Selma To Montgomery March: After a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965.
“There has never been a moment in American history more dignified and inspirational than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face peril with its besieged Negroes,” King told the assembled audience.
On January 2, 1965, King and the SCLC joined the SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in Selma for a voting rights campaign, despite repeated attempts by local blacks to register to vote.
The SCLC chose Selma as the focus of their operations because they expected the legendary violence of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark to draw national attention and put pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass new national voting rights legislation.
For the first month, the campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but no bloodshed. That changed in February when police attacks on nonviolent demonstrators became more common. On the evening of February 18th, Alabama state troopers and Marion police officers joined forces to disperse an evening march in Marion.
A state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Marion church deacon, as he attempted to shield his mother from the trooper’s nightstick during the ensuing altercation. Jackson died in a Selma hospital eight days later.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists from Selma and Marion embarked on a march from Selma to Montgomery’s state capitol on March 7. While King was in Atlanta, the march was headed by Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC.
The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, where they were met by a barricade of state troopers and local lawmen led by Clark and Major John Cloud, who ordered the demonstrators to disperse.
Cloud commanded his guys to advance when they didn’t. The troops attacked the mob with clubs and tear gas, cheered on by white onlookers. Mounted cops pursued the fleeing marchers and beat them up.
The event, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” sparked national anger when it was broadcast on television. “I don’t understand how President Johnson can send soldiers to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma,” Lewis remarked after being brutally battered on the head (Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas”).
That evening, King began a barrage of telegrams and public speeches “inviting religious leaders from around the country to join us on Tuesday in our nonviolent, peaceful march for freedom” (King, 7 March 1965).
While King and Selma’s activists planned to retry the march two days later, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson informed movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least March 11, and President Lyndon B. Johnson pressured King to cancel the march until the marchers could be protected by a federal court order.
After consulting with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, led around 2,000 marchers to the site of the attack on Sunday, including hundreds of clergy who had responded to King’s appeal on short notice, then asked them to kneel and pray. They rose after prayers and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding a confrontation with state troopers and dodging the question of whether or not to respect Judge Johnson’s court order.
Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to continue to Montgomery, but the restraint was praised by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said, “Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in obtaining the precious right to vote” (Johnson, “Statement by the President”). Within a few days, Johnson committed to proposing a voting rights bill in Congress.
That evening, a group of local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts who had come to join the demonstration. His death two days later added to the growing national concern over Alabama’s condition. Johnson personally called Reeb’s widow to express his sorrow and met with Alabama Governor George Wallace to encourage him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage.
Johnson presented voting rights legislation to Congress on March 17th.
On March 21, the government-sanctioned march left Selma. The marchers, who were escorted by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI officials, covered between 7 and 17 miles per day.
Celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne entertained them while they camped out in supporters’ yards at night. The number of demonstrators increased to 25,000 on the last day, joined by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others, who were limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a length of two-lane roadway.
“The end we want is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” King said during the final rally on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery. And that will be a day when neither the white nor the black guy will be present. That will be the day when the man returns to his natural state”.
Following that, a group of march leaders sought to bring a petition to Governor Wallace but were turned down. Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan while ferrying Selma marchers back home from Montgomery that night. Three Klansmen were later charged with conspiring to violate Doar’s civil rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, 1965, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders. “The most powerful instrument ever conceived by man for tearing down injustice and removing the dreadful walls which confine men because they are different from other men,” Johnson said of the right to vote, recalling “the outrage of Selma” (Johnson, “Remarks”).
“Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Selma generated the voting rights legislation of 1965,” King said in his annual address to the SCLC a few days later (King, 11 August 1965).