a voter re-identification that threatens black voters, was among the veterans of the 1965 march.
"This ain't no social walk," he said. "Black people are in bad shape. We are not on the agenda, and if we don't get the Voting Rights Act extended, we'll lose the gains we've won."
Lowery was joined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., father of the slain leader of that 1965 march, and by the younger King's son, Martin III.
Also on the podium were two of Alabama's 23 black mayors--Birmingham's Richard Harrington and Tuskegee's Johnny Ford--several black state legislators and Atlanta City Council member John Lewis, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, promised to "carry your message to Washington" and lobby the Senate to pass the stronger House version of the extension bill.
Lowery declared that a massive "pilgrimage" to Washington would be organized, then disappeared into the capitol to ask Gov. Fob James to pressure the pardons and parole board to free Bozeman and Wilder. James, he said, "expressed interest" in the case, but did not give any commitment.