John Lewis, Taylor Branch, Politics, and Prose vs. Pictures

There are hundreds of photographs from March 7th, 1965, and one of the most memorable is this by James “Spider” Martin, which shows Alabama police preparing to attack the non-violent civil rights marchers (led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams) who’d just crossed the Edmund-Pettus bridge, in Selma.

© James “Spider” Martin

By contrast, here’s historian Taylor Branch, from his book At Canaan’s Edge.

After one minute and five seconds, Major Cloud addressed his front unit without the bullhorn: “Troopers, advance.” The blue line of elephantine masks moved forward with slow, irregular steps, overlapping and concentrating to curl around the front ranks of marchers. With nigghtsticks held chest high, parallel to the ground, the troopers pushed into the well-dressed formation, which sagged for nearly four suspended seconds until the whole mass burst to the rear, toppling marchers with accelerating speed as troopers hurtled over and through them. Almost instantly, silence gave way to a high-pitched shriek like the war cry of Indians in Hollywood movies, as the march line screamed and white spectators thrilled, some waving encouragement alongside the charge. John Lewis shot out of the mass at an angle, leaning oddly as he sank to the ground in five steps, felled by a truncheon blow to the head. A clattering of horses’ hooves on pavement signaled the general deployment of Alabama reserves and raised the volume of the pulsing shrill yell. Two troopers in the forward tangle stumbled over bodies into a heap and came up swinging clubs. The sharp report of guns sounded twice on the first launch of tear gas, one round reportedly fired by Sherriff Clark himself. A canister landed behind a moving wave of chaos that had not yet registered all the way back up Pettus Bridge toward Selma, where some marchers in the distance still knelt in prayer as instructed. From the tangle in the foreground, a Negro woman came spilling out to the side, pursued by one masked trooper and struck by two others she passed. Three ducking Negro men crossed toward nowhere with an injured woman they carried by arms and a leg, her undergarments flapping. Horsemen and masked officers on foot chased marchers who tried to escape down along the riverbank, herding them back. The cloud of tear gas from canister and spray darkened toward the mouth of the bridge, obscuring all but the outlines of a half-dozen figures on the ground and scattered nightsticks in the air.

Branch’s prose is spectacular, and it illuminates how the strength of the written word is so drastically different from the strength of photography, something I’ve been exploring on unphotographable for years.

For your ears, here’s how it sounds:

And here’s another picture of Lewis, seconds later, from a press photographer, after the police ran over the front of the march and begain beating people, including Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture.

john lewis and troopers

I ran into Lewis a few weeks ago, and one of his handlers took this picture with my camera. In our district, Lewis is running again for Congress, and has challengers. Lewis was on a panel discussion yesterday about “Road to Freedom” at the High Museum with Dorothy Cotton and Andrew Young. Young made great strides toward ameliorating the tension caused by some of his outlandish comments from the primaries. But the star was Lewis, who talked the audience through the movement’s timeline (which is becoming more and more fascinating to me) beginning with the murder of Jimmie Lee Williams.

Though I don’t really understand why Lewis (and Young) were so slow on the uptake with getting on board the Obama train, it’s refreshing that they’re there now, and committed, and fully grasp the potential of what an Obama presidency might mean – more than I might, for sure.


2 thoughts on “John Lewis, Taylor Branch, Politics, and Prose vs. Pictures”

  1. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is “The Children” by the late David Halberstam. As a young reporter in Nashville, he followed and documented the lives of the young people in the Civil Rights movement, from the Woolworth’s counter to the Pettis Bridge. The book separates itself from many on the topic in that it avoids exhaustive discussion of the icons in the movement (MLK, Abernathy), and focuses more on the people who were down in the trenches, had nothing to lose, and were full of youthful recklessness. John Lewis is a major character in this book, and after reading it I consider him to be one if the greatest Americans, and human beings for that matter, of our generation.

  2. Just wanted to second David’s suggestion, as well as his and your own words about John Lewis. Another book worth tracking down is Howell Raines’ oral history, “My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered.”

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