In Lowndes County, Ala., it was thought that perhaps the last attempt to register to vote by a black person had been in 1945, and no one could recall a black person’s voting, even though the county was 80 percent black. In Wilcox County, the last time a black person had voted was 1901, when a compliant barber had been granted the privilege. The courthouses in such areas were hostile territory that blacks had to fear even to enter.
As for policing, the worry in 1965 wasn’t ambiguous encounters or tragic accidents. It was beatings, or worse. It was whips and forced march by cattle prod. It was the violence of police who were the oppressive instruments of a lawless authority.
The protesters who faced off against the police in Selma didn’t shout abuse, although they would have been amply justified; they didn’t burn down local businesses; they didn’t randomly fire guns, or throw rocks or stones. The difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear (that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he surrendered).
The temptation for the Left to live perpetually in 1965 is irresistible. It wants to borrow the haze of glory around the civil-rights movement of that era and apply it to contemporary causes. It wants to believe that America is nearly as unjust as it was then, and wants to attribute to itself as much of the bravery and righteousness of the civil-rights pioneers as possible.
All of this is understandable. It just has no bearing on reality.