SELMA, Ala. -- It was a procession of ghosts.
Returning as if through a time warp were figures from one of the darkest chapters in American history, the 1965 episode in which state troopers and sheriff's deputies attacked defenseless civil rights marchers with such violence that almost the whole nation rose up in outrage.
Only this time everything was different. Now, 35 years after ''Bloody Sunday,'' the wolves walked peaceably with the lambs, proclaiming their friendship for men they had once treated with shocking brutality. And the lambs were welcoming their one-time tormentors.
John Lewis, the civil rights leader whose skull had been fractured on Bloody Sunday, was there. So was Joe Smitherman, the mayor of Selma, who had summoned state troopers to block the voting rights march Lewis was leading. And dozens of others, brought back by memories of the time when 50 blue-helmeted troopers wielding clubs and electric cattle prods savagely attacked about 600 protesters as they knelt in prayer on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
Before that day ended, 60 people, including women and children, had been injured. Some were kicked and trampled by horses as mounted troopers and deputies commanded by Sheriff Jim Clark drove the protesters through the town -- pursuing some for more than a mile.
The violent assault on unarmed protesters who sought only to exercise rights already guaranteed them by the Constitution became one of the galvanizing events of the civil rights movement. A federal judge ordered police protection for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his freedom marchers. Public pressure forced passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which transformed the South, including Selma.
It also gave a young correspondent for the Los Angeles Times his earliest firsthand understanding of the dangers and indignities faced by King, Lewis and their cohorts.
So it was that I was drawn back here Sunday when President Clinton and a host of other dignitaries came town to commemorate the 35th anniversary of that day.
What I found was a scene at once hopeful and bizarre.
Today, 63 percent of Selma's 24,000 citizens are black, compared with 49.4 percent in 1970.
Those same voters have repeatedly helped reelect Joe Smitherman, now 70, as mayor. Like many southern politicians, including the late Gov. George C. Wallace, who dispatched the state troopers to Selma at the mayor's request, Smitherman began courting black votes immediately after passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Mayor Smitherman and Lewis, now a seven-term congressman from Georgia, describe themselves as old friends.
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And when I talked to Smitherman, he pointed proudly to the fact that 15 blacks and four whites sit on Selma's City Council today; 10 of the 15 city department heads, including the police chief, fire chief and personnel director, are black; a majority of the school board is black; both of Selma's school systems have black superintendents, and the presidents of Selma's two colleges, including the George C. Wallace Community College, are black.
Smitherman's only bow to the past is the admission that he used to be ''somewhat of a demagogue.''
For the same pragmatic reasons that led Smitherman to cultivate black voters, Selma's business community has tried to make a virtue -- or at least a salable commodity -- out of its old image as a bastion of racial hatred.
The Chamber of Commerce welcomes reporters with a press kit touting Selma as a civil rights battleground.
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Smitherman and Lewis joined in welcoming Clinton and other distinguished guests on Sunday.
Clinton walked across the Pettus bridge, named after a Confederate general, and then, speaking under sunny skies on a platform facing the downtown area, he said that ''a single day in Selma became a seminal event in American history.''
Though they encountered violence, he said, ''the marchers, thank God, would not take a detour in the road to freedom.''
Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, attended, as did Andrew Young, one of King's chief lieutenants and a former mayor of Atlanta, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Lewis said the ceremony ''was like visiting holy ground.'' As he had the morning of Bloody Sunday, Lewis began the day by preaching at Brown Chapel, the African Methodist-Episcopal church where marchers assembled; the church is now designated a National Historical Landmark.
Despite the emphasis on reconciliation in Sunday's ceremonies, being here brought memories flooding back.
King selected Selma as a focal point for voting rights demonstrations largely because it had a history of entrenched white supremacy dating back to the early 1800s when it was a center of slave trade for the cotton economy.
He also was aware that Selma offered a racist sheriff whose potential for violence could mobilize public opinion nationwide to support voting rights.
King had been leading the Selma voting rights demonstrations since Jan. 17 but was not present for the big showdown on Bloody Sunday. He had returned to Atlanta for church services. Most of the print media, including myself, had accompanied him, confident there would be no action without his presence.
We were all wrong. Later that day, we all rushed back to Selma as the television cameras, which had stayed, captured the assault on the bridge.
The graphic scenes of violence touched off demonstrations in cities around the country.
In all of this, Clark had been a ready foil for King. I can still vividly recall the sheriff, tall, beefy and red-faced, angrily confronting demonstrators at the Dallas County Courthouse and yelling at his deputies, ''Get those niggers off the courthouse steps.''
Other scenes from earlier in that turbulent period came back as well:
--A black minister who fell ill after being arrested in a demonstration shackled to his hospital bed on Clark's orders.
--Clark's deputies armed with billy clubs and cattle prods herding 400 demonstrating black children several miles into the countryside.
--Dr. King going to nearby Marion three days before Bloody Sunday to eulogize Jimmie Lee Jackson, a $6-a-day pulpwood cutter who died after being shot and then clubbed by state troopers breaking up a demonstration. Jackson was the first of four black demonstrators who would die in the Selma area during the voting rights protests.
--An irate voter registrar in neighboring Lowndes County towering over King, cursing him and blowing a cloud of pipe smoke in his face.
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But it was Jim Clark and his deputies who still dominate my memories of Selma.
Openly bigoted as he was, even Clark tried to get the black vote after the federal law was passed. Seeking reelection in 1966, Clark faced strong opposition from Wilson Baker, Selma's moderate public safety director. So he held a barbecue for blacks on the outskirts of Selma, hoping whites would not hear about it.
Civil rights activists did hear about it; they hid in the bushes and took photographs. I wrote a story for The Times saying there were more blacks in the bushes taking photos than there were blacks eating Clark's barbecue. Somebody sent the article to Clark. He was not amused.
Fists clenched and accompanied by two deputies, he encountered me in the courthouse lobby, held up the article, and declared, ''Why don't you go to hell, you lyin' son of a bitch you?''
I turned and hurriedly walked upstairs. The Baltimore Sun's Adam Clymer had been walking behind me and as he approached Clark a deputy punched him in the stomach. Clymer is now a New York Times editor in Washington.
Clark, now 77 and in ill health, was defeated. He lives in relative obscurity in Elba, Ala.
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Without question, Selma has changed dramatically since Bloody Sunday in terms of blacks' ability to vote and play leadership roles in local government. And black politicians have worked successfully with Smitherman to bring federal dollars to the town: In earlier times, few streets in black neighborhoods were paved and lighting was poor, but black leaders say federal dollars have helped change that.
Yet for all the political progress, for blacks, the economic realities of life in Selma are another matter. The city as a whole has had only limited success in sharing in the economic progress of the nation as a whole.
And if you look at those who dominate the local economy, operate its businesses and make the private-sector decisions, they remain as they were in 1965 -- overwhelmingly white.
In the last 30 years I've covered most of Washington's scandals, six presidents and impeachment proceedings against two of them, and many other major developments. For sheer drama and witnessing history in the making up close, nothing equals the five years I spent covering civil rights in the South.
But for Selma, as for much of the rest of the United States, the struggle to overcome racism and remove all vestige of it from American life -- that is a story that is not yet over.
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