On Sunday March 7, 1965, about six hundred people began a fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. They were demonstrating for African American voting rights and to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration. On the outskirts of Selma, after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers, in plain sight of photographers and journalists, were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.
When You Pray,
Move Your Feet.
One hundred years after the Civil War, in many parts of the nation, the 15th Amendment had been nullified by discriminatory laws, ordinances, intimidation, violence, and fear which kept a majority of African Americans from the polls. The situation was particularly egregious in the city of Selma, in Dallas County, Alabama, where African Americans made up more than half the population yet comprised only about 2 percent of the registered voters. As far back as 1896, when the U.S. House of Representatives adjudicated the contested results of a congressional election held in Dallas County, it was stated on the floor of Congress:
…I need only appeal to the memory of members who have served in this House for years and who have witnessed the contests that time and time again have come up from the black belt of Alabama—since 1880 there has not been an honest election in the county of Dallas…
Hon. W. H. Moody, of Massachusetts. In Contested Election Case, Aldrich vs. Robbins, Fourth District, Alabama: Speeches of Hon. W.H. Moody, of Mass…[et al.] in the House of Representatives, March 12 and 13, 1896. Washington: 1896, p3. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
However, by March 1965, the Dallas County Voters League, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were all working for voting rights in Alabama. John Lewis headed SNCC’s voter registration effort and, on March 7, he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led the group of silent marchers from the Brown Chapel AME Church to the foot of the Pettus bridge and into the event soon known as “Bloody Sunday.”
When ABC television interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary, Judgement in Nuremberg, to show footage of violence in Selma a powerful metaphor was presented to the nation. Within forty-eight hours, demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in eighty cities and thousands of religious and lay leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, flew to Selma. On March 9, Dr. King led a group again to the Pettus Bridge where they knelt, prayed, and, to the consternation of some, returned to Brown Chapel. That night a Northern minister, who was in Selma to march, was killed by white vigilantes.
“IMPORTANT YOU TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION IN ALABAMA ONE MORE DAY OF SAVAGE TREATMENT BY LEGALIZED HATCHET MEN COULD LEAD TO OPEN WARFARE BY AROUSED NEGROES AMERICA CANNOT AFFORD THIS IN 1965”
In Montgomery, Federal Judge Frank Johnson, Jr. temporarily restrained all parties in order to review the case. And, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the American people before a televised Joint Session of Congress, saying, “There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights…We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone…”
Allowing CBS footage of “Bloody Sunday” as evidence in court, Judge Johnson ruled on March 17, that the demonstrators be permitted to march. Under protection of a federalized National Guard, voting rights advocates left Selma on March 21 and stood 25,000 strong on March 25 before the state capitol in Montgomery. As a direct consequence of these events, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing every American twenty-one and over the right to register to vote. During the next four years the number of U.S. blacks eligible to vote rose from 23 to 61 percent.
John Lewis went on to serve as Director of the Voter Education Project, a program that eventually added nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. To mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” on March 7, 2000, Lewis, a U.S. Congressman from Georgia’s 5th District, and Hosea Williams crossed the Pettus Bridge accompanied by President William Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and others. Asked to contrast this experience with that of 1965 the Congressman responded, “This time when I looked there were women’s faces and there were black faces among the troopers. And this time when we faced them, they saluted.”
- American Treasures is an exhibition of special items in the Library of Congress collections. The exhibition is divided into four sections: Top Treasures, Memory, Imagination, and Reason. The latter includes images taken about 1963 by Danny Lyon, staff photographer for SNCC, a key organizing body during the Civil Rights Movement.
- Search on terms Selma, Alabama in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives collection to see images of the city taken during the 1930s by the photographer Walker Evans. Search on Alabama to see images taken by the FSA photographers Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Carl Mydans.
- The Great Migration made northerners more aware of disenfranchisement in the Deep South and newspapers like The Gazette External and The Advocate External fostered awareness within the black community. Search on the term vote in African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920 External to view about 100 items that address the issue. See, for example, the 1887 article “Negro Voting Power External” and the 1888 article “First Colored Voter External.” The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar mentions Alabama disenfranchisement in his article “Paul Dunbar’s Protest External.”
- Music drawn from a tradition of Southern spirituals helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Search on the term spiritual in Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip to hear some of the tunes which comprise that tradition. Listen, for example, to versions of “This Little Light o’ Mine,” “Long Way to Travel,” and “Great Day” as they were rendered in the South back in 1939.
- Images of 20th Century African American Activists: A Select List presents frequently requested images from the Library’sPrints & Photographs Division. Except where otherwise noted in the “Reproduction Number” line, images are considered to be in the public domain. The selection includes images of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Ralph Abernathy.
- Search Today in History on the term states rights to learn more about an issue which lay at the heart of the American system. Ironically, on March 7, 1850, (exactly 115 years before “Bloody Sunday”) Daniel Webster gave his famous “Seventh of March speech” in favor of the Compromise of 1850, which, while it postponed the Civil War, strengthened states’ rights at the cost of African-American freedom. Search on the term Alabama to learn more about events in the state, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks.
- Find additional resources on civil rights in the Civil Rights Resource Guide.