James Gardner "Jim" Clark, Jr. (September 17, 1922 – June 4, 2007) was the sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama from 1955 to 1966. He was one of the officials responsible for the violent arrests of civil rights protestors during the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.
Clark was born in Alabama, the son of Ettie Lee and James Gardner Clark. He served with the U.S. Army Air Force in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He was a cattle rancher when lifelong friend Governor of Alabama Jim Folsom appointed him as sheriff in 1955.
Dallas County Sheriff
In 1964 and 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee engaged in a voting drive in Dallas County, of which Selma was the county seat. Clark was sheriff of Selma, and vocally opposed to racial integration, wearing a button reading "Never" [integrate]. Clark wore military style clothing, and carried a cattle prod in addition to his pistol and club.
In response to the voting drive, Clark recruited a horse mounted posse of Ku Klux Klan members and supporters. Together with the Highway Patrolmen of Albert J. Lingo, the posse was intended to "operate ... as a mobile anti-civil rights force," and appeared at several Alabama towns outside of Clark's jurisdiction to assault and threaten civil rights workers.
In Selma, the SNCC campaign was met with violence and intimidation by Clark, who waited at the entrance to the county courthouse, beating and arresting registrants at the slightest provocation. At one point, Clark arrested around 300 students who were holding a silent protest outside the courthouse, force-marching them with cattle prods to a detention center three miles away. At another point he was punched in the jaw and knocked down by a demonstrator, Annie Lee Cooper, whom he was trying to make go home by poking her in the neck with either a nightstick or a cattle prod after she had stood for hours at the courthouse in an attempt to register to vote. By 1965, only 300 of the city's 15,000 potential black voters were registered.
These actions led to a widespread comparison of Clark to Eugene "Bull" Connor, and to James Baldwin saying of Clark,
I suggest that what has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there ... One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with a gun, and to use a cattle prod against a woman's breasts ... Their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.
At one SCLC protest, he arrested Amelia Boynton, who was well-respected in the community. Pictures of the arrest, during which the club-wielding Clark pushed Boynton to the ground, ran in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC mockingly nominated Clark for honorary membership in the Dallas County Voters League for "publicity services rendered." When Clark heard this on a surveillance tape made of the meeting, "[h]e'd scream bloody murder that he'd never do it again, he wouldn't fall into that trap again and go out the next day and do the same thing," said Wilson Baker, director of public safety.
On February 18, 1965, in Marion, Alabama, a peaceful protest march was met by Alabama state patrolmen, who beat the protesters after street lights suddenly went out. A young protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, attempted to protect his mother and octogenarian grandfather from police beating, and was shot in the stomach by Corporal James Bonard Fowler of the highway patrol. Jackson died eight days later of his injuries. Clark was present on the police side at Marion, despite it being outside his jurisdiction.
In response to the failed registration campaign, and as a direct response to the killing of Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Director of Direct Action, James Bevel, initiated, called for, and organized a march from Selma to Montgomery.
On March 7, 1965, around 600 protesters left Selma. Clark's officers and posse joined with Alabama state troopers in attacking the protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma in an event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday", resulting in the hospitalization of over 60 protesters. That evening, ABC interrupted the television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg to show scenes of the violence to around 48 million Americans. This was a critical event in the United States Congress passing the Voting Rights Act.
In an obituary, the Washington Post noted:
Mr. Clark's most visible moment came March 7, 1965, at the start of a peaceful voting rights march from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery.
Mr. Clark and his men were stationed near Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Alabama State Trooper John Cloud ordered the hundreds of marchers to disperse. When they did not, Mr. Clark commanded his mounted "posse" to charge into the crowd. Tear gas heightened the chaos, and protesters were beaten.
Captured on national television, the Bloody Sunday incident spurred widespread revulsion. Even Gov. George C. Wallace, who had earlier sparked a national showdown over a refusal to integrate public schools, reprimanded the state troopers and Mr. Clark.
Loss of sheriff's office
Mayor of Selma Joseph Smitherman and Wilson Baker wanted to blunt the force of the campaign by exercising restraint but the voter registration offices were Clark's responsibility. In the 1966 election, following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Wilson Baker defeated Clark, in part because the Act allowed many African-Americans to register to vote and cast ballots against Clark. Clark attempted to have suppressed 1,600 ballots cast for his opponent due to "irregularities", but court orders placed the votes back on record.
Later life and death
Following his defeat, Clark sold mobile homes. In 1978, a federal grand jury in Montgomery indicted Clark on charges of conspiring to smuggle three tons of marijuana from Colombia. Clark was sentenced to two years in prison and ended up serving nine months. In 2006, he told the Montgomery Advertiser that concerning his actions during the civil rights movement, "Basically, I'd do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again." He died at Elba Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Elba, Alabama on June 4, 2007 from a stroke and heart condition. Amelia Boynton Robinson attended the funeral of Clark, her onetime nemesis, who died unrepentant.