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  • Clark and PritchettA Comparison of Two Notorious Southern Lawmen
  • James Reston Jr. (bio)

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Early in the Hollywood movie Selma, a pivotal scene depicts a 1965 conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a young John Lewis. Whether it actually happened or not, the exchange interests me immensely. Martin Luther King Jr. (with hat), flanked by his wife Coretta (right) and John Lewis (far right), leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 1965, AP Photo.

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Early in the Hollywood movie Selma, a pivotal scene depicts a 1965 conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a young John Lewis. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are trying to decide whether to make Selma the main focus of their efforts. The protest came 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 in Selma face someone as vicious and mistake-prone as Bull Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, whose tactics a year earlier had led to horrendous images of fire hoses and dogs attacking civil rights protesters? Or would Jim Clark, the Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, deploy less violent methods by taking up the strategy of Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett? Pritchett had frustrated and defused the movement in 1961 and 1962 by claiming to sympathize with its goals and launching a strategy of non-violent, 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, when I was teaching in the English Department at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I set out to find these dark figures of the civil rights struggle with a project for UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. Whatever happened to these consummate southern villains, as the rest of the nation viewed them? Bull Connor of Birmingham, it turned out, was not available. He had died in 1973. The other nemeses of the movement, Clark and Pritchett, were alive. One had moved on to a career of considerable distinction in law enforcement after his confrontation with Martin Luther King Jr., while the other had turned to a life of crime.1

jim clark

Thirteen years after his notorious confrontation with history, I finally came upon Jim Clark not in Selma but in the North Alabama town of Ft. Payne. The search had taken me over a month, tracking him from Alabama to North Carolina to Tennessee to Florida, and by the time I found him, I knew enough about his life to make me uneasy. When I walked toward him in a restaurant in the Holiday Inn, there was no doubt that this was Jim Clark, the Jim Clark, whom I remembered seeing in Selma in 1965 as a young reporter for the Chicago Daily News, with his white military helmet liner pulled down a correct two fingers above his nose, standing with a few posse members, night sticks at the ready. He sat alone with his profile to me, displaying that large head with its nose flattened like a boxer’s. His hair was graying now. He wore glasses, and though he had no button on his lapel reading “Never!,” there was no mistaking that profile. [End Page 51]

I delivered my rehearsed introduction to him haltingly. A professor at a southern university, I had written a book on the Joan Little case, and so the reputation of the southern law man intrigued me greatly. He invited me to sit down. He did not ask if I was a member of the “liberal press” that he scorned and had steadfastly avoided for nine years. He did not ask how I found him, not that I would have admitted that the fbi had helped. Nor did he ask if I knew anything about his legal troubles since 1968, not that I would have told him that two of his Alabama prosecutors had also helped in my search. Instead, we talked about the reputation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 50-62
Launched on MUSE
2016-12-11
Open Access
No
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