A fresh perspective on the dramatic events of Selma
Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Rights Mediation
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Steve L. Longenecker
Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for Human Rights, 1987
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King’s campaign for a Voting Rights Act and the march to Montgomery brought national attention to the segregated city of Selma, Alabama. Behind the violent confrontations and scrutiny by the media, Ralph Smeltzer, a minister on the national staff of the Church of the Brethren, worked unobtrusively to mediate and channel communications between the factions. Using interviews with main figures in the civil rights movement and white supremacists such as Sheriff Jim Clark, as well as Smeltzer’s diary and notes of daily meetings and phone calls, Stephen Longenecker provides a fresh perspective on the dramatic events of Selma.
Even before the city was targeted for special attention by civil rights leaders, Smeltzer recognized its potential for violence. He encouraged the emergence of Selma’s black leadership and met with representatives of the white establishment to explain the plans of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite his warnings, the whites failed to act and Selma’s violence erupted. Longenecker uses detailed records of Smeltzer’s attempts to further racial reconciliation to reveal largely unknown behind-the-scenes dealings that influenced crucial events in Selma.
Stephen L. Longenecker is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at The Johns Hopkins University.