Fifty years ago on March 21, 1965, civil rights activists began a 54-mile march for voting rights from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. Barbara Harris Combs, author of “From Selma to Montgomery: The Long March to Freedom,” takes us back to that historic time with a look at the activists and their courageous actions that led to a watershed moment in American history.
The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March was actually three separate marches. Demonstrators started out on March 7, 1965, intent to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery—the state capitol of Alabama—to bring their grievances about unfair denial of franchise to Alabama governor, George Wallace. Soon after starting out on their trek, they were attacked and violently beaten by police. Two days later (Turnaround Tuesday), they set out again. This time, they made the decision to turnaround at the same location of the violent beating days before. A third successful march was organized. The march, about 3000 people strong, began in Selma on March 21, 1965. On March 25th they arrived in Montgomery. The crowd was approximately 25,000 strong.
History of the Voting Rights Struggle in Selma
Selma was a watershed moment in American history, but the Selma campaign has long, deep roots. Soon after WWII, a group called the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) was formed. The small group of African-Americans met regularly and strategized ways to secure meaningful voting rights protections for other African-Americans in the area. The group had ebbs and flows, but by the early 1960’s, there was a strong core group of eight members collectively known by some in the community as the Courageous Eight and touted by others as the Crazy Eight. The eight included: Mrs. Amelia Boynton, Mrs. Marie Foster, Mr. Ernest Doyle, Reverend John D. Hunter, Mr. James Gildersleeve, Reverend Henry Shannon, Mr. Ulysses Blackmon, and Dr. Frederick D. Reese.
In the early 1960’s, DCVL began to hold regular classes to help black residents learn the tools necessary to register to vote. In 1961, only a handful of blacks (156 out of 15,000 voting age African-Americans) in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were registered to vote. Soon, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came and lent support. SNCC built its Alabama Voter Registration Project direct action campaign around the base established by the people of the area, and they developed additional programs in Dallas, Wilcox, and Gadsen counties. By 1963, DCVL wrote a letter to invite Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Alabama and assist SNCC and the community.
While King, whose importance to the modern civil rights movement is undeniable, is often featured as the center of the Selma campaign, he is not. Sam Walker, a youthful participant in the movement who today works as a docent for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (NVRMI) in Selma, says: “They [DCVL] didn’t invite Dr. King to lead them. They invited Dr. King to help them.” At the time of King’s arrival in early January 1965, things were already precarious, but the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson caused a fervor that could not be contained. One civil rights worker said,
“We’ve got a movement in Selma [now]!”
The Death of Jimmie Lee Jackson
Jimmie Lee Jackson was the kind of person the whole black community could defend, and his untimely death rocked that community. Jackson was a son. He was a brother and a grandson, as well as the youngest deacon in the history of his church. He held a regular job and was well respected. On February 18, 1965, Jackson, his grandfather (Cager Lee), his mother, and sister marched with others to protest the arrest of James Orange, another civil rights activist. They must have feared that trouble might happen, but when the police or others acting under color of law shot out the streetlights, darkness blanketed them, and chaos ensued. Jackson and his family fled to a nearby café to escape, but the police followed them there. While trying to defend his mother and later his 82-year old grandfather from a vicious assault by police, Jackson was clubbed by one officer and shot in the stomach by another. Days later, he died.
Jackson’s death incensed the black community across several counties. At his funeral in Selma, Alabama (the location of the colored hospital where Jackson was taken after he was booked and refused service at a local white hospital) James Bevel issued a challenge to those in attendance. He called for the crowd to take their grievances to Montgomery– the state capitol of Alabama. The capacity filled church began to roar. Bevel implored the crowd to “take his body to the King.” The king was then Alabama governor and avowed segregationist, George Wallace.
While Bevel’s proposal for a march from Selma to Montgomery was actually a revival of a call for such a march made earlier by Diane Nash, one of the co-founders of SNCC and leader in the group’s Alabama Voting Rights Project, the crowd overwhelmingly supported it. They ultimately elected not to carry Jimmie Lee Jackson’s body with them, but the idea of a Selma to Montgomery march to demand voting rights protections was not abandoned. The march was to occur on March 7, 1965—a day we have come to know as America’s Bloody Sunday.
King was not in Selma on the afternoon of Bloody Sunday. Days before, he attended meetings in Los Angeles and New York. He elected to go home to Atlanta prior to returning to Alabama. In King’s absence, Hosea Williams of King’s affiliate group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and John Lewis and Robert Mants (both members of SNCC) assumed leadership for the march. About 600 people joined them. The demonstrators left Brown Chapel (a church in the black section of town) and headed out on their trek. When they got to the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they could see that law enforcement officers (including some deputized for this purpose) blocked their clear path at the other end of the bridge. Some officers were on horseback. Some carried leather whips and other crudely made weapons. They had tear gas, too. The demonstrators were ordered to turn around and return to their churches. Instead, Williams asked for a word with Major Cloud. No word was permitted. Told by law enforcement that they had “two minutes” to disburse, the leaders knelt to pray. The crowd of marchers did so, too, but then, after less than a minute, the police started to brutally attack the marchers.
As the police beat and chased marchers, cheers went up from the crowd of white spectators. A cloud of tear gas and general haze filled the area. Little could be seen through the vapors, but the sound of galloping horse hooves and the cries of the victims could be heard. Occasionally, the undeniable crack of a billy club being crushed across someone’s person could also be heard. John Lewis suffered a concussion from numerous blows he received to his head and body. Some marchers were chased back to their churches and beaten there. One person was thrown down flight of stairs. Another, who tried to escape the police brutality, fell into an empty baptismal pool and was seriously injured.
Newscasts of the assault flooded the televisions. Amidst the chaos, the sound of Sheriff Jim Clark’s voice shouting, “Get those god-damned niggers” and “Get those white niggers” could be clearly heard. Many who viewed the scene on television could not believe the images they were seeing could be happening in America—the land of the free.
After the savage events of Bloody Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for all “people of good will” to come to Selma, Alabama, and fight injustice. And come they did. The hitchhiked. Some rode on planes from as far away as Hawaii, California, and Germany. Others carpooled, caught trains, or road buses. Still others walked. More than 500 clergy alone responded.
Events after Bloody Sunday
James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist pastor from Boston, Massachusetts, and Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit heard Dr. King’s call. Each heeded the call and came to fight injustice in Alabama. Each of them paid the ultimate price for their sacrifice. Reeb participated in the stalled march that would come to be known as Turnaround Tuesday. That evening he went out to dinner with other white pastors. Reeb and his colleagues took a wrong turn and ended up outside an establishment frequented by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white pastors were attacked, and Reeb, who was beaten severely about the head, died of injuries he sustained. President Lyndon Baines Johnson called Reeb’s wife to console her. The black community grieved for Reeb, but they were also incensed that no call from the President came to the parents of Jimmie Lee Jackson or countless other black men and women killed and lynched in America.
On the evening of Reeb’s funeral service, President Johnson took a rare opportunity to deliver a nighttime address to Congress where he delivered his “America’s Promise” speech and called for swift federal legislation to protect the right of citizens to exercise the franchise. Finally, on March 21-25, 1965, the march from Selma to Montgomery went forward. The march was made possible largely by a bold ruling by Alabama Judge Frank Johnson who permitted the march to go forward (with protection) as long as no more than 300 protestors at a time were on specific sections of Highway 80.
The protestors faced harrowing conditions on the march, but upon arrival, the mood in Montgomery was largely celebratory. At the end of the march, Viola Liuzzo was shot and killed on Highway 80 by white men who were angered to see her escorting black male patrons in her car. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
In the Shadow of Selma
Fifty years have passed since the historic voting rights marches between Selma and Montgomery, but their legacy is ongoing. The fiftieth anniversary of the marches this year, as well as the recently released film Selma, offers us a chance to reflect on the lasting impact of the marches and the struggle that continues today.
Barbara Harris Combs is an assistant professor sociology and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. She received her PhD in sociology with a concentration in race and urban studies from Georgia State University in 2010. She holds a BA and masters in English from Xavier University (in Cincinnati) and a law degree from the Ohio State University College of Law. Her book, From Selma to Montgomery: The Long March to Freedom, frames and examines the significance of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Biography.com readers can use the special code BIO15 to get at 20% discount off your purchase of the book.