|Alabama State Police beat SNCC march leader John Lewis, on ground center, after charging voting rights marchers trying to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965.|
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, and his wife, Diane Nash, a SNCC founder who had cut her teeth in the Nashville youth crusade sit-ins with Lewis, 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, a Baptist elder who had tried four times to register, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot trying to defend his mother and grandfather from police clubs after a night 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, the Rev. Hosea Williams of the SCLC, and local leaders like Amelia Boynton 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.
|John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Juanita Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, Frederick Reese and Hosea Williams lead the March through Montgomery to the Capitol|
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 and U. S. Marshalls 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 a black marcher 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 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.
In the 50th Anniversary year of 2015, tens of thousands joined Congressman Lewis and other veterans of the original marches along with President Barack Obama, his family, and former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura in a symbolic and triumphant march across the Bridge.
The same year the film Selma directed by Ana DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, and Oprah Winfrey opened to high praise, great reviews, and a slew of awards and nominations.
Now, four years latter race relations fester in the wake of a resurgence of White nationalism and the Ku Klux Klan and similar hate groups and Republicans in states North and South alike, Congress, and in Donald Trump’s White House and Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department launch wave after wave of voter suppression initiatives, the legacy of Selma has never been more meaningful.
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