Remembering Jim Clark

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Selma Times-Journal

Jim Clark, former Dallas County sheriff and fervent foe of the Selma Voting Rights Movement, died Monday in an Elba nursing home. He was 84.

Clark was catapulted into the national spotlight in the 1960s as a violent, club-wielding lawman determined to maintain status quo in the Jim Crow South.

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“I’m sorry to hear of his passing and I sincerely pray for his family and for his soul,” said U.S. Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., one of several key figures in the voting rights struggle.

“But I must remember him as being on the other side of history. He wasn’t sympathetic toward the movement for the right to vote and social justice. He harassed and intimidated many, many people engaging in peaceful, non-violent protests.

“He’s recognized as a symbol of opposition not only in Selma, but throughout the nation.”

Clark, who was appointed sheriff by former Gov. Jim Folsom Sr. in 1955, faced adversity from the start. An Elba native, he wasn’t a local son; a top public concern.

“As the years went along Jim did a pretty good job in law enforcement,” recalls former Selma Times-Journal reporter Jamie Wallace, adding Clark first established his notorious “posse” as an emergency group for natural disasters.

“But then of course the sheriff became known throughout the country, especially the Southeast, for the utilization of the posse at several civil rights hotspots,” Wallace said.

“He was a personable guy and I dealt with him from a media standpoint. He was always good for a story even prior to 1965.”

Wallace said although Clark’s tenure was littered with controversy, “he always arose as a winner.”

The Rev. F.D. Reese, who was president of the Dallas County Voters League, recalls Clark being referred to as the “vicious sheriff” who wore a “Never” button on his left lapel.

Reese believes Clark’s actions only accelerated the marchers’ mission.

“I always had a very open relationship with him because I was very frank and not afraid,” Reese said. “Certainly he played a very major role in the success of the movement because his particular reaction to our demonstration here caused the movement to be more successful.”

Richard Bailey, a Southern historian in Montgomery, agrees with Reese, and expressed his condolences to Clark’s family.

“I don’t think anyone in the Civil Rights Movement is smiling because he passed,” Bailey said.

“If it had not been for the posturing of Jim Clark, the Civil Rights Movement may not have advanced like it did. It took Jim Clark’s resistance to help the Civil Rights Movement move forward, to bring national attention to some of the wrongs perpetrated in the South,”

Bailey said.

Clark’s family, who expressed their desire for privacy, declined comment.

Prior to his Dallas County arrival, Clark served as a B-52 engineer /gunner

in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

He was a lifetime member of the Alabama Sheriff’s Boys Ranch Builders Club and the American Legion, and also served as vice president of the National Sheriffs Association and president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

When Clark lost his re-election bid in 1966, he worked selling mobile homes in and around Selma.

He eventually moved back to his hometown of Elba; ailed by a bad heart and confined to a motorized wheelchair.

In a March 2006 interview with The Montgomery Advertiser, Clark expressed no regret for the events of Bloody Sunday, when marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus in peaceful protest on March 7, 1965.

“Basically, I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again,” he said. “I did what I thought was right to uphold the law.”

Current Sheriff Harris Huffman, who was a teenager when Clark was in office, spoke of his first and only exchange with Clark on Tuesday.

Huffman said Clark’s death is “a part of history that’s closing down.”

“I talked with him on the telephone when I won my first election in ’94,” he said. “He called to congratulate me on a new era.”