On the Road to Selma, a Jim Crow Relic


Photos by Lynne D. Schneider

Selma, Alabama—President Barack Obama and other civil rights pilgrims who visit this city to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday next month will pass a series of signs on U.S. Highway 80 that identify the road as the Walter C. Givhan Parkway.

Givhan, a wealthy farmer from nearby Safford, Ala., served 38 years in the state legislature, from the 1930s until his death at age 73 in 1976. A champion of farmers, he was posthumously recognized by Auburn University as “father of the soybean movement in Alabama.”

But Sen. Givhan has another legacy.

Although the senator has faded into obscurity nearly 40 years after he died, Givhan was best known during his lifetime as one of the most zealous and intractable segregationist politicians in all of the South.

He spent many years as state chairman of the White Citizens' Council, the unhooded cousin of the Ku Klux Klan. Givhan once called school integration an NAACP campaign “to open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men.”

How did the route of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, a 50-mile stretch of road venerated as a sacrosanct symbol of the American civil rights movement, come to bear the name of a crusader for the Jim Crow status quo?

The short answer is that his colleagues in the Alabama Legislature approved a resolution naming the highway in his honor a year after his death. His successor, Sen. Earl Goodwin of Selma, proposed the measure, and Gov. George Wallace signed it.

But there is a second, more nuanced explanation. Highway 80 is a singular example of the tidal push and pull of competing racial narratives in Alabama.

Racial 'Pluralism'

Robert J. Norrell, an Alabama native who writes about race relations and teaches southern history at the University of Tennessee, describes his home state as racially “pluralistic.”

“Everything is about race and always has been about race in Alabama,” Norrell says. “People in Alabama have to accommodate the fact that folks have been on opposite sides of race issues for all of their history. So in order to survive and achieve some level of comfort, you have to be tolerant of the fact that there are alternate views to your own. You don't have to like it, but you have to accept it because there's no practical way to undo it.”

Highway 80 runs east-west through Alabama's historic cotton region, known as the Black Belt. The naming of the road has been a chess match played for a full century, beginning with its designation in about 1920 as part of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway across Dixie. (Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederacy in Montgomery, its first capital city.)

In 1996, the federal government under President Bill Clinton made the highway part of the national Civil Rights Historic Trail. Months later, a white businessman secured swift state approval to open a garbage dump along the highway in predominantly black Lowndes County. Opponents sued to stop the plan.

The designation of U.S. 80 as Givhan Parkway, 12 years after the Selma-Montgomery march, can only be seen as another poke at civil rights activists.

“There were few blacks in the Alabama Legislature at the time,” Hank Sanders, an African-American state senator from Selma, told The Crime Report. “Givhan was a former member, so these sorts of things get done, and they really don't discuss them.”

Sanders, a Democrat in a state where Republicans reign, says blacks must pick their fights carefully when it comes to historical place-names.

“I have not heard any discussion about taking down the Givhan signs,” Sanders says. “But if we tried to pack up all the road signs and memorials and buildings and statues and everything else named for these people from the past, we'd be pulling down names from all over Alabama. All over the South, really.”

Sanders has helped shepherd a number of legislative naming resolutions in honor of activists. In 2000, the three-mile section of Highway 80 leading into Selma was named for F.D. Reese, the activist who invited Martin Luther King Jr. to the city in 1965 and marched beside him. Other sections of the highway are now named for Selma activists Marie Foster, who died in 2003, and Amelia Boynton, the centenarian who met with Obama before his State of the Union address on January 20, and others.

Reese’s name appears on the highway, but as Sanders acknowledges, “There aren't signs up for most of them.”

Givhan prevails in Highway 80 signage. At least four large signs pay homage to his name as the four-lane road, dotted with perhaps a dozen African-American churches, traverses the rolling farmland between Selma and Montgomery.

No Unified Narrative

“There's no expectation that we're going to have a unified narrative about that road,” says Norrell. “In order to get along, they have to have some level of tolerance of the competing narrative…That's not to say that we are free of animus. There clearly is still a great deal of racial animus. And there will be a lot of that racial animus about the first black president coming to Selma.”

Obama is scheduled to visit on March 7, the day before a large-scale commemorative march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and along Highway 80 that is expected to attract thousands of people.

Visitors will find that the historic edifices of Selma (pop. 21,000) haven't changed much in 50 years—the Pettus Bridge, the old St. James Hotel, the colonnaded mansions in the Historic District, Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. But the power structure is transformed. Eight in 10 citizens are black, and African-Americans dominate politics and government. That's not to say that all is right here: The population has declined by a quarter, public schools are failing, one-third of residents live below the poverty line, and per-capita income is half the national average.

In a sense, the visit to Selma by a black president is the manifestation of one of Givhan's expressed nightmares.

In December 1954, eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court decreed school integration in Brown v. Board of Education, Givhan gave a hellfire-and-brimstone speech about the dangers of miscegenation to the White Citizens' Council in Linden, Ala.

As quoted by Time magazine, the speech included nods to well-rooted sexual hysteria about coitus between white women and black men. Givhan suggested that interracial sex would somehow lead to the election of a black vice president.

“And after that happens,” he continued, “what would prevent them from assassinating the president, making the Negro president? You say it can’t happen here, but I say it can and will unless we stand up and fight.”

Sen. Sanders points out that many white politicians took positions they grew to regret during that era. But over his long career, Givhan persisted in hewing to the Dixiecrat manifesto of state rule and segregation. He also fought reapportionment to give blacks fair elective representation.

'Rebel-Yelling' Crowd

In 1955, Givhan vowed that “the whole U.S. Army” could not integrate Alabama schools. The next year, Wayne Phillips of The New York Times reported that Givhan helped inflame a wild, “rebel-yelling” crowd in Tuscaloosa that was protesting integration of the University of Alabama. Givhan screeched that Communists were advocating integration “because they know the South is one of the few places in which pure Anglo-Saxon blood exists, and as long as it exists they're going to have a fight.”

Records indicate that Givhan also was:

A founding leader of the segregationist American States Rights Association, created in 1954.

An editorial board member of the White Citizens' Council national newspaper, in addition to chairman of the council's Alabama branch.

An appointee by Gov. Wallace to the Alabama State Sovereignty Commission, “created to fight efforts by the federal government to force integration.” He apparently served from 1963 until as late as 1973.

A primary sponsor of important Alabama tuition grant legislation in 1965 drafted on behalf of “white students who don't want to attend school with blacks,” according to news accounts.

Into the twilight of Givhan's life and political career, newspapers identified him as a segregationist torchbearer, and he never shied from the label.

“If you would try to promote Walter Givhan's historical greatness now, you'd probably have a fight on your hands,” says Norrell.

Of course, Highway 80 is but one example of ubiquitous racially charged place-names in Alabama, where the birthday holiday celebrated on the third Monday each January officially honors both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.

In Montgomery, where a student body that is about 95 percent black attends high schools named for both Jefferson Davis and Lee, an advocacy organization began an initiative last year to create historical markers that give a black perspective.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal help to indigent defendants and prisoners and has won national renown for its advocacy, noted that nearly every marker in the city spoke from a white historical slant. Its executive director, Bryan Stevenson, has said the new markers will acknowledge the complex and often uncomfortable racial truths of the region's history.

That discomfort certainly hangs over Selma, where even the Pettus Bridge, another icon of civil rights, is named for a Confederate general and U.S. senator who once served as the Ku Klux Klan's “Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama.”

Activists here are engaged in a long-running battle over another controversial figure.

Sen. Sanders' wife, Faya Rose Toure, has led a fight against a United Daughters of the Confederacy memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma's Old Live Oak Cemetery. A Confederate general and first “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest is a racially divisive figure in the South.

A Forrest bust installed in the cemetery 15 years ago was stolen in 2012, and plans for a replacement memorial have roiled the city for years. Toure has said that honoring Forrest in Selma is akin to “glorifying a Nazi in Germany.”

Givhan's racial history pales by comparison, says Sen. Sanders.

“Nathan Bedford Forrest is in a class by himself,” he says. “He built the KKK, which terrorized blacks for nearly a hundred years. Whatever his faults, Walter Givhan was not in his class.”

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and a veteran criminal justice journalist. A true crime author, he writes “The Justice Story” for the New York Daily News and was a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He welcomes comments from readers.

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