Note—Versions of this have appeared before. But there are few stories that so richly deserve to be retold. And as repeated attempts to roll back the gains of the Voting Rights Act and other landmark Civil Rights legislation show, the battle once thought won must be fought again. As it was this year in Raleigh, North Carolina in Mass Moral March touted with considerable justification “the Selma to Montgomery March of our generation."
March 7, 1965 was Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. On that day massed Alabama State Police attacked peaceful demonstrators attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to the state capital at Montgomery to protest suppression of voting rights.
Members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been conducting voter registration drives in the area since 1963 and had encountered escalating violence. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, efforts stepped up. On July 6 of that year SNCC leader John Lewis attempted to lead a march on the county court house to register voters. He and other marchers were beaten and arrested. A few days later a local judge handed down a sweeping injunction against more than two people assembling to even talk about voter registration.
SNCC leaders appealed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC leaders including the Rev. James Bevel, who had been conducting his own voter registration projects, came to Selma to join the effort. But the national organization, busy with other efforts, had not yet committed.
Finally, on January 2 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Selma bringing with him the national spotlight and officially launched a new Selma Voting Rights Movement. Marches on the court house resumed there and in surrounding counties.
On February 18 a young man, Jimmie Lee Johnson was shot trying to defend his mother and grandfather from police clubs after a march on the Perry County court house in Marion. When Johnson died of his wounds days later, Bevel called for a protest march on the state capital from Selma on March 7.
On the day of the march John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the SCLC led about 600 marchers. When they attempted to cross the bridge, they were met by massed troopers and ordered to disperse. Lewis attempted to speak to the commanding officer but was shoved to the ground and beaten. Police charged the crowd with clubs and gas. Mounted officers attacked from the flanks. Scenes of horrific violence were captured on film and soon broadcast on television helping to swing public sympathy to the marchers.
King responded with a call to rally in Selma for a second march. Hundreds from around the country, including many clergy, rallied to the call. Lawyers appealed to Federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson, who was suspected to be sympathetic, to lift the local ban on marches. The judge took the issue under advisement, but issued a temporary restraining order against resuming the march until he could make his ruling.
With thousands gathered, King felt he had to move but did not want to alienate the judge. On March 9 he led about 7,000 to the bridge but then knelt in prayer and turned the crowd back, a move that was harshly criticized by SNCC leaders.
That evening three Unitarian Universalist ministers, James Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller who had responded to King’s call were attacked and beaten outside a Selma café known to be a hangout for Klansmen. Reeb died of his wounds on March 11 in Birmingham after the Selma hospital refused to treat him.
On hearing of Reeb’s death the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association meeting in Boston voted to adjourn and re-convene in Selma. UUA President Dana McLean Greeley and eventually half of the active ministers in the Association headed south.The death of a white minister galvanized public opinion the way that Jimmie Johnson’s had not. A shaken President Lyndon Johnson submitted a Voting Rights Act to Congress on March 15 after failing to get Governor George Wallace to back off from attacks on demonstrators.
A week after Reeb’s death Judge Johnson finally issued the long anticipated ruling upholding the First Amendment rights to assemble and protest.
On March 21 the final and successful march on Montgomery set off with King, Lewis, Bevel, Williams leading the way with a bevy of national clergy. They were protected by 2,000 Federal troops on the four day march through hostile territory to the capital.
After a triumphant rally on the capitol steps, Viola Liuzzo, a young Detroit mother and U.U. laywoman was driving black marchers back to Selma, when she was shot as she drove by Ku Klux Klan members. A federal informant was in the Klansmen’s car. She was the final fatality in the Selma campaign.
The Voting Rights Act passed Congress and was signed into law by the President on August 6. Within a year 7000 new black voters were enrolled in Selma’s Dallas County.
In 1966 Sheriff Jim Clark, who was responsible for much of the early violence in Selma, lost his bid for re-election. John Lewis would go on to be elected to Congress. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is now marked as part of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a National Historic Trail. A plaque commemorating Jimmie Lee Johnson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo was dedicated a few years ago at Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston with members of their families present.