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The Selma to Montgomery marches were three marches in 1965 that marked the political and emotional peak of the American civil rights movement. They grew out of the voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama, launched by local blacks who formed the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL). In 1963, the DCVL and organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began voter-registration work. When white resistance to Black voter registration proved intractable, the DCVL requested the assistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who brought many prominent civil rights and civic leaders to support voting rights.
The first march took place on March 7, 1965 â "Bloody Sunday" â when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas. The second march took place on March 9. Only the third march, which began on March 21 and lasted five days, made it to Montgomery, 51 miles (82 km) away.
The marchers averaged 10 miles (16 km) a day along U.S. Route 80, known in Alabama as the "Jefferson Davis Highway". 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, they arrived in Montgomery on March 24, and at the Alabama Capitol building on March 25.
The route is memorialized as the Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a U.S. National Historic Trail.
Selma is the county seat and major town of Dallas County, Alabama. In 1961, the population of Dallas County was 57% black, but of the 15,000 blacks old enough to vote, only 130 were registered (fewer than 1%). At that time, more than 80% of Dallas County blacks lived below the poverty line, most of them working as sharecroppers, farm hands, maids, janitors, and day-laborers.
Led by the Boynton family (Amelia, Sam, and son Bruce), Rev. L.L. Anderson, J.L. Chestnut, and Marie Foster, the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) attempted to register black citizens during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their efforts were blocked by state and local officials, the White Citizens' Council, and the Ku Klux Klan. The methods included a literacy test, economic pressure, and violence.
In early 1963, SNCC organizers Bernard and Colia Lafayette arrived in Selma to begin a voter-registration project in cooperation with the DCVL. In mid-June, Bernard was beaten and almost killed by Klansmen determined to prevent blacks from voting. When the Lafayettes returned to school in the fall, SNCC organizers Prathia Hall and Worth Long carried on the work despite arrests, beatings, and death threats. When 32 black school teachers applied to register as voters, they were immediately fired by the all-white school board. After the Birmingham church bombing on September 15, black students in Selma began sit-ins at local lunch counters where they were attacked and arrested. More than 300 were arrested in two weeks of protests, including SNCC Chairman John Lewis.
October 7, 1963, was one of the two days per month that citizens were allowed to go to the courthouse to apply to register to vote. SNCC and the DCVL mobilized over 300 Dallas County blacks to line up at the voter registration office in what was called a "Freedom Day". Supporting them were author James Baldwin and his brother David, and comedian Dick Gregory and his wife Lillian (who was arrested for picketing with SNCC activists and local supporters). SNCC members who tried to bring water to the blacks waiting on line were arrested, as were those who held signs saying "Register to Vote." After waiting all day in the hot sun, only a handful of the hundreds in the line were allowed to fill out the voter application, and most of the applications were denied.
On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, which declared segregation illegal, yet Jim Crow remained in effect. When attempts to integrate Selma's dining and entertainment venues were resumed, blacks who tried to attend the movie theater and eat at a hamburger stand were beaten and arrested.
On July 6, John Lewis led 50 blacks to the courthouse on registration day, but Sheriff Clark arrested them rather than allow them to apply to vote. On July 9, Judge James Hare issued an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders. This injunction made it illegal to even talk to more than two people at a time about civil rights or voter registration in Selma, suppressing public civil rights activity there for the next six months.
With civil rights activity blocked by Judge Hare's injunction, the DCVL requested the assistance of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Three of SCLC's main organizers â Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education James Bevel, Diane Nash, and James Orange â had been working on Bevel's Alabama Voting Rights Project since late 1963, a project which King and the executive board of SCLC had not joined. When SCLC officially accepted Amelia Boynton's invitation to bring their organization to Selma, Bevel, Nash, Orange and others in SCLC began working in Selma in December 1964. They also worked in the surrounding counties along with the SNCC staff who had been active there since early 1963.
The Selma Voting Rights Movement officially started on January 2, 1965, when King addressed a mass meeting in Brown Chapel in defiance of the anti-meeting injunction.
Over the following weeks, SCLC and SNCC activists expanded voter registration drives and protests in Selma and the adjacent Black Belt counties. In addition to Selma, marches and other protests in support of voting rights were held in Perry, Wilcox, Marengo, Greene, and Hale counties.
On February 18, 1965, an Alabama State Trooper, corporal James Bonard Fowler, shot Jimmie Lee Jackson as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather in a cafΓ© to which they had fled while being attacked by troopers during a nighttime civil rights demonstration in Marion, the county seat of Perry County. Jackson died eight days later, of an infection resulting from the gunshot wound, at Selma's Good Samaritan Hospital.
In response, James Bevel called for a march from Selma to Montgomery.
Bevel's initial plan was to march to Montgomery to ask Governor George Wallace if he had anything to do with ordering the lights out and the state troopers to shoot during the march in which Jackson was killed. Bevel called the march in order to focus the anger and pain of the people of Selma, some of whom wanted to address Jackson's death with violence, towards a nonviolent goal. The marchers also hoped to bring attention to the violations of their rights by marching to Montgomery. Dr. King agreed with Bevel's plan, and asked for a march from Selma to Montgomery to ask Governor Wallace to protect black registrants.
Wallace denounced the march as a threat to public safety and declared he would take all measures necessary to prevent this from happening.
On March 7, 1965, 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. The march was led by John Lewis of SNCC and the Reverend Hosea Williams of SCLC, followed by Bob Mants of SNCC and Albert Turner of SCLC. The protest went smoothly until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and found a wall of state troopers waiting for them on the other side. Their commanding officer told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Williams tried to speak to the officer, but the man curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators. Many were knocked to the ground and beaten with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas. Mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.
Brutal televised images of the attack, which presented people with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, roused support for the U.S. civil rights movement. Amelia Boynton was beaten and gassed nearly to death; her photo appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, leading to the naming of the day "Bloody Sunday".
Immediately after "Bloody Sunday," King began organizing a second march to be held on Tuesday, March 9, 1965. He issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join him. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights struggles â from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Freedom Summer â and shocked by the television images of "Bloody Sunday," many hundreds of people responded to King's call.
To prevent another outbreak of violence, the marchers attempted to gain a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering. Instead of issuing the court order, Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson issued a restraining order, preventing the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.
Based on past experience, SCLC was confident that Judge Johnson would eventually lift the restraining order and they did not want to alienate one of the few southern judges who was often sympathetic to their cause by violating his injunction. There was also insufficient infrastructure in place to support a long march, one for which the marchers were ill-equipped. Further, a person who violates a court order may be punished for contempt even if the order is later reversed.. But movement supporters, both local and from around the country, were determined to march on Tuesday to protest the "Bloody Sunday" violence and the systematic denial of black voting rights in Alabama. To balance these conflicting imperatives, SCLC decided to hold a partial "ceremonial" march that would cross over the bridge but halt when ordered to do so in compliance with the injunction.
On March 9, King led about 2,500 marchers out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and held a short prayer session before turning the marchers back around, thereby obeying the court order preventing them from marching all the way to Montgomery. But only the SCLC leaders were told of this plan in advance, causing confusion and consternation among many marchers, including those who had traveled long distances to participate and put their bodies on the line in nonviolent opposition to police brutality. King asked them to remain in Selma for another attempt at the march once the injunction was lifted.
That evening, three white ministers who had come for the march were attacked and beaten with clubs in front of the Silver Moon CafΓ©, a hangout for segregationist whites. The worst injured was James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston. Selma's public hospital refused to treat Rev. Reeb, who had to be taken to University Hospital in Birmingham, two hours away. Reeb died on Thursday, March 11 at University Hospital with his wife by his side.
Blacks in Dallas County and the Black Belt mourned the death of Rev. Reeb as they had earlier mourned the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. But many activists were bitter that the media and national political leaders expressed great concern over Reeb's murder, but had paid scant attention to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. SNCC spokesman Stokely Carmichael was reported as saying "What you want is the nation to be upset when anybody is killedâ¦ but it almost [seems that] for this to be recognized, a white person must be killed."
A week after Reeb's death, March 16, Judge Johnson ruled in favor of the protestors, saying their First Amendment right to march in protest could not be abridged by the state of Alabama:
The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . . These rights may . . . be exercised by marching, even along public highways.
Williams v. Wallace, 240 F. Supp. 100, 106 (M.D. Ala. 1960).
On March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel to commence the trek to Montgomery. Most of the participants were black, but many were white and some were Asian and Latino. Spiritual leaders of multiple faiths and races marched abreast with Dr. King, including Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Davis, and at least one Catholic nun, all of whom were depicted in a famous photo. In 1965, the road to Montgomery was four lanes wide going east from Selma, then narrowed to two lanes through Lowndes County, and then widened to four lanes again at Montgomery county border. Under the terms of Judge Johnson's order, the march was limited to no more than 300 participants for the two days they were on the two-lane portion of Highway-80, so at the end of the first day most of the marchers returned to Selma by bus and car, leaving 300 to camp overnight and take up the journey the next day.
On March 22 and 23, 300 protesters marched through chilling rain across Lowndes county, camping at three sites in muddy fields. At the time of the march, the population of Lowndes County was 81% Black and 19% white, but not a single black was registered to vote. At the same time there were 2,240 whites registered to vote in Lowndes County, a figure that represented 118% of the adult white population (in many southern counties of that era it was common practice to retain white voters on the rolls after they died or moved away).
On the morning of the 24th, the march crossed into Montgomery County and the highway widened again to four lanes. All day as the march approached the city, additional marchers were ferried by bus and car to join the line. By evening, several thousand marchers had reached the final campsite at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex on the outskirts of Montgomery.
That night on a makeshift stage, a "Stars for Freedom" rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone all performing.
On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the steps of the State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech "How Long, Not Long." "The end we seek," King told the crowd, "is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."
Later that night, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to support voting rights for blacks, was assassinated by Ku Klux Klan members while she was ferrying marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. Among the Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was FBI informant Gary Rowe. Afterward, the FBI's COINTELPRO operation spread false rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist Party and abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the civil rights movement.
The third march spread the marchers' message without harassment by police and segregation supporters. These factors, along with more widespread support from other civil rights organizations in the area, made the march an overall success and gave the demonstration greater impact.
The marches shifted public opinion about the Civil Rights movement. The images of Alabama law enforcement beating the nonviolent protesters were shown all over the country and the world by television networks and newspapers. The visuals of such brutality being carried out by the state of Alabama helped shift the image of the segregationist movement from one of a movement trying to preserve the social order of the South to a system of state-endorsed terrorism against non-whites.
The marches also had a powerful effect in Washington. After witnessing TV coverage of "Bloody Sunday," President Lyndon Baines Johnson met with Governor George Wallace in Washington to discuss with him the civil rights situation in his state. He tried to persuade Wallace to stop the state harassment of the protesters. Two nights later, on March 15, 1965, Johnson presented a bill to a joint session of Congress. The bill itself would later pass and become the Voting Rights Act. Johnson's speech in front of Congress was considered to be a watershed moment for the civil rights movement; Johnson even used the movement's most famous slogan "We shall overcome".
Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. 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.
Many in the Civil Rights movement cheered the speech and were emotionally moved that after so long, and so hard a struggle, a President was finally willing to defend voting rights for blacks. According to SCLC activist C.T. Vivian, who was with King when the speech was broadcast,
...I looked over... and Martin was very quietly sitting in the chair, and a tear ran down his cheek. It was a victory like none other. It was an affirmation of the movement.
The bill became law at an August 6 ceremony attended by Amelia Boynton and many other civil rights leaders and activists. This act prohibited most of the unfair practices used to prevent blacks from registering to vote, and provided for federal registrars to go to Alabama and other states with a history of voting-related discrimination to ensure that the law was implemented.
In Selma, where more than 7,000 blacks were added to the voting rolls after passage of the Act, Sheriff Jim Clark was voted out of office in 1966 (he later served a prison sentence for drug smuggling).
In 1960, there were just 53,336 black voters in the state of Alabama; three decades later, there were 537,285, a ten-fold increase.
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