Martin Luther King Jr.’s Three Southern Villains

tags: MLK

James Reston, Jr.’s new book, Luther’s Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege, will be published in May. A lecturer in creative writing at UNC from 1971-81, he is now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The tapes and transcripts of his interviews with Jim Clark and Laurie Pritchett, as well as with the sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, L.A. Rainey, are in the Southern Oral History project at the University of North Carolina.

Early in the movie Selma, a pivotal scene depicts a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a young John Lewis when the movement is trying to decide whether to make Selma the main focus of its efforts in 1965. The protest was coming off several years of frustration in Albany, Georgia and desperately needed a transformative success if the push for voting rights was to succeed.

Of paramount importance was the opposition. Would the movement face in Selma someone as vicious and mistake-prone as the police commissioner of Birmingham, Bull Connor, who two years before had given the world the horrendous images of his attack dogs and fire hoses? Or in the sheriff of Dallas County, Jim Clark, would they face someone politically astute like the police chief of Albany, Laurie Pritchett, who had frustrated and defused and, in most people’s minds, defeated the movement with his sensitivity to the movement’s goals and his tactic of mass arrests?

“Is Jim Clark a Bull Connor or a Laurie Pritchett?” King asks Lewis.

Whether it actually happened or not, the exchange interests me immensely. Eleven years after Selma, in 1976, I had tracked down these dark figures of civil rights struggle, Jim Clark and Laurie Pritchett, with a project for the Southern Oral History program in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Whatever happened to the Southern villains? I wanted to know. 

Bull Connor was not available. He had died in 1973. The answer I found was that of the two remaining villains one had moved on to a career of considerable distinction in law enforcement after his confrontation with King, while the other had turned to a life of crime. ...

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