March 7, 2016 marked the 51st anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” – the first attempt by civil rights advocates to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery to draw attention to the suppression of voting rights in Selma (and across Alabama and the South).
March 9, 2016 was the 51st anniversary of the largely symbolic “Second March,” which was a short march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw further attention to the issues that were roiling at the time.
From March 21-25, 1965, the “Third March” took place. This march was successful and helped set the stage for changes to federal law and to personal attitudes. As Berea College President Lyle P. Roelofs wrote in an article to commemorate the 50th anniversary of these marches, “…58 Berea College students and faculty – whites and blacks – answered the clarion call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join the march from Selma to Montgomery after Bloody Sunday’s events played out tragically on television sets across the country.”
You can read two articles from the Berea College Magazine that commemorated the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the marches and the College’s participation.
In addition, you can read Berea College alumna Crystal Wylie’s Richmond Register article on last summer’s Civil Rights Tour are now available. Follow links below:
- Read Part One here: http://www.richmondregister.com/news/berea-college-focuses-on-civil-rights-through-tour/article_66ccaef0-ca99-11e5-a89c-476556c8169a.html
- Read Part Two here: http://www.richmondregister.com/community/part-berea-college-focuses-on-civil-rights-through-tour/article_b88bb538-d016-11e5-96cb-579d9180f413.html
- Read Part Three here: http://www.richmondregister.com/community/berea-college-focuses-on-civil-rights-through-tour/article_afdb978a-d59f-11e5-b966-7fa4d3f8acb4.html
- Read Part Four here: http://www.richmondregister.com/news/part-berea-college-focuses-on-civil-rights-through-tour/article_9d563e1e-db1f-11e5-a868-dbe3c96cd805.html
Between 1961 and 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led a voting registration campaign in Selma, the county seat of Dallas County, Alabama, a small town with a record of consistent resistance to black voting. When the SNCC’s efforts were frustrated by stiff resistance from the county law enforcement officials, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were persuaded by local activists to make Selma’s intransigence to black voting a national concern. The SCLC also hoped to use the momentum of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to win federal protection for a voting rights statute.
During January and February, 1965, King and the SCLC led a series of demonstrations in Selma to the Dallas County Courthouse. On February 17, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper. In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7.
Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma on Sunday, March 7, and, led by John Lewis and other SNCC and SCLC activists, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. They found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over 50 people.
“Bloody Sunday” was televised around the world. King called for civil rights supporters to come to Selma for a second march. When members of Congress pressured him to restrain the march until a court could rule on whether the protesters deserved federal protection, King found himself torn between their requests for patience and demands of activists pouring into Selma. King, still conflicted, led the second protest on March 9 but turned it around at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King’s actions exacerbated the tension between SCLC and the more militant members of the SNCC, who were pushing for more radical tactics that would move from nonviolent protest in order to win reforms to active opposition of racist institutions.
On March 21, the final (and successful) march began with federal protection, and on August 6, 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act was signed into law, completing the process that King had hoped for. Yet Bloody Sunday was about more than winning a federal act; it highlighted the political pressures King was negotiating at the time, between movement radicalism and federal calls for restraint, as well as the tensions between SCLC and SNCC.
Facts: Throughout March 1965, demonstrators faced violence as they attempted to march from Selma,
Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama (a distance of about 50 miles), to demand the right to vote for black people.
One of the pivotal days was March 7, when 17 people were injured by police, including future U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA). Since that time, March 7th has been known as “Bloody Sunday.”
February 1965 – Marches and demonstrations over voter registration prompt Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to ban nighttime demonstrations in Selma and Marion, Alabama.
February 18, 1965 – During a march in Marion, state troopers attack the demonstrators. State trooper James Bonard Fowler shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson. Fowler was charged with murder in 2007 and in 2010 pled guilty to manslaughter.
March 7, 1965 – About 600 people begin a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Marchers demand an end to discrimination in voter registration. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state and local lawmen attack the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back to Selma.
March 9, 1965 – Martin Luther King, Jr. leads another march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march is largely symbolic; as arranged previously, the crowd turns back at a barricade of state troopers. Demonstrations are held in cities across the U.S. to show solidarity with the Selma marchers.
March 9, 1965 – President Lyndon Johnson speaks out against the violence in Selma and urges both sides to respect the law.
March 9, 1965 – Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, in Selma to join marchers, is attacked by a group of white men and beaten. He dies of his injuries two days later.
March 10, 1965 – The U.S. Justice Department files suit in Montgomery, Alabama, asking for an order to prevent the state from punishing any person involved in a demonstration for civil rights.
March 17, 1965 – Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. rules in favor of the marchers. “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups.”
March 18, 1965 – Governor Wallace goes before the state legislature to condemn Judge Johnson’s ruling. He states that Alabama cannot provide the security measures needed, blames the federal government and says he will call on the federal government for help.
March 19, 1965 – Wallace sends a telegram to President Johnson asking for help, saying that the state does not have enough troops and cannot bear the financial burden of calling up the Alabama National Guard.
March 20, 1965 – President Johnson issues an executive order federalizing the Alabama National Guard and authorizes whatever federal forces the U.S. Secretary of Defense deems necessary.
March 21, 1965 – About 3,200 people march out of Selma for Montgomery under the protection of federal troops. They walk about 12 miles a day and sleep in fields at night.
March 25, 1965 – The marchers reach the state capitol in Montgomery. The number of marchers grows to about 25,000.
August 6, 1965 – President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on August 3 and the U.S. Senate on August 4.
The three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were part of the movement to seek voting rights for blacks underway in Selma, Alabama. By highlighting racial injustice in the South, they contributed to passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement in the overall Civil Rights Movement. Activists publicized the three protest marches to walk the 54-mile highway from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, as showing the desire of black citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression.
Southern state legislatures had passed and maintained a series of discriminatory requirements and practices that had disenfranchised most of the millions of African Americans across the South since the turn of the century. An African-American group known as the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) launched a voter registration campaign in Selma in 1963. Joined by organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they began working that year in a renewed effort to register black voters.
Finding resistance by white officials to be intractable, even after the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation, the DCVL invited Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to join them. The SCLC brought many prominent civil rights and civic leaders to Selma in January 1965. Local and regional protests began, and at least 3,000 people were arrested by the end of February. According to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who served as head of domestic affairs for President Lyndon Johnson between 1965 and 1969, President Johnson viewed King as an essential partner in getting the Voting Rights Act enacted. Califano, who the President also assigned to monitor the final march to Montgomery, noted that Johnson and King spoke by telephone on January 15 to plan a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of using literacy tests and other barriers to stop black Southerners from voting and that King had later informed the President on February 9 of his decision to use Selma to illustrate the injustices.
On February 26, 1965, activist and deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson died after being mortally shot several days earlier by a state trooper during a peaceful march in nearby Marion, Alabama. To defuse and refocus the community’s outrage, SCLC Director of Direct Action James Bevel, who was directing the SCLC’s Selma Voting Rights Movement, called for a march of dramatic length, from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Bevel had been working on his Alabama Project for voting rights since late 1963.
The first march took place on March 7, 1965, organized locally by Bevel, Amelia Boynton and others. State troopers and county sheriff’s deputies attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over the county line, and the event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Boynton was beaten unconscious, and the media publicized worldwide a picture of her lying wounded on the bridge.
The second march took place March 9. Troopers, police and marchers confronted each other at the county end of the bridge, but when the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, King led the marchers back to Selma. He was obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from federal court for the march. That night, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to march with the second group. Many other clergy and sympathizers from across the country also gathered for the second march.
The violence of Bloody Sunday and of Reeb’s death led to a national outcry and some acts of civil disobedience, targeting both the Alabama state and federal governments. The protesters demanded protection for the Selma marchers and a new federal voting rights law to enable African-Americans to register and vote without harassment. President Johnson, whose administration had been working on a voting rights law, spoke at a nationally televised joint session of Congress on March 15 to ask for the bill’s introduction and passage.
With Alabama Governor George C. Wallace refusing to protect the marchers, President Johnson committed to do so. The third march began on March 21. Protected by 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command and many FBI agents and federal Marshals, the marchers averaged about 10 miles per day along U.S. Route 80, known in Alabama as Jefferson Davis Highway. The marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25. By then, thousands had joined the campaign, and a crowd estimated at 25,000 people entered the capital city that day in support of voting rights.
The route is memorialized as the “Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail,” and is designated as a U.S. National Historic Trail.