Marie Foster Biography
Difficult Early Years, Registration Efforts Frustrated for Eight Years, Stood Her Ground during Historic March
Voting rights activist
The civil rights movement is known for its great leaders more than for its foot soldiers. The movement came to national attention through a series of dramatic events, but those events emerged out of pressures that had been building for years, thanks to the work of large numbers of generally unheralded individuals. Selma, Alabama's Marie Foster suffered white violence at one of the most shameful occurrences in the civil rights chronology: the Bloody Sunday attack on voting rights marchers by Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officers at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Yet Foster had begun her personal struggle against the suppression of black voting rights several years before that, gaining support from just a few fellow activists at first. Some organizers, according to the New York Times, called her "the mother of the voting rights movement."
Difficult Early Years
Although she faced the same kinds of harassment and the same threats of violence as her better-known male colleagues, Marie Foster's life is touched on only briefly in histories of the civil rights era. She was born Marie Priscilla Martin on October 24, 1917, near Alberta, Alabama, in Wilcox County. Foster's early years were spent in the countryside, but her mother dreamed of an education for her children. When Foster's father refused to move to a town where the children could be enrolled in school, her mother responded by spiriting them away to Selma and doing just that.
Foster didn't pursue her education to the fullest extent at first. She dropped out of high school, got married, raised three children, and worked at low-level jobs for some years after her husband's death. Eventually she completed high school, graduating after her daughter Rose, and then went on to junior college and studied to become a dental hygienist. After she finished her studies, she was hired by her brother, Dr. Sullivan Jackson.
In the early 1960s, Foster became inspired by the spirit of resistance that was spreading among African Americans across the South. "I decided to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement because the race relations were so bad in Selma," she recalled in a statement quoted on the Web site of Selma's Voting Rights Museum. "I had a vision that we could do something about the bias conditions in Selma, the state, and someday the world." The movement, which took off in larger cities and on historically black college campuses, was just beginning to make an impact in Selma. Voter registration figures told the story: in 1961, out of about 15,000 eligible black voters in Selma and surrounding Dallas County, only 156 were registered. Only 14 new black voters had been added to the rolls since 1954.
Registration Efforts Frustrated for Eight Years
Foster herself attempted to register to vote on numerous occasions, but each time officials found a new reason to turn her registration down. Black applicants had to pass literacy tests and perform outlandishly difficult feats, such as knowing the number of words in the United States Constitution, and the final decision lay with an individual and invariably white registrar. "They were not registering teachers, doctors, or any professionals," Foster told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1991. After eight years, Foster received the treasured postcard informing her that she was a registered voter, and she resolved to pass her knowledge on to others. Early in 1963, she began offering literacy and citizenship classes in Selma.
It was tough going at first. Even though she had advertised the classes in mailings sent to Selma's black churches, she had a grand total of one student enrolled in her first class, a 70-year-old man whom she taught to write his own name. But two people came to the next class, and four to the one after that. Soon, drawn by the chance to meet voting rights organizer Bernard "Little Gandhi" Lafayette, a crowd of 14 showed up. Before long, Foster's classes were incubators for activism beyond Selma; she sent graduates to a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) training site near Savannah, Georgia. She found copies of old tests that had been used to frustrate blacks' voting ambitions, and she turned them into study guides.
Foster was one of the creators of the Dallas County Voters League, a group of black citizens who demanded improvements in the voter registration process. This group's central steering committee of eight members became known as the "Courageous Eight," a term that Foster herself may have coined. Others, however, sometimes referred to them as the "Crazy Eight," and indeed they seemed to be up against formidable odds. One member of the group was fired from his job and faced false embezzlement charges. Foster, employed by her brother, enjoyed some insulation from such pressures. But Selma's white power structure soon began to sit up and take notice of what was happening. Foster's life was threatened more than once by the Ku Klux Klan. In July of 1964, Dallas County Circuit Court Judge James Hare issued an order that prohibited blacks from meeting in groups of three or more to discuss civil rights. Foster and her cohorts, including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer and future U.S. Representative John Lewis, were the direct target of the injunction, for their meetings over the past year had drawn as many as 350 people.
Stood Her Ground during Historic March
After demonstrations began and grew in Selma in 1963 and 1964, Foster became one of the key local contacts for the SCLC and SNCC. She worked on various fronts as she and the Dallas County Voters League pondered how to respond to Hare's order. Foster and another activist met with Selma Times-Journal publisher Roswell Falkenberry to try to persuade him to discontinue the paper's separate "colored" edition and instead integrate news of African Americans into its usual run. Finally, Foster and the rest of the Courageous Eight, in December of 1964, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to support the cause of voting rights there—a direct violation of the court's injunction, and a decisive step that in the opinion of many historians led ultimately to the passage of the epochal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King, who may have been thinking along the same lines himself, responded with a concerted effort to make Selma the next front in the civil rights battle. Foster dismissed any fear that local activists might lose control over what was happening now that Selma had been thrust into the national spotlight, telling author Stephen L. Longenecker that she "was just so glad to have 'em [the SCLC]." King's effort culminated on the March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday march, planned to extend from Selma to Montgomery, 50 miles away. At the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Foster was clubbed, leaving her hobbled with swollen knees. "It was a trooper who hit me," she recalled in a United Press International interview quoted in the New York Times. "I lay on the pavement with my eyes closed. I didn't move. I stood my ground." Despite her injuries, Foster returned to the streets with other demonstrators on March 9. That march was also stopped by police, but without violence.
The forces of white recalcitrance won that skirmish against the power of King's nonviolent resistance, but they were fast losing the war. Public opinion became galvanized against the segregationists as Americans watched Southern police brutality unfold on their television screens, and on March 11, President Lyndon Johnson announced his support for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an omnibus measure outlawing many of the practices that Foster had spent years fighting against. Fittingly, it was in Foster's living room that King watched Johnson's speech on television.
The twice-delayed march from Selma to Montgomery was finally allowed to begin on March 21, and Foster, still suffering from her injuries, became one of only two women to complete it. The vest she wore on the march, bearing autographs from prominent civil rights leaders, later became part of the displays of Selma's National Voting Rights Institute and Museum, which she helped to found. "Oooh, I would be so tired by the end of everyday," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "We stayed in tents. It rained every day, and there was lots of mud."
Remained Active in Selma
Foster remained active in the years after the Selma marches. She continued to work toward the goal of equal opportunity, confronting longtime Selma mayor Joe Smitherman on issues ranging from public housing, to the conduct of white bus drivers, to the removal of a park statue commemorating a Ku Klux Klan member. And she continued to work to register black voters, first as a deputy registrar. During one of several campaigns in which black candidates unsuccessfully attempted to dislodge Smitherman (he was finally defeated by black candidate James Perkins Jr. in 2000), Foster was temporarily removed from her post after unspecified registration irregularities occurred; she believed that the action was taken merely because she had been so successful in registering new voters. In the end, she was appointed to the Dallas County Board of Registrars—the same entity that had worked for so long to frustrate the civic aspirations of Foster and other African Americans. In 1984 Foster worked on the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Until the end, Foster taught children to read in a classroom near her home, and she volunteered to drive underprivileged children to Sunday school. She met President Bill Clinton at the Voting Rights Museum in the year 2000. On September 6, 2003, at the age of 85, she died in Selma after a short illness. "Even in her old age, she could still outwork the young activists of today," Mayor Perkins was quoted by the Associated Press. Selma attorney J. L Chestnut Jr. added, "It was lost on the public…that prior to Bloody Sunday, Mother Marie Foster—through her citizenship classes and her fiery stances at the courthouse—had actually added more black voters than all the marching and demonstrations together had produced."
Branch, Taylor, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Longenecker, Stephen, Selma's Peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Rights Mediation, Temple University Press, 1987.
Associated Press, September 10, 2003.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 16, 1991, p. A3.
Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 1995, p. 1.
Demopolis Times, September 27, 2004.
Jet, September 29, 2003, p. 56.
New York Times, September 12, 2003, p. B11.
Selma Times-Journal, March 5, 2000.
Washington Informer, January 22, 1997, p. 19.
Washington Post, February 8, 1984, p. A2; September 13, 2003, p. B6.
"Selma civil rights icon dies at 85," Ledger-Enquirer, http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/mld/ledgerenquirer/2003/08/13/news/local/6737929.htm (September 10, 2003).
—James M. Manheim