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Jim Clark, 84; sheriff stunned the U.S. with violent response to Selma march

June 07, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Jim Clark, a former Alabama sheriff whose violent confrontations with voting rights marchers in Selma shocked the nation in 1965 and gave momentum to the civil rights movement, has died. He was 84.

Clark died Monday at an Elba, Ala., nursing home after years of declining health, according to Hayes Funeral Home officials in Elba.

"He's recognized as a symbol of opposition, not only in Selma, but throughout the nation," U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the 1965 march, told the Selma Times-Journal this week.

To show his opposition to black voter registration, Clark wore a "Never" button on his sheriff's uniform as he and deputies joined state troopers in attacking marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The March 7, 1965, assault became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Clark was voted out of office in Dallas County, Ala., in 1966, in large measure because of opposition from newly registered black voters. But throughout his life he maintained that he had done the right thing in 1965.

Television coverage of the attack that injured 84 people showed mounted deputies indiscriminately assaulting men, women and children. It stirred indignation across the country and fueled public pressure for voting rights legislation. President Johnson deplored the brutality at Selma.

After subsequent demonstrations, including a five-day Selma-to-Montgomery march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

The legislation opened Southern polling places to blacks and dramatically changed the political landscape of the South.

The sheriff "was a very, very mean man. His meanness really served simply to express the subtle evil of the system of segregation," said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador who organized voter registration efforts in Selma in 1965.

Clark lost the Democratic primary in 1966 to J. Wilson Baker, a former Selma director of public safety who supported civil rights activists' right to demonstrate peacefully.

Clark then waged a write-in campaign but again lost to Baker.

While largely staying out of the spotlight, the former sheriff went on to sell mobile homes. In 1978, he went to federal prison for conspiring to import marijuana and served about nine months.

His family declined to comment on his death, according to the Selma Times-Journal, and information on survivors was not immediately available.

"He was the perfect opposition for the movement in Selma, because Dr. King and the other leaders knew he would overreact," said Sam Walker, consultant for the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, where Clark's "Never" button is displayed.

In a 2006 interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, Clark expressed no regrets for the events of Bloody Sunday.

"Basically, I'd do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again," he said. "I did what I thought was right to uphold the law."

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