*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Just days after the death of a protester shot by Alabama policeman, in Marion, some 600 African-Americans gathered in Selma for a 54-mile march to the capital of Montgomery. After crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, the civil rights activists were met by a line of state troopers with orders to stop the protest after a few blocks of walking. The officers did so with extreme force, firing tear gas into the crowd and advancing with batons to beat them back -- shocking images would soon be on televisions all over the United States and spread across the world.
After decades of discrimination throughout the South under the power of Jim Crow laws, a number of groups rose up to defend the rights of African-Americans granted after the Civil War. Spurred by the Montgomery Bus Boycott organized after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, organizations found ways to pull blacks together to protest unfair treatment across the social spectrum. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, focused primarily upon voting rights in preparation for the 1964 election.
Around Selma, the effort to bring blacks to the polls had already faced resistance during the late 1950s. Members of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) who attempted to register fellow African-Americans for upcoming local and national ballots often faced resistance -- and threats of bodily harm -- from the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan. A pair of SNCC representatives, Bernard and Colia Lafayette, arrived to provide support in the first few months of 1963. By June, Bernard was in a Selma hospital receiving treatment for a savage beating at the hands of Klansmen.
All the more resolved to see their rights respected, SNCC and the DCVL continued pulling together as many blacks as possible to fill out the voting registration application on the days specified by the authorities in Dallas County. At the “Freedom Day” effort on October 7, 1963, more than 300 African-Americans stood in line for the chance to fill out the paperwork. The hot Alabama sun made the hours-long wait difficult to handle, giving SNCC volunteers the idea of providing water -- a courtesy police arrested them for. Only a few of those on hand would get to apply and most were quickly rejected.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the movement gained steam once again. Four days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the document into law on July 2nd, John Lewis from SNCC and a group of African-Americans were at the Dallas County courthouse to register, only to be arrested simply for the color of their skin. A week later, a Selma judge granted restrictions on public assemblies centered on civil rights to prevent further demonstrations, allowing no more than three people to discuss the idea of voting laws together at once.
Frustrated, the DVCL turned to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC for help in December 1964. As the calendar turned over into 1965, the additional support allowed the voter registration efforts to expand dramatically. Protests could now be rapidly organized in five neighboring counties. Perry County, to the northwest of Selma, witnessed one of the first such protests, with a number of African-Americans walking through Marion toward the courthouse on February 18th.
Once the group arrived, state troopers lined up outside the building came forward to push the crowd away and prevent any registrations from occurring. To get his mother and grandfather out of the fray, Jimmie Lee Jackson hustled his relatives into Mack’s Cafe and away from the street. Troopers soon arrived in the kitchen and began to thumping Cager Lee, Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather, with nightsticks, turning them on Jackson’s mother when she attempted to protect Lee. Jackson leaped to their defense and a scuffle ensued in which he was shot by trooper James Bonard Fowler. Suffering from an infection due to the bullet wounds in his abdomen, the 26-year-old died on February 26th.
Angered by the excessive force demonstrated by the men on duty, some African-Americans in Selma began to advocate fighting fire with fire. Hoping to prevent another hostile clash, James Bevel, the SCLC Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education, proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery to demand answers and protection from Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Knowing the governor had already called the idea a threat to public safety, as many as 600 people came together on March 7, 1965 at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church for the long walk out of Selma east on US Highway 80 to the capital. Six blocks away, on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, roughly 100 state troopers armed with billy clubs waited for the crowd to arrive.
As the African-Americans made it over the Alabama River, canisters filled with tear gas were launched into the marchers, followed closely by troopers and white citizens eager to send the blacks walking toward them back over the bridge and into the Selma neighborhoods the group originated from. According to author Taylor Branch, “Thirty minutes after the marchers’ encounter with the troopers, a Negro could not be seen walking the streets.” With just one hospital available to them due to segregation, some 100 injured blacks arrived in the emergency room with deep cuts and severe fractures.
Within hours, images of the violence were broadcast on national networks. Some 48 million people watching the Sunday Night Movie on ABC were interrupted by a news report featuring video from the scene. Over the next 48 hours, thousands of citizens in 80 cities across the country organized events to show solidarity with those who suffered under the heavy hand of the Alabama State Troopers. King arrived in Selma the day after Bloody Sunday, helping to pull together a short prayer vigil at the bridge on March 9th.
Having gained the national spotlight for their efforts, representatives of SNCC and SCLC again hoped to get a march on the schedule. Wary of additional resistance from state officials, legal teams representing the two organizations stood before a federal judge and presented him with footage from CBS News in order to receive protection. Upon review, the petition was granted and a second demonstration set for March 21, 1965.
Protected on all sides by National Guard units under orders from the President, around 3,000 people left Selma for the four-day walk to Montgomery. The plan, built on covering 12-miles per day, required most (if not all) of those on moving along Highway 80 to sleep in roadside fields each night. Despite the challenges, the number of participants in the second march grew from one day to the next. As the group reached the steps of the state capital building on March 25th, the crowd was eight times larger than the group from Selma -- as many as 25,000 people.
Nationwide, the court of public opinion turned firmly against the discriminatory policies of the South. Johnson, fed up with Wallace’s refusal to allow civil rights to take hold in Alabama, used Presidential influence to introduce legislation to a joint session of Congress. Asserting the movement made it clear “it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,” Johnson paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the President signed the bill into law on August 6th, members of the DCVL and other activists were present as a way to honor their work on behalf of justice.
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