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After the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson during the voter registration drive by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) it was decided to dramatize the need for a federal registration law. With the help of Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), leaders of the SCCC organised a protest march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. The first march on 1st February, 1965, led to the arrest of 770 people. A second march, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, on 7th March, was attacked by mounted police. The sight of state troopers using nightsticks and tear gas was filmed by television cameras and the event became known as Bloody Sunday.
Martin Luther King led another march of 1,500 people two days later. After crossing the Pettus Bridge the marchers were faced by a barricade of state troopers. King disappointed many of his younger followers when he decided to turn back in order to avoid a confrontation with the troopers. Soon afterwards, one of white ministers on the march, James J. Reeb, was murdered.
President Lyndon B. Johnson now decided to take action and sent troops, marshals and FBI Agents to protect the protesters. On Thursday, 25th March, King led 25,000 people to the Alabama State Capitol and handed a petition to Governor George Wallace, demanding voting rights for African Americans. That night, the Ku Klux Klan killed Viola Liuzzo while returning from the march.
On 6th August, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. This removed the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Johnson explained how: "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes." The legislation now empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list.
Now I would like to ask one question to the white citizens of Alabama. How long can you continue to afford the luxury of a political system and public officials who by their rigidity and vulgar racism have today been responsible for bringing in federally controlled troops. Who today and even more so tomorrow will cost this state millions of dollars of federal funds for programs of education, health, welfare, agriculture, etc. Who have discouraged dozens of industries from coming into this state. How long, how long will you continue to be the victims of this self-defeating folly? I say you cannot afford this luxury.
The chief function of the current Negro movement has been to awaken a nation's conscience.
Such an awakening is painful. It may take years to peel away the layers of self-deception that shut out reality. But there are moments during this process when the senses of an entire nation become suddenly sharper, when pain pours in and the resulting outrage turns to action. One of these moments came, not on Sunday, March 7, when a group of Negroes at Selma were gassed, clubbed and trampled by horses, but on the following day when films of the event appeared on national television.
The pictures were not particularly good. With the cameras rather far removed from the action and the skies partly overcast everything that happened took on the quality of an old newsreel. Yet this very quality, vague and half silhouetted, gave the scene the vehemence and immediacy of a dream. The TV screen showed a column of Negroes standing along a highway. A force of Alabama state troopers blocked their way. As the Negroes drew to a halt, a toneless voice drawled an order from a loudspeaker: In the interests of "public safety," the marchers were being told to turn back. A few moments passed, measured out in silence, as some of the troopers covered their faces with gas masks. There was a lurching movement on the left side of the screen; a heavy phalanx of troopers charged straight into the column, bowling the marchers over.
A shrill cry of terror, unlike any sound that had passed through a TV set, rose up as the troopers lumbered forward, stumbling sometimes on fallen bodies. The scene cut to charging horses, their hoofs flashing over the fallen. Another quick cut: a cloud of tear gas billowed over the highway. Periodically the top of a helmeted head emerged from the cloud, followed by a club on the upswing. The club and the head would disappear into the cloud of gas and another club would bob up and down.
Unhuman. No other word can describe the motions. The picture shifted quickly to a Negro church. The bleeding, broken and unconscious passed across the screen, some of them limping alone, others supported on either side, still others carried in arms or on stretchers. It was at this point that my wife, sobbing, turned and walked away, saying, "I can't look any more."
There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.
Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight. President Johnson rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation.
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. From Montgomery to Birmingham, from Birmingham to Selma, from Selma back to Montgomery, a trail wound in a circle and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but the evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state.
So I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.
Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.
These Iconic Photos Of The 1965 Selma March Give A Powerful Glimpse Of The Historic Protest
The racial tension that gripped Alabama in the 1960s resulted in some of the most iconic moments of the Civil Rights movement that have been captured and retold over time.
The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was arguably one of the more historic events -- and it has prompted renewed focus on and awareness of the incredible fight for voting rights, most recently retold through the lens of director Ava Duvernay and her film “Selma.”
Now, another artist also aims to share additional insight from the front lines of the same protest, which marked a peak moment in the fight for racial equality and social justice.
Photographer Stephen Somerstein chronicled the Selma demonstration through a series of images that authentically portray the events that took place over the course of the 54-mile march.
“When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera,” said Somerstein, who was then the managing editor and picture editor of the City College of New York student newspaper.
Somerstein took more than 400 photos during the five-day march. A special showcase at the New-York Historical Society, which was on display last year, includes a selection of 46 of the iconic images.
Meanwhile, the historical society has shared a few of the photos of the march exclusively with The Huffington Post to give you a glimpse of the reality at the time and the powerful moments that took place:
Selma to Montgomery March
On 25 March 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights. King told the assembled crowd: “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes” (King, Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, 121).
On 2 January 1965 King and SCLC joined SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in a voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls. SCLC had chosen to focus its efforts in Selma because they anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would attract national attention and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.
The campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the first month. That changed in February, however, when police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased. On the night of 18 February, Alabama state troopers joined local police breaking up an evening march in Marion. In the ensuing melee, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion, as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out on 7 March to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. While King was in Atlanta, his SCLC colleague Hosea Williams and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march. The marchers made their way through Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen commanded by Clark and Major John Cloud, who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. Cheered on by white onlookers, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.
Television coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” as the event became known, triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten on the head, said: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma” (Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas”).
That evening King began a blitz of telegrams and public statements “calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us on Tuesday in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom” (King, 7 March 1965). While King and Selma activists made plans to retry the march again two days later, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson notified movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least 11 March, and President Johnson pressured King to call off the march until a federal court order could provide protection to the marchers.
Forced to consider whether to disobey the pending court order, after consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of 9 March. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice, to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery, but the restraint gained support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: “Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote” (Johnson, “Statement by the President”). Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.
That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama. Johnson personally telephoned his condolences to Reeb’s widow and met with Alabama Governor George Wallace, pressuring him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage.
On 15 March Johnson addressed Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome” (Johnson, “Special Message”). The following day Selma demonstrators submitted a detailed march plan to Judge Johnson, who approved the demonstration and enjoined Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers. On 17 March Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.
The federally sanctioned march left Selma on 21 March. Protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the demonstrators covered between 7 to 17 miles per day. Camping at night in supporters’ yards, they were entertained by celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a stretch of two-lane highway, the number of demonstrators swelled on the last day to 25,000, accompanied by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others.
During the final rally, held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man” (King, “Address,” 130). Afterward a delegation of march leaders attempted to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, but were rebuffed. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Doar later prosecuted three Klansmen for conspiring to violate her civil rights.
On 6 August, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling “the outrage of Selma,” Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men” (Johnson, “Remarks”). In his annual address to SCLC a few days later, King noted that “Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960 Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965” (King, 11 August 1965).
These Rare Photos of the Selma March Place You in the Thick of History
James Barker was a technical photographer, working with Washington State University's Division of Industrial Research in Pullman, Washington, when he received an unexpected phone call from a colleague: the university had pulled emergency funds together to send three representatives to Selma, Alabama, in anticipation of the third march organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The WSU group would join tens of thousands of others from around the country, compelled to join King and civil rights marchers after the violent outcome of the first march, dubbed Bloody Sunday, had left 17 marchers injured at the hands of state and local police. Barker, who spent his weekends and vacations conducting photographic studies of people (migrant workers in Yakima, for instance, or a redevelopment area in San Francisco) had been shortlisted. If he were selected to attend the march, his colleague told him, he'd be on a plane that evening bound for the Deep South.
"I was aware of the kind of violence that was pictured of the attempt of the first march, but of course, it was a long ways away," Barker says. "It all happened extraordinarily quickly. The first thing I did [after the call] was go to the refrigerator and see if there was enough film. I was operating in an utter frenzy, wondering what to carry in order to be able to be portable and move very quickly."
Later that day, Barker found out that he had been selected by the university to travel to Selma. In preparing to head to Alabama, Barker chose his photography equipment carefully, optimizing for simplicity and ease of movement. He took a single Leica with a moderate wide angle lens, which allowed him to take photographs up-close, from inside the march. "My involvement was more of a participant observer, not a press person looking from the outside thinking what kind of story can a photo generate," he says.
Barker and his colleagues arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, the Saturday before the march—which would end up being the third attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. A pair of volunteers, both black, drove the all-white group from the airport to Selma throughout the march, volunteers were dispatched to shuttle people (as well as supplies) between Montgomery, Selma and various march sites.
"As we were driving, I was thinking 'When does the photography start?' I looked out of the car at the back and noticed there was a state trooper following us. I pulled out my camera ready to take a photograph, and the driver, who was black, said 'I wish you wouldn't do that, we don't want anything to happen that would prompt them to stop us.' His wife or girlfriend said, 'Those who protect us we fear.'" Barker says. "I thought, 'My god, that's quite a statement.' It's such a different world than what we grew up in on the West Coast."
Barker and his colleagues were taken to Brown Chapel, in Selma, where the march was being organized. He began taking photographs in earnest when they arrived at the chapel and continued to quietly snap photographs throughout the remainder of his time in Alabama, which stretched from the day before the march left Selma to the Wednesday when they reached Montgomery (Barker participated on the first day of the march as well as the last). "Wednesday morning I went out and rejoined the march," Barker says, which had dwindled to 300 people through rural Alabama as per an agreement between organizers and the state. "As I got out of the car, it was an absolute deluge of rain, and here were the thousands of people that had already joined the marchers coming through the rain."
Wednesday night, he snapped his final photograph of the march: a group of teenagers singing. "I really felt that that particular picture of the kids was a highlight of all that had transpired," Barker says.
When he returned to Pullman, Barker immediately processed the film. "I looked at the contact sheets," he says, "and I thought 'Did I really make it? Do I have anything worthwhile?'" The contact sheets sat untouched for over a week, until Barker decided to hurriedly print 74 images, which he hung up in the WSU library. By that time, though, the school year had ended, and the majority of students had left campus.
For years, the photographs traveled throughout the country, hanging on walls of churches and museums. Five years ago, the photographs found their way to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, and a few years after that, during a show in Arizona, attracted the attention of a New York art gallery. This March, the photos will head to New York City for a show at the Kasher Gallery.
Nearly 50 years after the march, Barker, who says he is best known today for his photographs of Eskimos in Alaska—took time to answer a few questions from Smithsonian.com.
In photographing the marches and documenting this piece of history, did you have a particular approach in mind? What did you hope to capture in your images?
What I do, through all of my work, is try to carve out personalities of people and interactions—anything possible to show the emotions of who people are and their involvement with each other.
That was the whole attempt. I wasn't conscious of trying to say anything other than 'Here are the people that are involved in this.' During the march there were people on the side standing there glaring at the marchers, and there are a couple of pictures of cars that drove by, and I wanted to cover that hostility so that it shows the environment. But I always just look for who the people are. That has always been my primary goal.
My photographs dwell on individuals, and it takes a number of my pictures for people to understand the message of it.
How did the experience of the march compare with your expectations of how it would be?
When we arrived at Brown chapel, they said that it's safest to remain in that area. That was quite a shock. There was a feeling of this almost kind of utopia of people who were all there with a single purpose in mind, having to do with the march, and yet a few blocks away was this ring where there was a question of safety.
When I was taken up to Montgomery, in the church near the capitol, I looked up and saw the capitol just completely ringed by state police. I didn't leave the church because of the feeling of not knowing what the safety of the environment was it was real clear I would be seen as an outsider.
As a photographer, how did the people participating in the march react to your presence?
I was operating, as I oft do, as a participant observer. I was there in the middle of the march, carrying a backpack, at times chatting with people, but there were other people there also taking snapshots.
Throughout my life, as I've been photographing situations, something has happened that I really can't entirely explain. Often, I'll be photographing in an event, and when people see the pictures, they'll say, 'This is amazing, I didn’t even know you were there.' I’m 6'2, it's a little surprising that I can mill around in the middle of people and photograph people rather closely and intimately without their seeming to know that I’m there.
I try to work very quickly, capturing moments of interaction and expression, but at the same time, purposely try to avoid making eye contact. If you don't make eye contact, people don't seem to be aware that you're there.
The whole thing was just to be in the middle of a crowd of people and photograph, and not in any way to intrude.
Decades after the march—the movie Selma has come out, there have been more contemporary marches dealing with more recent injustices foisted upon black communities in America—what can we learn from looking back at this moment in these photographs?
Two summers ago, I decided to reprint the exhibit, because it's been recognized that the original prints have considerable historic value, and we decided that we would never exhibit them again. I was reprinting the exhibit in the middle of the summer at the time when the Supreme Court decision came down and gutted one of the major parts of the Voter's Rights Act, and immediately states—including Alabama—changed their laws, which in effect becomes voter suppression.
All I feel I can do is try to put the human element into this—who the people are, that they’re not anonymous people that were very much involved in the march and the demonstrations. Just trying to humanize the whole thing.
Selma to Montgomery March
Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965
That morning that I woke up and. it was very misty and the Alabama National Guard had been federalized to protect us on this walk. This was my 15th birthday. I have never in my life been as frightened as I was on that day. Lynda Lowery
Pettus, Peter, photographer Library of Congress: LC-DIG-ppmsca-08102
Until 1965, counties in Alabama used preventive measures in order to prevent African-Americans from registering to vote. Because of this, only 2% percent of the African-American population of Dallas County at that time was able to vote and 0% in Lowndes County. However, civil rights activists began to protest in Selma in order to bring attention to this injustice. These protests were often met by violence from the local sheriff's department, leaving many wondering what was going to happen next.
The First March: Bloody SundayOrigins of the Selma to Montgomery Marches
On March 7, approximately 600 non-violent protestors, the vast majority being African-American, departed from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma with the intent on marching 54-miles to Montgomery, as a memorial to Jimmy Lee Jackson and to protest for voter's rights. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, they were met by a column of State Troopers and local volunteer officers of the local sheriff's department who blocked their path.
The non-violent protesters were told by Maj. John Cloud that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the Law Enforcement Officers with nightsticks and teargas. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time.
The attack caused outrage around the country, and March 7 became known as "Bloody Sunday".
The Second March: Turnaround Tuesday
Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a "symbolic" march to the bridge. This time they decided to turn back and not risk a violent confrontation. The Reverend Jim MacDonell remembered the day in his oral history:
And it took about an hour to get everybody lined up and start the march out of town because the Edmund Pettus Bridge is about a half mile out of town. And, of course, we walked across the bridge and over the top of the bridge and down the other side. As we came down the highway, we looked across the highway, and there as far as we could see were flashing lights and police cars and helmeted troopers carrying shotguns blocking the way. It was very ominus. Dr. King got on a bullhorn, which he borrowed from Major Lingo of the Alabama police, and he said, “Folks, we’re going to have to stop. And we have been assured that we can kneel for a moment of prayer, which will be led by the right Reverend John Wesley Lord, the Methodist bishop of Washington D.C. And so we all, 2000 people going back up over the bridge, all knelt down on the pavement. I was up only about 10 feet from the front. And as I was kneeling there, all of a sudden I heard, “Oh Lord our God…” And it was not John Welsley Lord, it was my Presbyterian friend, the New York Abner Presbyterian Church. And he prayed. That was dear Dr. Docherty. He was a great man. He prayed for the people of Selma. He prayed for the governor of Alabama. He prayed for the troopers. He prayed for peace and reconciliation. It was very moving. We were very emotional. But they were the right, the right words were said."
That evening, three Unitarian ministers who had traveled to Selma in order to join the protest were attacked by a group of white hooligans. On March 11, Rev. James Reeb, died from his injuries.
Then civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., weighed the right of mobility against the right to march and ruled in favor of the demonstrators. "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups. " said Judge Johnson, "and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways."
The Third Marchthe route from Selma to Montgomery
The civil rights protestors sought and received an injunction for a third march, which was granted by Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. on March 17. On Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong. Only this third march, which began on March 21, reached the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.
Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965--the best possible redress of grievances.
Selma-to-Montgomery march timeline
The 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march celebrates a series of peaceful protests carried out against often extreme violence that resulted in one of the most momentous pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history — the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Here are some of the major events in that struggle.
1962-1963 - Representatives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee come to Selma and begin staging protests.
Oct. 7, 1963 - In what would be known as "Freedom Day," about 350 blacks line up to register to vote at the Dallas County Courthouse. Registrars go as slowly as possible and take a two-hour lunch break. Few manage to register, most of those are denied, but the protest is considered a huge victory by civil rights advocates.
July 9, 1964 - Dallas County Circuit Court Judge James Hare issues an injunction effectively forbidding gatherings of three or more people to discuss civil rights or voter registration in Selma.
Dec. 28, 1964 - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presents the SCLC plan, the "Project for an Alabama Political Freedom Movement," a plan conceived by James Bevel that calls for mass action and voter registration attempts in Selma and Dallas County
Jan. 2, 1965 - King begins his Selma campaign when about 700 African Americans show up for a meeting at Brown Chapel in defiance of the injunction.
Jan. 18, 1965 - Black civil rights advocates meet at Brown Chapel. Following speeches and prayers, King and John Lewis lead 300 marchers out of the church. Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker allows them to march in small groups to the courthouse to register despite Hare's injunction, but Sheriff Jim Clark has them line up in an alley beside the courthouse, where they are out of sight, and leaves them there. None is registered.
Jan. 19, 1965 - Protestors return to the courthouse to register and demand to remain at the front of the building. Clark arrests them, including Hosea Williams of the SCLC, Lewis of the SNCC and Amelia Boynton
Jan. 22, 1965 - Since local teachers can be fired, few have taken overt roles in the civil rights movement, but Margaret Moore and the Rev. F.D. Reese, who is also a teacher at Hudson High, organize the unprecedented teachers' march. Almost every black teacher in Selma — 110 of them — marches to register to vote. Clark and his deputies push them down the courthouse stairs three times, but they are not arrested.
Jan. 25, 1965 - King leads another march of about 250 people to the courthouse. When Clark painfully twists the arm of Annie Lee Cooper, 54, and shoves her, she slugs him — twice.
Feb. 1, 1965 - King and Ralph Abernathy lead a protest and refuse to break into smaller groups. Both are arrested and placed in the Selma jail, and refuse to be bonded out.
Feb. 4, 1965 - One day after addressing students at Tuskegee Institute, Malcolm X speaks to a crowd at Brown Chapel, carefully avoiding speaking about his previous differences with King concerning non-violence.
Feb. 4, 1965 - President Lyndon Johnson makes his first public statement supporting the Selma campaign
Feb. 6, 1965 - President Johnson says he will urge Congress to enact a voting rights bill during the session
February 1965 - Gov. George C. Wallace bans nighttime demonstrations in Selma and Marion, and assigns 75 troopers to enforce it.
Feb. 18, 1965 - State troopers attack marchers during a protest in Marion. State trooper James Bonard Fowler shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old deacon of the St. James Baptist Church. Fowler was charged with murder in 2007. He pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in 2010, when he was 67, saying he thought Jackson had been reaching for a weapon. He was sentenced to six months, but was released after five because of failing health.
March 5, 1965 - King flies to Washington to speak with President Johnson about the Voting Rights Bill. Then announces the plan for a massive march from Selma to Montgomery.
March 6, 1965 - Alabama whites, calling themselves the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, come to Selma to march in support of black rights. Klan members have followed them into town to protest their march, and the demonstration breaks up as it is clear violence is about to break out.
March 7, 1965 - In what would become known as "Bloody Sunday," John Lewis and Hosea Williams lead about 600 people on what is intended to be a march from Selma to Montgomery. But Alabama state troopers, some on horseback, and Clark and his deputies meet the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the marchers refuse to disperse, they are driven back with billy clubs and tear gas, with 16 being hospitalized and at least 50 others injured. The national coverage of the event galvanizes the country, and King calls for volunteers from throughout the nation to come to Selma for another march on March 9.
March 8, 1965 - Fred Gray and the SCLC file Hosea Williams v George Wallace before U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. in Montgomery, asking the court to prevent state troopers from blocking the march. Wallace representatives argue that the march should be blocked because it would block roadways, interfering with state commerce and transportation and be a threat to public safety. Johnson, concerned about the safety of the marchers, says the march should be put off until the court can hold a formal hearing and make a decision.
March 9, 1965 - Martin Luther King Jr. leads another march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. About 2,000 people, more than half of them white and about a third members of the clergy, participate in the second march. King leads the march to the bridge, then tells the protestors to disperse. The march becomes known as Turnaround Tuesday.
March 9, 1965 - James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who had come from Boston and marched in the protest earlier in the day, is beaten severely by KKK members. He dies of head injuries two days later at the age of 38.
March 11, 1965 - Upset with the way the SCLC is handling things in Selma, James Forman and much of the SNCC staff move to Montgomery and begin a series of demonstrations. The group also asks for students from across the country to join them. Tuskegee Institute students come to Montgomery in an attempt to deliver a petition to Wallace.
March13, 1965 - President Johnson meets with Wallace to decry the brutality surrounding the protests and asks him to mobilize the Alabama National Guard to protect demonstrators.
March 14, 1965 - SNCC staff members lead 400 Alabama State University students, joined by a group of white students from across the country, on a march from the ASU campus to the Capitol. Although Montgomery police react peacefully to the march, as the students approach the Capitol, state troopers, the sheriff's office and a posse it has deputized attack the marchers. Photos of the violence make national headlines.
March 15, 1965 - President Johnson addresses Congress in support of a Voting Rights Bill, quoting the famous civil rights cry "We shall overcome."
March 17, 1965 - Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. rules in favor of the marchers after receiving a Justice Department plan outlining their protection during the march.
March 17, 1965 - Despite the arguments between the SCLC and the SNCC, King joins Forman in leading a march of 2000 people in Montgomery to the Montgomery County courthouse. After the march, King announces the third Selma-to-Montgomery march. City of Montgomery officials apologize for the assault on SNCC protesters by county and state law enforcement and ask King and Forman to work with them on how best to deal with future protests in the city student leaders promise they will seek permits for future protest marches. But Wallace continues to arrest protestors who venture on to state-controlled property.
March 18, 1965 - Wallace blasts Judge Johnson's ruling, saying the state cannot afford to provide the security the marchers need and that he will ask the federal government for help.
March 19, 1965 - Wallace sends a telegram to President Johnson asking for help in providing security for the march.
March 20, 1965 - President Johnson issues an executive order authorizing the federal use of the Alabama National Guard to supply protection. He also sends 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 Army troops to escort the march from Selma.
March 21, 1965 - About 8,000 people assemble at Brown Chapel before starting the five-day march to Montgomery's Capitol.
March 24, 1965 - Marchers rest at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic church and school complex on the outskirts of Montgomery, where Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone, Frankie Laine and Peter, Paul and Mary perform at a "Stars for Freedom" rally.
March 25, 1965 - During the Selma-to-Montgomery march, about 25,000 demonstrators join the marchers when they reach Montgomery for a final rally at the state Capitol. King delivers his famous "How Long, Not Long" speech.
March 25, 1965 - That night, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five who had driven from Detroit to help protest for black civil rights, is shot and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen as she drives toward Montgomery to pick up a carload of marchers. She was 39.
August 6, 1965 - President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.
Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film
In this 50th anniversary year of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act it helped inspire, national media will focus on the iconic images of “Bloody Sunday,” the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the interracial marchers, and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. This version of history, emphasizing a top-down narrative and isolated events, reinforces the master narrative that civil rights activists describe as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white folks came south to save the day.”
But there is a “people’s history” of Selma that we all can learn from—one that is needed especially now. The exclusion of Blacks and other people of color from voting is still a live issue. Sheriff’s deputies may no longer be beating people to keep them from registering to vote, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that the Justice Department may no longer evaluate laws passed in the former Confederacy for racial bias. And as a new movement emerges, insisting that Black Lives Matter, young people can draw inspiration and wisdom from the courage, imagination, and accomplishments of activists who went before.
Here are 10 points to keep in mind about Selma’s civil rights history.
A march of 15,000 in Harlem in solidarity with the Selma voting rights struggle. World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson. Source: Library of Congress.
1. The Selma voting rights campaign started long before the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, her husband Samuel William Boynton, and other African American activists founded the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) in the 1930s. The DCVL became the base for a group of activists who pursued voting rights and economic independence.
2. Selma was one of the communities where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began organizing in the early 1960s.
In 1963, seasoned activists Colia (Liddell) and Bernard Lafayette came to Selma as field staff for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), known as “Snick.” Founded by the young people who initiated the 1960 sit-in movement, SNCC had moved into Deep South, majority-black communities doing the dangerous work of organizing with local residents around voter registration.
Working with the Boyntons and other DCVL members, the Lafayettes held Citizenship School classes focused on the literacy test required for voter registration and canvassed door-to-door, encouraging African Americans to try to register to vote. Prathia Hall, a SNCC field secretary who came to Selma in the fall of 1963, explained in Hands on the Freedom Plow:
The 1965 Selma Movement could never have happened if SNCC hadn’t been there opening up Selma in 1962 and 1963. The later nationally known movement was the product of more than two years of very careful, very slow work.
3. The white power structure used economic, “legal,” and extra-legal means, including terrorism, to prevent African Americans from accessing their constitutional right to vote and to impede organizing efforts.
SNCC’s organizing was necessary and extremely challenging because African Americans in Selma, despite being a majority in the community, were systematically disfranchised by the white elite who used literacy tests, economic intimidation, and violence to maintain the status quo.
According to a 1961 Civil Rights Commission report, only 130 of 15,115 eligible Dallas County Blacks were registered to vote. The situation was even worse in neighboring Wilcox and Lowndes counties. There were virtually no Blacks on the voting rolls in these rural counties that were roughly 80 percent Black. Ironically, in some Alabama counties, more than 100 percent of the eligible white population was registered.
Although many people are aware of the violent attacks during Bloody Sunday (when, on March 7, 1965, police brutally attacked marchers in Selma), white repression in Selma was systematic and long-standing. Selma was home to Sheriff Jim Clark, a violent racist, and one of Alabama’s strongest white Citizens’ Councils—made up of the community’s white elite and dedicated to preserving white supremacy. The threat of violence was so strong that most African Americans were afraid to attend a mass meeting. Most of the Lafayettes’ first recruits were high school students. Too young to vote, they canvassed and taught classes to adults. Prathia Hall remembers the danger in Alabama: “…[I]n Gadsden, the police used cattle prods on the torn feet [of young protesters] and stuck the prods into the groins of boys. Selma was just brutal. Civil rights workers came into town under the cover of darkness.”
4. Though civil rights activists typically used nonviolent tactics in public demonstrations, at home and in their own communities they consistently used weapons to defend themselves.
On June 12, 1963, the night Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, whites viciously attacked Bernard Lafayette outside his apartment in Selma in what many believe was a coordinated effort to suppress Black activism.
Lafayette believed in nonviolence, but his life was probably saved by a neighbor who shot into the air to scare away the white attackers.
This practice of armed self-defense was woven into the movement and, because neither local nor federal law enforcement offered sufficient protection, it was essential for keeping nonviolent activists alive.
5. Local, state, and federal institutions conspired and were complicit in preventing black voting.
Even with the work of SNCC and the Dallas County Voters League, it was almost impossible for African Americans to register to vote. The registrar’s office was only open twice a month and potential applicants were routinely and arbitrarily rejected. Some were physically attacked and others fired from their jobs. Howard Zinn, who visited Selma in the fall of 1963 as a SNCC advisor, offers a glimpse of the repression, noting that white officials had fired teachers for trying to register and regularly arrested SNCC workers, sometimes beating them in jail. In one instance, a police officer knocked a 19-year-old girl unconscious and brutalized her with a cattle prod.
Photos: A brave young boy demonstrates for freedom in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma on July 8, 1964. Selma sheriff deputies approach and arrest him. Source: Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos, used by permission.
In another example, in summer 1964, Judge James Hare issued an injunction making it illegal for three or more people to congregate. This made demonstrations and voter registration work almost impossible while SNCC pursued the slow appeals process. Although the Justice Department pursued its own legal action to address discrimination against Black voters, its attorneys offered no protection and did nothing to intervene when local officials openly flaunted the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
The FBI was even worse. In addition to refusing to protect civil rights workers attacked in front of agents, the FBI spied on and tried to discredit movement activists. In 1964, the FBI sent King an anonymous and threatening note urging him to commit suicide and later smeared white activist Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered after coming from Detroit to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
6. SNCC developed creative tactics to highlight Black demand for the vote and the raw violence at the heart of Jim Crow.
Howard Zinn, James Baldwin, and a journalist on Freedom Day in Selma, Alabama, October, 1963.
To highlight African Americans’ desire to vote and encourage a sense of collective struggle, SNCC organized a Freedom Day on Monday, Oct. 7, 1963, one of the monthly registration days. They invited Black celebrities, like James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, so Blacks in Selma would know they weren’t alone.
Over the course of the day, 350 African Americans stood in line to register, but the registrar processed only 40 applications and white lawmen refused to allow people to leave the line and return. Lawmen also arrested three SNCC workers who stood on federal property holding signs promoting voter registration.
By mid-afternoon, SNCC was so concerned about those who had been standing all day in the bright sun, that two field secretaries loaded up their arms with water and sandwiches and approached the would-be voters.
Highway patrolmen immediately attacked and arrested the two men, while three FBI agents and two Justice Department attorneys refused to intervene. (Read an account of the day by Howard Zinn here.)
This federal inaction was typical, even though Southern white officials openly defied both the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and constitutional protections of free assembly and speech. The FBI insisted it had no authority to act because these were local police matters, but consistently ignored such constraints to arrest bank robbers and others violating federal law.
7. Selma activists invited Dr. King to join an active movement with a long history.
By late 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were looking for a local community where they could launch a campaign to force the country to confront the Southern white power structure’s widespread discrimination against prospective Black voters.
At the same time, Mrs. Boynton, the longtime leader of the Dallas County Voters League, wanted to escalate the struggle in Selma and invited SCLC in. SCLC saw Selma as ideal because: (1) the ongoing work of SNCC and the DCVL provided a strong base of organizers and people who could be counted on to attend mass meetings, march in demonstrations, attempt to register, and canvass prospective registrants (2) Sheriff Jim Clark’s volatile white supremacy led King to believe he was likely to attack peaceful protesters in public, drawing national attention to the white violence underlying Black disfranchisement and finally, (3) the Justice Department’s own lawsuit charging racial discrimination in Dallas County voter registration reinforced the need for action.
8. Youth and teachers played a significant role in the Selma Movement.
An important breakthrough in the Selma Movement came when schoolteachers, angered by a physical attack on Mrs. Boynton, marched to the courthouse on Jan. 22, 1965. Despite the prominence of King and a handful of ministers in history books, throughout the South most teachers and ministers stayed on the sidelines during the movement. Hired and paid by white school boards and superintendents, teachers who joined the Civil Rights Movement faced almost certain job loss.
Young women singing freedom songs in a Selma church. 7/8/1964. Source: ©Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos.
In Selma, the “teachers’ march” was particularly important to the young activists at the heart of the Selma Movement. One of them, Sheyann Webb, was just 8 years old and a regular participant in the marches. She reflects in Voices of Freedom:
What impressed me most about the day that the teachers marched was just the idea of them being there. Prior to their marching, I used to have to go to school and it was like a report, you know. They were just as afraid as my parents were, because they could lose their jobs. It was amazing to see how many teachers participated. They follow[ed] us that day. It was just a thrill.
9. Women were central to the movement, but they were sometimes pushed to the side and today their contributions are often overlooked.
In Selma, for example, Mrs. Amelia Boynton was a stalwart with the DCVL and played a critical role for decades in nurturing African American efforts to register to vote. She welcomed SNCC to town and helped support the younger activists and their work. When Judge Hare’s injunction slowed the grassroots organizing, she initiated the invitation to King and SCLC.
Marie Foster, another local activist, taught citizenship classes even before SNCC arrived. In early 1965 when SCLC began escalating the confrontation in Selma, Boynton and Foster were both in the thick of things, inspiring others and putting their own bodies on the line. They were leaders on Bloody Sunday and the subsequent march to Montgomery.
Though Colia Liddell Lafayette worked side by side with husband Bernard, recruiting student workers and doing the painstaking work of building a grassroots movement in Selma, she has become almost invisible and typically mentioned only in passing, as his wife.
Diane Nash, whose plan for a nonviolent war on Montgomery inspired the initial Selma march, was already a seasoned veteran, leading the Nashville sit-ins, helping found SNCC, and taking decisive action to carry the freedom rides forward.
These are just a few of the many women who were critical to the movement’s success—in Selma and across the country.
10. Though President Lyndon Johnson is typically credited with passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Movement forced the issue and made it happen.
The Selma campaign is considered a major success for the Civil Rights Movement, largely because it was an immediate catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act guaranteed active federal protection of Southern African Americans’ right to vote.
Although Johnson did support the Voting Rights Act, the critical push for the legislation came from the movement itself. SNCC’s community organizing of rural African Americans, especially in Mississippi, made it increasingly difficult for the country to ignore the pervasive, violent, and official white opposition to Black voting and African American demands for full citizenship. This, in conjunction with the demonstrations organized by SCLC, generated public support for voting rights legislation.
This brief introduction to Selma’s bottom up history can help students and others learn valuable lessons for today. As SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson said,
“If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”
▸ A longer version of this article is available on the Teaching for Change website.
This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series.
© 2015 The Zinn Education Project, a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.
Emilye Crosby is a professor of history and the coordinator of Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom (University of North Carolina Press) and the editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up (University of Georgia Press).
Sharecroppers Challenge U.S. Apartheid: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Teaching Activity. By Julian Hipkins III, Deborah Menkart, Sara Evers, and Jenice View.
Role play on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that introduces students to a vital example of small “d” democracy in action. For grades 7+.
Stepping into Selma: Voting Rights History and Legacy Today
Teaching Activity. Teaching for Change. 2015.
Introductory lesson on key people and events in the long history of the Selma freedom movement.
Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days
Book – Non-fiction. By Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson as told to Frank Sikora. 1980.
The moving story of two young girls who were caught up in the 1965 movement in Selma, Alabama.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1985
Film. Produced by Henry Hampton. Blackside. 1987. 360 min.
Comprehensive documentary history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot
Film. Produced by Bill Brummel. Learning for Justice. 2015. 40 min.
Documentary about the students and teachers of Selma, Alabama who fought for voting rights.
SNCC Digital Gateway
Historical materials, profiles, timeline, map, and stories on SNCC’s voting rights organizing.
March 11, 1965: Rev. James Reeb Dies in Selma
Rev. James Reeb died as a result of being severely beaten by a group of white men during Bloody Sunday in Selma two days earlier.
March 23, 1965: Selma to Montgomery March Continues
The Selma to Montgomery marchers traveled into Lowndes County, working with local leaders to organize residents into a new political organization: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO).
March 25, 1965: Last Selma March
The Selma marches were three protest marches about voting rights, held in 1965.
How LIFE Magazine Covered the Selma Marches in 1965
The marches that took place in Selma never would have happened without Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and the cadre of civil rights leaders who organized the charge. They might not have happened if not for the tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and they certainly couldn’t have made the splash they did without the thousands of people who showed up to put feet to the pavement and march some at the cost of bodily harm, and two at the cost of their lives.
And their courageous actions would have gone unseen if not for the photojournalists on the ground to document the brutality they faced for the world to see. The images they created of Alabama state troopers rushing peaceful protestors like a monolithic mob, wielding weapons and riot gear that conjure war photography helped fuel the public outrage to which the Johnson administration had no choice but to respond.
LIFE’s coverage of the marches began in its March 19, 1965 issue, the cover of which shows a line of solemn marchers, two by two, disappearing over the horizon as helmeted troopers look on. By the time the issue was published, the protesters had made two attempts to march.
The first, on March 7, later referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” ended with troopers attacking the marchers in a scene that was nothing if not savage, sending 17 to the hospital with injuries. The second, two days later, ended in peaceful prayer, with King ordering the marchers to halt so as not to defy a pending restraining order. This day would come to be known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”
The March to Montgomery began on March 21, two days after the issue was published, and ended on March 25 at the Alabama State Capitol Building. As LIFE described the convergence of nuns, students and Americans of all races the following week in Selma, “In all the turbulent history of civil rights, never had there been such a widespread reaction to the doctrine of white supremacy.”
The photographs, by Charles Moore, Flip Schulke and Frank Dandridge, offered the magazine’s 7 million readers no equivocation as to what it meant to be black in America in 1965. And the images of violence, solidarity, prayer and resilience achieved the greatest results a photograph can hope to achieve: empathy, understanding and above all, social change.
‘Selma Starts the Savage Season,’ LIFE, March 19, 1965
‘Selma Starts the Savage Season,’ LIFE, March 19, 1965
‘Selma Starts the Savage Season,’ LIFE, March 19, 1965
‘Selma Starts the Savage Season,’ LIFE, March 19, 1965
Lessons for Today
This brief introduction to Selma’s bottom up history can help students and others learn valuable lessons for today. As SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson said,
If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.
Federal protection for voting rights is still necessary.
In July 2013, the deeply divided United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder, a case coming out of Alabama. Arguing in part that it is arbitrary and no longer necessary to focus exclusively on the former Confederacy, the court’s majority eliminated the pre-clearance requirement for nine Southern states. This means that the Justice Department is no longer responsible for (or allowed to) check new laws for racial bias. Given widespread efforts to block voting access, it may well be arbitrary to hold the former Confederate states to a different standard. But the response of those states—along with other forms of voter suppression throughout the country—makes it crystal clear that we still need robust, proactive tools to protect voting rights for all citizens, but particularly African Americans and others who are still targeted. Rather than being curtailed, the Voting Rights Act should be extended. No doubt future historians will look back at today’s voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression (including Jim Crow voting booths) as a 21st-century version of the literacy tests, poll tax, and grandfather clause of the 20th century.
The Civil Rights Movement made important gains, but the struggle continues.
Current protests over police brutality and the disregard for Black lives the persistence of extreme economic and racial segregation and the tenacity of separate and unequal schools clearly demonstrate that although voting is necessary, it is not sufficient for addressing white supremacy and oppression of people of color. Unfortunately, the words of Ella Baker, one of the most important figures in the black freedom struggle, still echo today. In 1964 she asserted, “until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Baker’s words were captured in “Ella’s Song,” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a SNCC field secretary and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Although the context has changed, there are many direct links between the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and today’s issues. And millennial activists are creating a new movement that builds on the work of previous generations.
SNCC’s voter registration campaigns offer an important model for effective community organizing today.
Profoundly influenced by Ella Baker, SNCC workers put their bodies on the line to demand desegregation, refused to back down in the face of violence, and joined hands to work alongside an older generation, organizing around voter registration and community empowerment. Working with and learning from people who had long been marginalized, SNCC helped develop and support new leadership while challenging our country to move closer to its democratic ideals.
History & Culture
Map of the historic march route from Selma to Montgomery (NPS, SEMO)
Dallas, Lowndes, and Montgomery Counties in the Early 1900s
In the years of post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws, suppression of African American citizens' right to vote through the use of targeted voter registration restrictions and intimidation was widespread in the American South. Because of this, 0% of the African American population in Lowndes County was able to vote, and only 2% percent in Dallas County.
The barriers to voting in the these counties had prompted Black community leaders in Selma to organize and create the Dallas County Voter's League, and by the 1960's, the movement gained national attention with civil rights groups and activists protesting in Selma in order to bring awareness to these voting injustices. Protests against voter registration discrimination increased in the county and nearby areas, with many of them often met by violence from the local sheriff's department, leaving many wondering what was going to happen next.
The Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson
On the evening of February 18 th , 1965 during a protest to free SCLC supporter Rev. James Orange from the Perry County Jail, in Marion, AL, Alabama state troopers violently broke up the demonstration, resulting in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Perry County native. Jackson was shot in the abdomen and died from his wounds on February 26 th , 1965. In response to Jackson's death, a march to the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery was planned — Sunday, March 7th, was the chosen day for the first march attempt.
First March Attempt
On March 7 th , approximately 600 non-violent protestors, the vast majority being African-American, departed from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma with the intent on marching 54-miles to Montgomery, as a memorial to Jimmie Lee Jackson and to protest for voter's rights. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by state troopers and local volunteer officers of the sheriff's department who blocked their path.
The non-violent protesters were told by Maj. John Cloud that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the law enforcement officers with nightsticks and teargas, violently driving them back into Selma. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time. Known as "Bloody Sunday," the attack caused outrage around the country, receiving large scale media coverage that garnered national sympathy for the civil rights movement.
Second March Attempt
In response to the attack, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for another march on Tuesday, March 9 th . Known as "Turnaround Tuesday," Dr. King led a second march of approximately 1,500 protestors to the site of the Bloody Sunday attack where state troopers blocked the path of the march again. Deciding not to risk violent confrontation, members of the clergy led the group in prayer, after which, the group returned to Selma this time they were not attacked. However, that evening, three Unitarian ministers who had traveled to Selma in order to join the protest were attacked by a group of white hooligans. On March 11 th , Rev. James Reeb, died from his injuries.
Third and Final March Attempt
The civil rights protestors sought and received protection for a third march, which was granted by Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. on March 17 th , which restrained Alabama state troopers and Dallas county sheriff from interfering with the march. On March 21 st , the official Selma to March began, with more than 4,000 protestors departing from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to begin the five-day march. Marchers spent nights at four campsites along the trail — the final campsite on the outskirts of Montgomery had thousands more protestors waiting to join the marchers on the last leg of their journey.
On Thursday, March 25th, the last day of the march, the crowd making their way to the state capital building had grown to nearly 25,000 protestors. On the grounds of the capital building, Dr. King gave his Our God is Marching On speech, calling for the enfranchisement of African Americans with their voting rights, saying that it would not be long before the day would come when their fight for freedom and equality would be realized.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
The march brought national attention to the voting rights struggle faced by African Americans, and the media coverage of the march and the violent protests leading up to it put pressure on Congress and the Johnson administration to take action on the issue. On August 6th, five months after the marches, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, making it possible for African Americans in the South to register to vote. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, registration of African American voters in Central Alabama increased dramatically.