Interview with Mayor Joseph Smitherman
QUESTION 19
INTERVIEWER:

MAYOR SMITHERMAN WHERE WERE YOU THE DAY OF THE PETTIS BRIDGE INCIDENT?

Mayor Joseph Smitherman:

Well, when the incident at Pettis Bridge that was after almost two months of daily marches and a different type march every day. One time the word went out, see they built up all kind of momentum, the first march you'd arrest say, 6-800 and they would, a lot of them juvenile you'd let ‘em out and uh, they'd march the next say and they would put ‘em in a highway camp out here where workers would stay until they could process ‘em and turn back over to the custody of the parent. The press kept score and at one time we'd arrest 20 some thousand people down here which was about the same 1500 over and over and over and, these were the type things they would do, uh, and then they would go have the shouting matches at the courthouse uh, one time a picture went out on Jim Clark, I never will forget this one, a big black lady would make him get in line and the Federal judges would order you do it a certain ways you'd wrap ‘em around and around the courthouse cause registrars wouldn't see ‘em. And uh, but anyway a black lady jumped Jim Clark threw him on the ground, was lying on top of him beating on him and he of course he had his billy stick in his hand, he rolled over on top of her and was putting his stick away. The press took that picture and they stopped it on him pulling back with his stick like this and it went around the world showing a picture of Jim Clark beating a black lady on the ground, when he was trying to get her off him. But these are the type, just one of many, many incidents that happened, well the bridge march was kind of an accident. It was not a planned thing so to speak. What would happen, Dr. King would fly in and out of here for a big type march, but other than that it would be held, the marches would be led by always, Reverend Reese, John Lewis and Jose Williams. And the press, we used to, after awhile we couldn't get from the leaders what they would do everyday and we'd always watch the TV cameras, they had a station down here at EME Chapel and a housing project there, and uh, they were never on time, they never followed a schedule or what and we used to watch the TV cameras if uh, when they started moving, we knew something was going to happen. Cause they kept direct contact with the press and the press from New York and the major networks would tell em, uh, this thing is burned out we're going back to New York, there's no news down here. So they would come up with something different and I think this particular march without King's planning or Andrew Young or whatever these so-called people that, uh, say all these things now uh, John Lewis and Jose came up with this. They had about 325 or 375 people and they decided to march to Montgomery and carry their grievances to Governor Wallace and at first the Governor through his aides and what I was in direct contact with was going to let ‘em march. And some legislator convinced him that one of the counties between Selma and Montgomery that there might be violence and then he ordered a peaceful stop of it and uh, we Wilson Baker and a newspaper friend of mine we stayed on the phone four hours with one of Governor Wallace's aides that was from Selma convincing him that there was going to be trouble. Wilson Baker assured me that when they got across the bridge that they would be beat up and run back into Selma and then it would be a local problem again. see, that's always the kick between the Governor's office and local if it's something good, naturally the Governor who I support, had a big part in it, if something bad happened, that's a local problem that the city or the county should've taken care of. Everybody politicians finds their hard ground, so, uh, but when that beating happened at the foot of the bridge that looked like a war, uh that went all over the country. And then people, the wrath of the nation came down on us.** That one incident caused Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Congress is a reactionary body, they don't ever, pass anything out of uh, uh, statesmanship, if it's enough uh, commotion out there or whatever that the public comes down on ‘em, they'll pass it, other than that, it'd been years before they passed it and that one incident, uh, other than that we had it somewhat tempered because through the efforts of professionalism like Wilson Baker and uh…