On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights marchers marched east out of Selma, Alabama on Highway 80 with the ultimate goal of reaching the capitol of Montgomery. They were protesting the prevention of voting rights for black Americans in many states, and in Alabama in particular. Governor George Wallace had previously stated that he would use “all measures” to prevent any march on the capitol.
Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark had that morning ordered all white males over the age of 21 to report to the courthouse to be deputized. The new deputies brought their own weapons, or improvised others, such as embedding barbed wire into baseball bats.
When the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were leaving the city limits, they were met a wall of state troopers and new deputies. Officer Jim Cloud ordered the crowd to disperse and refused to speak with Revered Hosea Williams.
Suddenly, the police attacked the crowd with nightsticks and improvised weapons. Tear gas was fired, and men on horseback rode down fleeing protesters. Amelia Boynton, a widow who was 54 at the time, was beaten savagely by a group of white police until she was unconscious. Many were injured, and 17 required hospitalization.
The American and international press showed pictures and video of the police attacking unarmed civilians who were protesting for their rights as Americans. The incident had the effect of greatly undermining U.S. “hearts and minds” effects around the world, as various emerging nations and liberation groups saw how America treated people of color.
Thousands of white Americans saw the injustice for the first time in their lives, and the Civil Rights movement gained great support. Clergymen and others converged on Selma, and at the next march on March 9th, Dr. Martin Luther King led a group of over 2,500 marchers across the bridge. After a short prayer, he ordered them to turn back, because of a court order restraining them from marching. Most people did not know this, and many felt that Dr. King had lost his nerve. Once Dr. King explained, he asked them all to remain.
However, that night a group of white clergymen were attacked, and one of them, James Reeb, died of his injuries on Thursday. Prayer vigils were held all over the nation for him, and forced President Johnson to act.
An improvised march within Montgomery on March 15th/16th was driven back by mounted police, but this time hundreds of protesters fought back. Dr. King was in Montgomery the next day to calm tensions and negotiate with local officials. Governor Wallace refused to cooperate.
Protests had been building at the White House for days (they would become a regular feature of the Johnson era), and on March 15th President Johnson went on television to announce his voting rights bill.
The judicial order not to march was amended, and President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to take that asset away from Governor Wallace. The president ordered 1,000 military police and 2,000 other soldiers to protect the next march.
On March 21st, a crowd of 8,000 of all races and religions marched across the bridge. The court order only allowed 300 people to continue, so the rest turned back after their symbolic gesture of walking for some miles, and went to meet the marchers in Montgomery.
It rained during the march, and the group slept in muddy camps set up for the end of each day. On March 24th they arrived in Montgomery County and hundreds rejoined the march.
On March 25th, Dr. King gave his “How Long, Not Long” speech to a crowd of 25,000 at the foot of the state capitol. A wall of state troopers blocked their attempts to enter the building, but an aide finally took their petition, which was the intent of the march.
That night, a white woman named Viola Liuzzo was shot to death while driving black activists back to Selma. The FBI was involved in her death, and Director Hoover ordered a smear campaign to try to justify what happened to her.
The Voting Rights Bill became law on August 6, 1965, when I was barely one year old. My family and friends suffered our own harassment and threats from the FBI while my father was away helping to make the world safe for democracy. But no one ever hit my mother with a barbed wire baseball bat.
In 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) and the coverage formula of Section 5 of the act as unconstitutional and no longer necessary. The coverage formula applied only to those districts that had a history of discrimination, and required them to get federal preclearance before changing voting laws. After the case, a number of states passed laws to restrict voters in one way or another.
The United States has changed so much in my lifetime. People have a greater ability to connect and freedoms to express themselves. Advances every day improve the lives of everyone. We have pushed back the shadows of ignorance and discovered over 170 billion other galaxies. The world is shrinking and our horizons are expanding. It is a great time to be alive.
Naturally, there are many people whom are frightened by these changes. They seek the comfort of tried and true things, and often harken back to “the good old days.” We should be more sympathetic to them, and try to ease their transition into this brave new world. United together there is nothing that can hold back the human race. We are our own worst foes.
To the Forces of Reaction though, I give fair warning. The world is changing, and we want you to come along. History is against you. Your short term gains always fail in the end. I hope that never again do you force us to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I possess my own gas mask, and I promise you that you will not get the opportunity to hit me.
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.