NEWARK – The drive from Selma to the airport scared Joe Hayden, because it was the only time down south when he was alone in that car with out-of-state plates amid reports of segregationists lying in wait for local troublemakers and northern do-gooders.
Volunteering to pick up a fellow marcher as the followers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mobilized for Montgomery seemed like the best way to help, but out on a lonely Alabama road far from home had him looking for that roadblock up ahead and the inevitable encounter with newly deputized bar stool bad guys.
Today a prominent criminal defense attorney who as a college student participated in the Civil Rights movement, Hayden started a lifelong journey in Selma, detoured back through his home town of Newark in 1967 and arced to Denver and the 2008 Democratic Convention when Barack Obama redeemed the dream of Dr. King, as Hayden sees it.
But it was that road to the airport where Hayden’s journey intensified.
The horrors of Bloody Sunday and the ensuing two weeks led Hayden there that day in 1965.
The beatings of civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge galvanized the Boston College undergrad, who joined eight fellow students for the drive south in response to King’s call to people of goodwill everywhere to support the voting rights cause for disenfranchised African-Americans. “I was outraged by the Gestapo-like tactics,” Hayden told PolitickerNJ, referring to the beatings at the bridge that repelled peaceful voting rights marchers led by John Lewis.
“A bunch from the student newspaper signed up to go and we received instructions in Roxbury prior to going down from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” recalled Hayden, who lives in Hoboken. “‘No one fights back, don’t come down if you plan to fight back. Be prepared to be arrested. You may be assaulted.”
The students drove 31 straight hours to Alabama and that most dangerous part of the trip between Montgomery and Selma where the four-lane highway turned into two lanes and the rain helped keep clear those local segregationists intent on keeping out northern interlopers. Hayden and his fellow marchers slept in sleeping bags in the Green Street Chapel in Selma.
“The sense of brotherhood and togetherness there was unlike anything I’ve ever felt,” said the Newark native, who was surprised to be awakened by roosters.
Cops arrested Hayden on that second full day while he picketed in front of the mayor’s house. Held overnight, he made it back on the streets a day later, uncharged. Hundreds and thousands of people had descended on Selma for the march to Montgomery and it was then that Hayden drove the car to the airport before the start of the march.
“That was the only time I was truly scared,” he said.
At the airport, Hayden picked up a man from Japan, who explained that he was there “to show I am part of the human race.”
Together, they drove back to the march.
On foot along the road to Montgomery, “I have never seen hatred on that level,” Hayden remembered, recalling the looks on the faces of local whites and men deputized by Sheriff Jim Clark, who supervised the beating of Lewis. “We were marching for the right to vote and they were looking at us like we killed their children. The only thing stronger was the look of resolve on the faces of the African-American marchers. There was no turning back. The dignified determination was stronger than their hatred. They had jumped out of an airplane.”
He remembers mostly the courage of the Alabama marchers, photographed by cops as they walked, who would stay in those conditions long after young people like Hayden had departed. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965. The following year with the registration of 7000 voters, Sheriff Clark was defeated.
Hayden enrolled in Rutgers Law School in the fall of 1966 and in 1967, as part of a clerkship, volunteered in the bail program in the aftermath of the Newark riots that left 26 people dead. A year later, the assassination of King sickened him, but, he said, “It was not unexpected. Dr. King had this amazing fatalism about him.
“I did not talk or think about the Selma experience until 2008, at the Democratic Convention,” Hayden said. “I got to the stadium real early with my son Patrick and sitting there waiting for Barack Obama to speak – it was a four-hour wait – it came back to me.”
Two weeks now after reports of the police shooting death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Hayden still sees and suffers the American divide. “It appears to be horrific but it’s as President Obama said: we have much to do, but no one would want to go back to that,” said the attorney. “So much has been accomplished in the way of legal rights, and yes, there is so much left to be accomplished in the way of healing economic disparity and economic segregation. There is still a burning problem between the police and the community; in fact, the Newark riots started because of arrests and that persists to this day. I believe cameras on police officers will go a long way to alleviate this problem.
“There are too many people in jail for too lengthy prison sentences,” Hayden added. “That damages the hopes and aspirations of people, and hopeless people are dangerous people.”
He supports the prisoner reentry program headed by his friend former Governor James McGreevey in Jersey City, convinced McGreevey’s efforts will emerge as a model for the country, and every day on the forward march, Hayden nonetheless thinks back to that drive he took with a Japanese man from the far side of the globe, a stranger likewise committed to voting rights in that Alabama countryside.