Andrew Young, Jr. in Pasadena: We Interrupt this Program

Because Dr. King wasn't there, police brutalized Selma marchers and America witnessed the truth on TV.

3 mins read
people being beaten by police
Bloody Sunday in Selma, March 7, 1965. Photo: FBI

When former UN Ambassador Andrew Young Jr. and Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. visited Pasadena for a February 2018 reception honoring leaders of the Civil Rights movement, there was no network television coverage of the event.

There were no truncheon-wielding police officers wearing gas masks in attendance. There were, probably, no FBI agents photographing the attendees for their Department of Justice files. There were no horses or police dogs. There were just 250 Pasadena citizens, braving the cold at the outdoor event and clinging to every word the two civil rights leaders spoke.

Things were fundamentally different on the road from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th, 1965. The day would become infamous as Bloody Sunday, and an improbable series of events turned that particular Alabama state trooper riot into a major turning point in American history.

During his Pasadena visit, Young was interviewed by Sheryl Turner and described three factors that turned the brutal beat-down of peaceful Black voting rights marchers into a national symbol of racial hatred.

“The main one was the march from Selma to Montgomery was on the wrong day,” said Young. “We had it (scheduled) for the second Sunday in March, and everybody around Selma believed March 7th was the second Sunday. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other preachers weren’t there because they were in their pulpits for the first Sunday.”

“At first, (King and the preachers) wanted us to stop the march to wait for them,” recalled Young. “I said we have 300 people here who came to march. I had seen the policemen down at the bottom (of the road leading from the Edmund Pettus Bridge) and I said if we march we’re not gonna get far. They’re gonna turn us around right after we get to the bridge, and they may arrest some of (the marchers). But Martin said ‘Well, don’t you get arrested. You have to be around.’ Dr. King told us not to be in the front of the line. He wanted us to wait ’til he came.”

“But if he had been there,” said Young, “President Johnson would have had the Justice Department, the Community Relations Service, everybody there, and there never would have been the craziness that happened. Because Dr. King wasn’t there, none of the federal people were there to restrain the Alabama state troopers. They began throwing tear gas from horseback and started beating people.”

The second factor was there was a TV news crew filming the beatings. “So it was going to be on television,” said Young.

That evening, the ABC network was scheduled to broadcast the TV premiere of Stanley Kramer’s film Judgment at Nuremberg, a fictionalization of the post-World War II Nazi trials. The movie featured a star-studded cast including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift.

By the time the news footage from Selma was ready for network broadcast, the movie was well underway. ABC decided to break into the film with the “We interrupt this program…” alert used by the network to signal a major news occurrence. That decision turned out to be the final improbable factor.

An estimated 48 million people had tuned in to watch the Academy Award-winning film.

“It was the (TV) premiere of the movie, which meant that all of the liberal-conscious people were watching Judgment at Nuremberg. Everybody had to see it,” recalled Young. “And they saw (the brutality of) Nazi Germany and Selma, together. We had an international response after that.”

Televised images of the attack presented Americans with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 were treated for lesser injuries. The brutal images splashed across television screens and the next day’s front pages of newspapers roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

“That would not have happened if things had gone as we planned,” said Young.

Ultimately, the larger prize was President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that summer.

Both Young and Lafayette worked with Dr. King on civil rights issues until his assassination on April 4th, 1968.

According to Lafayette, Dr. King’s last words to him were, “It is crucial to institutionalize and internationalize non-violence.”

Phil is the Associate Publisher of Local News Pasadena. He is a 35-year resident of the city and his favorite local delicacy is the Combo Grinder at Connal's.
Email: [email protected]

Sheryl is Local News Pasadena's Publisher and Pasadena Media Foundation's Founder. When not saving local news, she devotes her spare time to finding the best meatloaf in town.
Email: [email protected]

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  1. Thank you Sheryl for your kind and thoughtful note. Ambassador Young was honored to be in Pasadena. Hope we will see you soon.
    Gaurav Kumar
    President | Andrew J. Young Foundation

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