Monday, Jan. 18, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A day when we remember the extraordinary civil rights leader and the enormous impact he had.
One of the people King had a huge impact on was Byron Knutson, 91, of Bismarck.
Knutson grew up in the small North Dakota town of Harlow, near Devils Lake. It was far away from a sizable community of African Americans, and very far away from the segregated South, where Black Americans were degraded, humiliated and had few rights.
Knutson started thinking about racial injustice in the 1950s when he was a Marine sergeant serving in the Korean War. Three of his closest companions in the war were Black Americans from Louisiana and South Carolina. They lived together, ate together and fought together.
“These men served our nation honorably,” Knutson said. “However, when they returned to their home states, they did not have the right to vote even though they had been willing to give their lives in defense of our nation’s actions. What an injustice. … I vowed to one day try to help people like these good young men.”
After the war, Knutson started following the news accounts from the Jim Crow South.
“I was angry with how Blacks were treated,” Knutson said. “It was dreadful that in many states, segregation kept them from attending schools of their choice, from living and working wherever was best for them, from shopping at stores, from being served at lunch counters, from sitting wherever they wished in public transportation and from using a bathroom unless it was marked Black or Colored.”
Knutson read and watched news stories about King and was inspired by the young, charismatic Baptist minister from Atlanta. King led such events as the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, always preaching nonviolent protests.
It was during the March on Washington that King delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream" speech. Knutson saw it and was moved.
In Alabama and other southern states, Black Americans were denied the right to vote. Sometimes they were given a poll tax they couldn’t pay, a literacy test they couldn’t pass or were simply rejected without explanation. Black people trying to register to vote risked being beaten, arrested or fired from their jobs.
So, in 1965, King announced there would be a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Knutson enthusiastically volunteered to participate.
“When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon the nation’s clergy and lay people to support the rights of African Americans and all people to vote without fear of losing their lives, I was ready to do my part,” Knutson said. “I had seen the dreadful reports of the killings of innocent Blacks by hatemongers such as KKK members and the trampling of civil rights marchers by Southern police. … It was unthinkable that North Dakota would not be represented in this all-important call by Reverend King.”
Actually, Knutson signed up to take part in the third march. The first two ended in tragedy. The first march was on March 7, 1965. During that event, Alabama State Troopers beat the unarmed marchers with billy clubs, shoved them and fired tear gas at them. It became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Two days later, they tried marching again but turned back. That night, three of the white marchers were attacked and beaten with clubs by four members of the KKK. One of the victims, James Reeb, was killed.
So, Knutson, then 35, knew the potential dangers he was facing when he took a 10-day leave from his job at the Soo Line Railroad and headed to Selma along with Frank Woodall, a pastor at the Oberon, N.D., Swedish Lutheran Church.
They were advised not to drive a car with North Dakota license plates to Alabama. Thus, they drove 16 hours to Nashville, then took a train to Montgomery and then were picked up in a station wagon for the ride to Selma. They were joined in the car by a young Black man who was going to march in honor of his uncle, who was recently lynched.
“Upon boarding the station wagon, the driver told us to keep our heads low,” Knutson said. “No raising of our heads, no talking. We obeyed, but through a slit in a curtain, we viewed police, whips in hand, mounted on white horses near us.”
A couple of days before the march, Knutson and 70 others were walking through a white neighborhood in Selma.
“Suddenly, curtains closed on the windows of residents and police appeared,” Knutson said. “They tapped on each of our shoulders, telling us we were being arrested for our own safety. We were ushered to our buses and brought to prison. Since the prison was full, we were incarcerated in what appeared to be an old warehouse where we were kept for the night.”
The next day, they went to the courthouse with local Black citizens so they could register to vote.
“We were told the registrar was just not available,” Knutson said. “Was the registrar suddenly unavailable because Black citizens were coming to legally be registered to vote? It was dismaying to witness this act against them.”
On March 21, 1965, it was time for the third march. This time, the walkers were to be protected by the Alabama National Guard, which had been federalized by President Lyndon Johnson.
“We were instructed in methods of nonviolent action to assure that the march would be peaceful,” Knutson said. “March organizers asked for persons who had been in the military and had experience in dealing with crowds to come forth to help in making sure that the thousands of marchers walked peacefully, and to assist the marchers if they needed it. I volunteered.”
So, led by King, Knutson and 8,000 peaceful participants started walking 54 miles to Montgomery.
“It was a joyful march,” Knutson said. “I was in charge of several lines of marchers. I made sure that marchers stayed in formation, with no one wandering off the designated road. We looked out for those who needed extra help and assisted them in finding food, first aid and latrines. … The marchers were kind, cooperative, serious and determined souls, dedicated to bringing voting rights to African Americans. I felt blessed to be able to help them in this epic time.”
Many onlookers shouted ugly slurs at the walkers.
“We reminded marchers that they were instructed to disregard critical comments that were shouted at them,” Knutson said. “My responsibilities required a positive, kind bravery that had no time for fear.”
Four days after the start of the march, 25,000 joyful walkers arrived at the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery. The joy turned to grief that night. One of the marchers, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit, was shot dead by the Klan.
Still, the march received extensive news coverage, and the powerful images strongly influenced public opinion. Soon, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and President Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965. Shortly afterwards, millions of Black Americans registered to vote.
“I am proud that I took part in the March for Voting Rights,” Knutson said. “It is one of the most important events of my life, in that it promoted the right for all of us to vote in our nation’s elections.”
Knutson went on to serve in the North Dakota House of Representatives, as North Dakota Insurance Commissioner and as North Dakota Labor Commissioner. In his office at home, there’s a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall that Knutson proudly displays.
“Martin Luther King Jr. continues to be the most inspirational leader of human and civil rights of our time,” Knutson said. “His messages of love, kindness and nonviolence, and of commitment of furthering the rights of all people, are as true today as they were when we marched 55 years ago.”