Selma: The Marches that Changed America

Today’s post was written by Billy R. Glasco, Jr., archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum

The Selma Marches were a series of three marches that took place in 1965 between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. These marches were organized to protest the blocking of Black Americans’ right to vote by the systematic racist structure of the Jim Crow South. With the leadership of groups such as the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Selma Marches would become a watershed moment that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the late 1950s, an organization created in Selma, Alabama named the Dallas County Voters League, was embattled with white segregationists over registering Black Americans to vote. Amelia Boynton and other leaders of DCVL were at the front and center of demonstrations that resulted from violence and menacing tactics used to prevent black citizens from voting. In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee joined forces with the DCVL and began participating in sit-in protests in Selma. These protests resulted in hundreds of civil rights activists being assaulted and arrested. 

President Obama bending down to greet 103 year old Amelia Boynton, seated in a chair
President Barack Obama greets former foot soldier Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103 years old, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (NAID 183897984)

In 1965, with the fortitude of Ulysses S. Blackmon, Amelia Boynton, Ernest Doyle, Marie Foster, James Gildersleeve, J.D. Hunter, Sr., Henry Shannon, Sr., and Frederick Douglas Reese-(known as the “Courageous Eight”), Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Orange and the SCLC came to Selma to work with the DCVL and SNCC on its voting rights initiative.

On January 2, 1965, the Selma Voting Rights Campaign began with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a packed audience in Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Afterwards, SCLC and SNCC members began a campaign to increase voter registration and ramped up protests throughout Selma and neighboring counties. 

On February 18, 1965, Reverend C.T. Vivian led a march to the Perry County, Alabama courthouse in Marion to protest the arrest of DCVL member James Orange. On their way to the courthouse, Alabama state troopers rushed the protesters and began attacking them.  Protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson, a deacon of St. James Baptist Church in Marion, was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler. Jackson died eight days later.

marchers kneeling on 1 knee in prayer. Andrew Young standing w/his hand raised to the sky
John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and Amelia Boynton Praying before the first March (NAID 16898979)

On February 28, 1965, at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, James Bevel called for a march from Selma to Montgomery to speak with Alabama’s Governor George Wallace about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death. On March 7, 1965 over 500 marchers began a 54-mile journey out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80 en route to Montgomery. The march was led by SNCC Chairman John Lewis and the Reverend Hosea Williams of SCLC. The march proceeded without any interruptions until the protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  On the other side of the Pettus bridge, protesters were met with violence by Alabama law enforcement officials. DCVL leader Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious. SNCC Chairman John Lewis suffered a skull fracture from the attack, and later mentioned he thought he was going to die that day. After this terrifying ordeal was over, more than 60 marchers would be injured. This day would become known as “Bloody Sunday”.

selma marchers in front of law enforcement at the Pettus bridge
Two Minute Warning on Bloody Sunday (NAID 16899041)

Members of SCLC began organizing a second march to happen on March 9 in response to “Bloody Sunday.” Assistant Attorney General John Doar and former Florida governor LeRoy Collins met privately with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma to persuade him to hold off the second march. King told them that he would proceed with the march. Collins and King both agreed that King would march to the Pettus bridge, make a symbolic gesture at the bridge, then turn around and lead the marchers back to Selma if Collins would guarantee a peaceful interaction from law officials. On March 9, 1965, also known as “Turnaround Tuesday”, King led over 2,500 protesters to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, made a symbolic gesture through prayer and marched back to Selma. 

Later that night, a minister from Boston named James Reeb was brutally injured in Selma by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Activists took Reeb to Birmingham’s University Hospital for treatment. On March 11, Reeb died from his injuries.

After Reeb’s death and Governor Wallace’s refusal to send federal troops to protect marchers in Alabama, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson ruled in solidarity with protesters. President Johnson also federalized the Alabama National Guard on March 20 to assist in the protection of the participants in what would be known as the “March to Montgomery.”

On March 21, marchers gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Chapel to begin their march to Montgomery. On March 24, the marchers entered Montgomery County.  Later that night a “Stars for Freedom” concert was held that included performances from Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone.  On March 25, over 25,000 marchers proceeded to Alabama State Capitol where King made his “How Long, Not Long” speech. 

In another tragic act of violence, on the night of March 25, Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to Alabama to support the voting rights movement, was killed by Ku Klux Klan members while taking marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. 

The three marches at Selma were a pivotal turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.  Because of the powerful impact of the marches in Selma, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was presented to Congress on March 17, 1965.  The bill was passed, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law on August 6, 1965.

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