What Roger Rollin recalls most vividly about the 1965 Freedom Marches in Selma, Alabama, are the jeers, the racial slurs and soul-searing animosity.
“I remember the faces of the white people in Selma contorted with hatred and yelling terrible things at protestors,” said Rollin, who was one of thousands who marched in Selma for blacks’ voting rights.
“I never experienced anything like that in my life, to be hated like that,” said Rollin, a former Clemson professor.
The nationwide release of the critically acclaimed film “Selma” has prompted an outpouring of recollections, heartbreaking but also positive, by civil rights activists throughout the country.
For Greenville native Jesse Jackson, seeing a blood-stained highway patrolman’s billy club stands out as a particularly chilling memory.
“Violence was pervasive,” said Jackson, who was 23 years old at the time of the marches. “There was a cloud of fear, hatred and violence hanging over Alabama and the entire South.”
A sharply contrasting memory stirs as Rollin, a lifelong civil rights activist, leafs through old, yellowing newspaper clippings about that nation-changing month a half-century ago — the firm, inspiring presence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I remember his voice but even more his eloquence,” Rollin said. “He could use the English language in such a powerful way, with the cadence of black preachers and black spirituals.”
“Selma,” which opens in Greenville on Friday, centers on the three historic Freedom Marches from Selma to Montgomery, held to protest the denial of basic voting rights to Southern blacks. The first, known as “Bloody Sunday,” ended with protestors being clubbed and attacked with cattle prods and tear gas by Alabama State Troopers.
“They beat the hell out of men, women and children,” Rollin said.
A week earlier, the 26-year-old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson had been killed by a state trooper.
A second march, led by King, turned back to avoid further violence. The successful third march, in which Rollin, Jackson and 8,000 others participated, ultimately led to President Lyndon B. Johnson introducing the Voting Rights Act in a nationally televised address to Congress.
Both Rollin and Jackson said they plan to see the movie, although Rollin expressed some reservations.
“It may bring back some tough memories,” Rollin said. “I’ll see it the first chance I get but I’ll bring some Kleenex with me.”
The Freedom Marches were necessary to correct historical injustice, Jackson said. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the federal government and the states from denying the right to vote to people on the basis of race, did not go far enough, Jackson said.
“The problem was that voting rights were left in the hands of the former slave-owners,” Jackson said. “They held that power until 1965, using various schemes — racial, literacy tests, poll taxes. They locked the door. If you tried to vote, you could lose your job or lose your life. It was a reign of terror.”
The Voting Rights Act, signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, was designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
Rollin was a 35-year-old assistant professor and chairman of the English Department at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when he journeyed with eight other professors in two cars to march with King and other civil rights protestors.
“We stopped in Birmingham on the way to Selma,” Rollin said. “It was in the black district where we felt most safe because we were an integrated group of professors. We slept on somebody’s floor. I don’t even remember whose.”
Both Jackson and Rollin remembered the multiracial aspect of the marches.
“Whites and blacks bled together to help realize the American dream,” Jackson said.
Rollin recalled National Guard officers lining the streets and Guard helicopters whirring overhead.
“It was a very hostile environment,” he said. “I was grateful for the National Guard and the protection they afforded. I was concerned about Dr. King because anybody with a sniper’s scope could have taken him out. Once we got out of Selma, people relaxed a little.”
Rollin witnessed segregation first-hand while growing up in the town of McKeesport, Pennsylania, near Pittsburgh.
“When I was young, I was ignorant of segregation and the plight of blacks,” Rollin said. “But I gradually became more aware.”
He particularly remembers attending a movie theater where blacks were relegated to the balcony. During his entire time as an English major at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, Rollin saw only two black students.
Later, while serving in the Army during the Korean War, Rollin noticed with dismay that some units were still segregated. “I saw a segregated outfit marching by at Fort Meade (in Maryland), even though President Truman had integrated the Army years ago,” Rollin said.
Those wrenching experiences led Rollin to become, as an adult, an outspoken activist for civil rights and civil liberties.
Rollin moved to Clemson in 1975 to accept an endowed professorship at Clemson University and subsequently became involved in the Upstate with the NAACP, ACLU and other politically oriented organizations.
An internationally recognized specialist in 17th century English literature, Rollin retired from Clemson in 1995. He and his wife Lucy, also a former Clemson English professor, live in Seneca. Currently, Rollin is president of the Foothills Secular Humanist Society.
Both Rollin and Jackson see the Selma Freedom Marches as crucial events in America’s civil rights struggle — in which activists pressed forward with hope despite numerous and often brutal setbacks.
“The sacrifices in the face of real danger were tremendous,” Rollin said.
Jackson and Rollin differ, however, on the legacy of Selma.
Jackson argues that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. He noted also that at least 13 states, including South Carolina, have implemented voter ID laws or other restrictions on the right to vote.
“The former segregationists are in charge of voting rights again,” Jackson said. “They’re using all kinds of schemes — reducing the number of days you can vote, requiring voter IDs and other voter suppression schemes.
“The same people we defeated in 1965 have come full circle,” Jackson said. “All of the gains are under attack. Many of the manipulations we saw 50 years ago are back again.”
Rollin, however, said social changes since 1965 have been tremendously positive.
“Selma turned the country around,” Rollin said. “I go to lunch today and I see several women having lunch and having a great time, both blacks and whites together — that wouldn’t have happened in 1965. I see very heartening change. I see interracial couples walking around. That could have cost them their lives in 1965.
“There have been setbacks but they’re political and temporary,” Rollin said. “Selma changed things completely.”