A notorious foe of the African American freedom struggle, James Clark served as sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, from 1955 to 1967. After years of antagonizing local civil rights workers, Clark clashed with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 1965 voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. Clark’s brutality became a rallying point for King, who said: “Until Sheriff Clark is removed, the evils of Selma will not be removed” (Herbers, “Dr. King Urges”).
Clark was born in Alabama in 1922. Prior to serving as sheriff, he worked as an assistant revenue commissioner for the state of Alabama. In February 1963 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began a voter education and registration campaign in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, where a mere 242 of the 15,000 eligible African American voters were registered.
By October 1963 Clark had arrested hundreds of civil rights activists. Frustrated by their limited success, in December 1964 local black activists asked King and SCLC to come to Selma. Aware of the violence that Clark and his officers routinely employed, King believed that a confrontation in Selma might attract the national attention necessary to pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for voting rights legislation. On 2 January 1965, SCLC sent staff members to begin a protest campaign.
After initially refraining from violent confrontations, on 19 January Clark pulled Amelia Boynton, a local black civil rights activist, out of a voter registration line and pushed her down the street into a waiting patrol car. King denounced Clark: “It is a tragedy when a man becomes so depraved and so sick that he will grab a woman and push and shove and all but kick her in the process as if he were dealing with some wayward dog” (King, 20 January 1965).
A week later, Clark’s violent behavior landed him on the front page of the New York Times, when a cameraman captured him beating a 53-year-old woman over the head with his nightstick as two officers held her down. Clark’s brutal tactics prompted a federal court to issue a restraining order prohibiting Clark from employing intimidation and harassment. Clark was fined later that year for violating the order by interfering with registration applicants.
In the weeks following Boynton’s arrest, King was also arrested, along with hundreds of black citizens seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. Commenting on how effective Clark’s racist aggression was at attracting popular attention, one SCLC staff member reportedly said: “We should put him on the staff” (Garrow, Bearing, 381).
The showdown between Clark and civil rights activists climaxed on 7 March 1965, when Clark and his men brutally attacked civil rights demonstrators seeking to march from Selma to Montgomery. National television coverage of Clark’s deputies using clubs, whips, and tear gas prompted Johnson to submit legislation that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The violent events of 1965 eventually turned Clark’s constituency against him, and in 1966 he lost his bid for reelection as county sheriff to Selma’s public safety director, Wilson Baker, a moderate who had disapproved of Clark’s tactics. After losing the election, Clark became active with the John Birch Society, touring the country to speak about his experience in Selma.