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Newsreel footage of the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Montgomery and Birmingham lodging
Many travelers find it easiest to stay in Montgomery or Birmingham, and then visit Selma while they’re traveling between those two cities. Here are some hotel options in those cities.
About an hour away, Montgomery is a great bet for lodging, especially since you’ll probably be visiting the city anyway. But lodging can be tight here during special events and when the Alabama legislature’s in session. Here are a few options:
Renaissance Montgomery It’s one of the city’s newest, busiest and biggest hotels, and most comfortable. Near the riverfront park and convention center, and walking distance to most sites. 201 Tallapoosa Street, Montgomery, 334/481-5000.
Red Bluff Cottage Bed and Breakfast For real Southern hospitality, try something homier. This five bedroom B&B features antiques and wireless Internet. 551 Clay Street, Montgomery, 334/264-0056.
Literature lovers, English majors and fans of The Great Gatsby can sleep in the former home of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Two AirBnBs, the Zelda and the F. Scott suites are the located in the home Fitzgerald shared with his wife Zelda in 1931-32. They include a record player with jazz albums and a sun porch overlooking the city’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood.
Dwella at Kress on Dexter A newly opened condo hotel within walking distance of the major civil rights sites.
The state’s largest city can see traffic backups at rush hour, so allow about two hours for travel between Selma and Birmingham. Here are some good options:
Elyton Hotel This newly renovated hotel occupies a former bank building, and has quickly become one of the city’s top places to stay. Its rooftop bar is a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
The Tutwiler – Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham-Downtown Don’t be fooled by the chain affiliation, this is a Birmingham institution, refurbished and updated for guests. Don’t miss the free chocolate chip cookies at night.
Aloft Birmingham Soho Square Technically located “over the mountain” in the city of Homewood, this trendy chain offers basic, but stylish amenities.
Note: If you book travel or purchase a product through one of our affiliate links, we may receive a fee or commission.
Things to do in Marion, Alabama: The city that sparked Selma, and raised Coretta Scott King
Greensboro, Alabama tour: Visit the Safe House museum, where King found shelter from Klan
A Montgomery civil rights museum and its harrowing lynching memorial
Where to go
A traveler can find traces of civil rights history across the country, from Hawaii to Maine. But the key battles of the Civil Rights Movement were fought in the Deep South, and it’s where you can find historic sites and moving monuments. We’ll show you how to visit and experience these important places, including:
Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of Bloody Sunday
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls died in a Sunday school bombing
The Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in Memphis
Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine students faced angry mobs in Arkansas
The Woolworth’s counter where students stage a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home and grave in Atlanta
Who we are
Civil Rights Travel is online guidebook designed to plan a journey into the history of the civil rights movement.
This website offers detailed city tours, videos and much more, telling the stories of heroes who confronted racism and injustice, and changed the world.
You’ll find multiple itineraries, and suggestions for making the most of your travels, providing great restaurant and hotel tips, and cool things to see along the way.
It was created by veteran journalist Larry Bleiberg, an award-winning travel editor and writer, who has published in the top newspapers, magazines and websites in the world.
The Death That Started It All
Jimmie Lee Jackson was a baptist deacon whose death was the catalyst that gave birth to the marches. He was 26 years old, and he was a deacon in a Baptist church in Marion, Alabama. He was an activist who tried registering to vote several times, and during a peaceful protest, the police attacked him. He did not do anything, but was still chased by the police, and was eventually shot inside of a cafe in Selma.
He was trying to protect his mother and grandfather, who were there with him. His death was the turning point in the eyes of many, and some protesters even wanted to lay his body in front of the Alabama Capitol. They did not manage to do so, but this death was the spark that started the marches.
The Bloody Sunday Memorial in Selma, Alabama, honors those killed in their civil rights march to Montgomery. Image credit: James Kirkikis / Shutterstock.com
Reverend James Reeb attended the second of the three marches to Selma and decided to go to dinner afterward with two other protesters. These three men answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to attend the second march to combat racial inequality. Unfortunately, it did not end well for James Reeb.
Four white men attacked them, one of whom was carrying a club, who started shouting racial slurs at them. The one with the club hit Reeb across the head, and he died two days later in the hospital. He was trying to fight for better rights of African-Americans throughout his life and, unfortunately, lost his life while doing so. Out of the four men that assaulted Reeb, three were charged, but all were acquitted.
Selma to Montgomery March
On 25 March 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, 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. King told the assembled crowd: “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes” (King, Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, 121).
On 2 January 1965 King and SCLC joined SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in a voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls. SCLC had chosen to focus its efforts in Selma because they anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would attract national attention and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.
The campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the first month. That changed in February, however, when police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased. On the night of 18 February, Alabama state troopers joined local police breaking up an evening march in Marion. In the ensuing melee, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion, as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out on 7 March to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. While King was in Atlanta, his SCLC colleague Hosea Williams and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march. The marchers made their way through Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen commanded by Clark and Major John Cloud, who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. Cheered on by white onlookers, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.
Television coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” as the event became known, triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten on the head, said: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops 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” (Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas”).
That evening King began a blitz of telegrams and public statements “calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us on Tuesday in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom” (King, 7 March 1965). While King and Selma activists made plans to retry the march again two days later, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson notified movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least 11 March, and President Johnson pressured King to call off the march until a federal court order could provide protection to the marchers.
Forced to consider whether to disobey the pending court order, after consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of 9 March. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice, to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery, but the restraint gained support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: “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 attaining the precious right to vote” (Johnson, “Statement by the President”). Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.
That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama. Johnson personally telephoned his condolences to Reeb’s widow and met with Alabama Governor George Wallace, pressuring him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage.
On 15 March Johnson addressed Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome” (Johnson, “Special Message”). The following day Selma demonstrators submitted a detailed march plan to Judge Johnson, who approved the demonstration and enjoined Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers. On 17 March Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.
The federally sanctioned march left Selma on 21 March. Protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the demonstrators covered between 7 to 17 miles per day. Camping at night in supporters’ yards, they were entertained by celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a stretch of two-lane highway, the number of demonstrators swelled on the last day to 25,000, accompanied by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others.
During the final rally, held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man” (King, “Address,” 130). Afterward a delegation of march leaders attempted to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, but were rebuffed. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, 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. Doar later prosecuted three Klansmen for conspiring to violate her civil rights.
On 6 August, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling “the outrage of Selma,” Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men” (Johnson, “Remarks”). In his annual address to SCLC a few days later, King noted that “Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960 Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965” (King, 11 August 1965).
Black History Month: Selma-to-Montgomery Marches
March 1965 marked a pivotal time for the U.S. civil rights movement, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led demonstrators to protest discrimination against black Americans in Alabama who had been denied the right to vote. The march from Selma to the state capital began three times before the demonstrators were finally able to finish it.
The first attempt took place March 7, 1965, when 600 demonstrators were attacked by state and local police with weapons and tear gas as they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, injuring 17 protesters in what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."
It became national news when televisions across the country displayed images of bloodied and severely injured marchers.
The second march, March 9, resulted in 2,500 protesters turning around after crossing the main bridge because of the restraining order a federal district court judge issued barring the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.
The third march started March 16, when the restraining order was lifted after a judge ruled in favor of the marchers, citing their First Amendment right to protest anywhere, even in Alabama. They started March 21 and walked an average of 10 miles a day on their 54-mile trek. The National Guard and the FBI looked on as the march proceeded to Montgomery. About 25,000 people marched to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building in Montgomery March 25 when King delivered the speech "How Long, Not Long."
Civil rights demonstrators struggle on the ground as state troopers use violence to break up a march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as "Bloody Sunday" March 7, 1965. The supporters of black voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper and to improve voter registration for blacks, who were discouraged to register. (AP Photo)
Participants, carrying U.S. flags, in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., March 25, 1965. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Civil rights leader the Rev.. Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta Scott King (center right, hand in hand) lead others during the Selma to Montgomery marches held in support of voter rights in Alabama, late March 1965. Among those with them are the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (1926 - 1990), second from left, smiling, and Pulitzer-Prize winning political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche (1904 - 1971), front row, in white short-sleeved shirt. Bunche's wife, Ruth , holds Abernathy's arm. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
U.S. civil rights demonstrators, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, approach the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Ala., at the end of their march for black voting rights from Selma. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)
Civil rights demonstrators, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (not pictured), arrive in Montgomery from Selma March 26, 1965, in Alabama on the third leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. The first march took place March 7, 1965 ("Bloody Sunday") when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police. (AFP/Getty Images)
Marchers, hand in hand, walk past a fellow marcher waving a U.S. flag, during the Selma to Montgomery march, held in support of voter rights in Alabama, late March 1965. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
Four local men are seen watching the civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery, March 1965. (Photo by William Lovelace/Getty Images)
Marchers take a rest during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, March 1965. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
A line of policemen on duty during a black voting rights march in Montgomery, Ala. The Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is greeted happily by an unidentified friend and supporter outside the home where he spent the night in Montgomery, Ala., before the final day of the Selma to Montgomery march, late March, 1965. His wife, Coretta Scott King stands, on the left. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
People on the roadside near Montgomery, Ala., after the civil rights march from Selma. (Bob Fletcher/MPI/Getty Images)
Young children, sitting on their front porch, wave to marchers walking past their home during the Selma to Montgomery marches held in support of voter rights in Alabama, late March 1965. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
The Selma to Montgomery Marches
Established by Congress in 1996, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail commemorates the people, events, and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Black and White non-violent supporters fought for the right to vote in Central Alabama. Today, you can connect with this history and trace the events of these marches along the 54-mile trail.
Learn about the Historic Trail
Find out more information about the creation of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail & Interpretive Centers.
The Fight for Voting Rights in Alabama
Learn about the history, places, and stories that influenced the marches, and ultimately, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Follow the Route of the Marches
Immerse yourself in the stories and events that were transformative for the Voting Rights Movement in Alabama.
Read about instrumental places during the Civil Rights Movement in Central Alabama, historically and currently.
Education & Outreach
For information about the educational programs and materials the Selma to Montgomery Trail offers, please click here.
Marchers marching from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7, 1965 (Bloody Sunday).
The early spring of 1965 became the turning point in the tensely-waged struggle for voting rights throughout Alabama and the “deep South.” For many months, organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had conducted a series of non-violent marches and mass meetings in preparation for major activities in the key central Alabama counties of Green, Hale, Wilcox, Perry, Dallas, Lowndes and Montgomery. A court injunction intended to curtail their marching in Selma failed in January and the increased involvement of a broader spectrum of participants now enlarged the scope of civil rights activities.
On February 18, 1965 , a groundbreaking night march in Marion in Perry County conducted by SNCC was met with elevated brutality from state troopers and Marion police. In the terse melee that followed, youth leader Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed as he sought to protect his mother and grandfather from attack. After being refused medical attention in Marion , Jackson was transported twenty miles to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma , where he died seven days later.
In the days that followed, a variety of responses to Jackson’s murder was considered by the SCLC and SNCC leadership. The most provocative was to march to Montgomery and place the martyr’s body on the steps of the state capitol building. While this idea in part was rejected, the concept of the march to the state capitol was inspirational. A concerted plan was developed by the key organizations involved to conduct a profoundly overt act that would decisively weigh the scales on favor of voting rights. The plan was to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery where a rally would be held on the steps of the state capitol and where movement leaders intended to meet with Gov. George Wallace.
Approximately at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 7, 1965 , 300 protestors, led by Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Albert Turner and Bob Mants, gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma and proceeded through town to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. At that point, the number of the marchers had swelled to 600 as they crossed the span from Selma toward their date with destiny. At the end of the bridge stood Alabama State Troopers and a hastily-organized vigilante band mounted on horses under the direction of Maj. John Cloud. Refusing to speak to Williams, Cloud ordered the marchers to disperse, after which gas canisters were thrown into the crowd. Troopers and horsemen armed with clubs assaulted the protestors who then fled back to Selma .
During the pandemonium that reigned throughout the afternoon, hundreds of non-violent protestors were injured. They were treated at Good Samaritan Hospital and a local clinic. The remaining protestors gathered for a rally at Brown Chapel.
Captured on film and broadcast across the nation, this event galvanized the forces for voting rights and increased their support. “Bloody Sunday” became a landmark in American history and the foundation for a successful campaign culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Selma-to-Montgomery Marches
Fifty years ago this March, Americans witnessed a rapid and tumultuous turning point in the Civil Rights movement. After the “Bloody Sunday” attacks on African-American marchers in Selma, religious leaders from across the country called on their followers to support the non-violent protests for equal voting rights in the South. Presbyterians joined many others in heeding that call.
A focus on voting rights in Alabama was not new. Frustrated by the continued use of intimidation, poll taxes, and literacy tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote, African-American activists in Selma had joined with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963 to start a voter registration project in Dallas County. Over the next year, white officials responded by turning away hundreds of African Americans attempting to register. In July 1964, a judge issued an injunction making it illegal for more than two people to talk about civil rights or voter registration in Selma.
In early 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) accepted the invitation of local activists to come to Selma, focusing national attention on the voting rights struggle. Over the next two months tensions rose as speeches, peaceful demonstrations, and attempts to register voters were met with thousands of arrests and new injunctions. On February 18, Alabama state troopers attacked civil rights marchers in Marion, Alabama, shooting black protester Jimmie Lee Jackson in a coffee shop while he tried to protect his mother. Jackson died from his wounds a week later.
Jackson’s death spurred the SCLC to call for a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, to champion full voting rights. On March 7, 1965, over 500 people, primarily African Americans, were turned back at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers and local deputies using nightsticks and tear gas. Images and news reports of the Bloody Sunday confrontation spread throughout the country, galvanizing support for further peaceful protests.
King led calls for the hastily organized “ministers march” on Tuesday, March 9. In a March 8 telegram sent to national religious leaders, including Edler Hawkins, Moderator of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), he made his case for widespread support:
When the SCLC attempted to secure a court order protecting marchers, Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson issued a restraining order prohibiting the second march. In a negotiated compromise, King led approximately 2,500 marchers—including many white clergy—onto the Pettus Bridge, where they conducted a short prayer service before turning around. Although the march ended peacefully, violence again grabbed headlines when Ku Klux Klan members attacked three white ministers who had traveled to Selma for the march, killing Boston Unitarian Universalist pastor James Reeb.
Ensuing vigils and demonstrations across the country connected many Americans to the Selma cause. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson gave a live television address before a joint session of Congress on the proposed Voting Rights Act, calling Selma "a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.” Backed by the president’s commitment of federal support, Judge Johnson lifted his restraining order on March 17 and ruled that the First Amendment rights to march in protest could not be abridged by the State of Alabama.
This tidal wave of support buoyed preparations for the third Selma-to-Montgomery march. The UPCUSA’s Commission on Religion and Race urged Presbyterians “to stand with Negroes in Selma who are seeking their right to vote, free assembly, and of protest.” Head of the Board of National Missions Kenneth Neigh led a national staff contingent down from New York, and synod and presbytery staff and pastors from around the country also traveled to Selma. From San Francisco Theological Seminary, President Theodore Gill, faculty members, and over 50 seminary students boarded a bus for the long drive to Alabama. Many of the students helped set up tents and dig latrines, and they served as guards and lookouts during the five-day march.
On Sunday March 21, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, almost 8,000 people, black and white, set out from Selma, led by King and other religious leaders. As the procession approached Montgomery on Thursday, the number of marchers swelled to nearly 25,000. From the steps of the capitol, King spoke about the hard-won victory: “Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark street, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”
In its April 15 issue, Presbyterian Life posed the question, “After Montgomery, what?” Noting that violence and reprisals had already occurred, the editors nevertheless concluded that real change was possible. “[E]qual rights everywhere for everyone seem now graspable, and a great many people have recently not only jumped off the fence—they have jumped over the fence. Their newness and vigor adds significantly to the numbers of the already committed.”
The Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting throughout the nation. Enforcement of the law came slowly to Alabama and other parts of the South, but continued activism and a gradual acquiescence to federal mandates led to a huge increase in the number of blacks registered to vote by the early 1970s. In the end, the words and presence of religious leaders and many faithful Americans helped right an injustice and bring the nation closer to true democracy.
March 7, 1965: March From Selma to Montgomery
On this day in 1965, a civil rights march led by SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) member William Hosea and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) member John Lewis, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a white supremacist leader, and were chased down and beaten by police forces. The filmed event would take the nation by storm, causing American people across the country to take part in civil rights protests.
Since the institution of Jim Crow within the southern states of America, Black Americans were forced out of the political system through white suppression and violence. It seemed this system of Black voter suppression was more prevalent in Dallas County, Alabama, than it was anywhere else in the country. Maintaining a stranglehold on the era of Jim Crow, more than half of Dallas County’s inhabitants were Black Americans and yet less than 2% of the voting population were, themselves, Black. With its pervasive presence of white supremacy, Dallas County and its County seat, the city of Selma, showed themselves to be an arduous obstacle to overcome for civil rights organizations. In January of 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in the city of Selma with the SCLC in order to provide aid to the SNCC who had long attempted to register Black voters, but more often than not, ran into blockades. Immediately, Martin Luther King began to stage peaceful protests throughout the city of Selma, bringing thousands upon thousands to his cause. Though he too, would face the difficulties set in place by the white supremacist institutions at play within a month, three thousands protestors, Martin Luther King included, would be arrested and placed in jail cells.
Events would only worsen on February 18, when police officers brutally clubbed and then shot 26 year old Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Black protestor attempting to defend his mother from a beating by police officers (Jackson would pass away eight days later from his wounds). Recognizing the extremity of the situation and the required action, the SCLC and SNCC worked together and planned a 54 mile march, from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, in order to confront the state governor, George Wallace. George Wallace, in opposition to the civil rights movement, ordered for state and police forces to prevent the march from reaching Montgomery at all costs. On March 7, 1965, 600 protestors led by William Hosea and John Lewis alongside Amelia Boynton (Martin Luther King was still in Atlanta after having met with President Lyndon B. Johnson) set off, prepared to confront the 54 miles that they believed lay ahead.
The march began uncontested through the streets of downtown Selma, they soon arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a testament to the deeply disturbed and ingrained white supremacy that still held onto the region. As the protestors crossed over the crest of the bridge, a wall of state troopers and police officers on horses stood at the other side. Behind the wall were groups of white spectators, waving Confederate flags and looking on at the eventual violence. Upon being warned to walk no further, John Lewis and William Hosea paused the procession of activists. The Major in charge of the state troops continued, warning the group to turn around and walk back to where they had started. There was a moment of inaction before the troopers charged forward toward the 600 people taking part in the march. What occurred was the most obscene acts of violence. Troopers wielding clubs and sticks – some of them wrapped in barbed wire – chased down and mercilessly beat fleeing protestors. Tear gas was fired into the crowds as officers on horses rode down upon the protestors, striking them with whips and trampling them underfoot. Despite the violence that had come down upon them, protestors did not attempt to fight back, instead trying to escape from the bridge. John Lewis and Amelia Boynton were both struck in the head by officers with clubs and both were knocked unconscious. The events on the bridge, having been filmed by a camera crew, would change America.
‘Bloody Sunday’, as it would come to be referred to, was broadcast to tens of millions of Americans that same evening, bringing to light the dire and staggering brutality that had been put on display. The national public attention would spur large populations of Americans to action, each person looking to fight for the justice that had for so long evaded the Black American population. Two days later, another march along the same root took place, this time with Martin Luther King at the front. They were forced to turn back again at the presence of armed officers, but on March 21, the goal of reaching Montgomery was realized. After being permitted by a federal court, Martin Luther King led an assembly of protestors that numbered more than 25,000 people by the time it reached the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.
The violence that occurred on ‘Bloody Sunday’, an act of white supremacy, would eventually give way to events that served a blow to the longstanding white supremacist institutions of America. After mass national uproar and protest at the abuse and suppression of Black Americans, on August 6, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ‘Voting Rights Act’ into law. The fight for racial equality had come one step closer to its once inconceivable goal.
Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film
In this 50th anniversary year of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act it helped inspire, national media will focus on the iconic images of “Bloody Sunday,” the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the interracial marchers, and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. This version of history, emphasizing a top-down narrative and isolated events, reinforces the master narrative that civil rights activists describe as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white folks came south to save the day.”
But there is a “people’s history” of Selma that we all can learn from—one that is needed especially now. The exclusion of Blacks and other people of color from voting is still a live issue. Sheriff’s deputies may no longer be beating people to keep them from registering to vote, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that the Justice Department may no longer evaluate laws passed in the former Confederacy for racial bias. And as a new movement emerges, insisting that Black Lives Matter, young people can draw inspiration and wisdom from the courage, imagination, and accomplishments of activists who went before.
Here are 10 points to keep in mind about Selma’s civil rights history.
A march of 15,000 in Harlem in solidarity with the Selma voting rights struggle. World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson. Source: Library of Congress.
1. The Selma voting rights campaign started long before the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, her husband Samuel William Boynton, and other African American activists founded the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) in the 1930s. The DCVL became the base for a group of activists who pursued voting rights and economic independence.
2. Selma was one of the communities where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began organizing in the early 1960s.
In 1963, seasoned activists Colia (Liddell) and Bernard Lafayette came to Selma as field staff for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), known as “Snick.” Founded by the young people who initiated the 1960 sit-in movement, SNCC had moved into Deep South, majority-black communities doing the dangerous work of organizing with local residents around voter registration.
Working with the Boyntons and other DCVL members, the Lafayettes held Citizenship School classes focused on the literacy test required for voter registration and canvassed door-to-door, encouraging African Americans to try to register to vote. Prathia Hall, a SNCC field secretary who came to Selma in the fall of 1963, explained in Hands on the Freedom Plow:
The 1965 Selma Movement could never have happened if SNCC hadn’t been there opening up Selma in 1962 and 1963. The later nationally known movement was the product of more than two years of very careful, very slow work.
3. The white power structure used economic, “legal,” and extra-legal means, including terrorism, to prevent African Americans from accessing their constitutional right to vote and to impede organizing efforts.
SNCC’s organizing was necessary and extremely challenging because African Americans in Selma, despite being a majority in the community, were systematically disfranchised by the white elite who used literacy tests, economic intimidation, and violence to maintain the status quo.
According to a 1961 Civil Rights Commission report, only 130 of 15,115 eligible Dallas County Blacks were registered to vote. The situation was even worse in neighboring Wilcox and Lowndes counties. There were virtually no Blacks on the voting rolls in these rural counties that were roughly 80 percent Black. Ironically, in some Alabama counties, more than 100 percent of the eligible white population was registered.
Although many people are aware of the violent attacks during Bloody Sunday (when, on March 7, 1965, police brutally attacked marchers in Selma), white repression in Selma was systematic and long-standing. Selma was home to Sheriff Jim Clark, a violent racist, and one of Alabama’s strongest white Citizens’ Councils—made up of the community’s white elite and dedicated to preserving white supremacy. The threat of violence was so strong that most African Americans were afraid to attend a mass meeting. Most of the Lafayettes’ first recruits were high school students. Too young to vote, they canvassed and taught classes to adults. Prathia Hall remembers the danger in Alabama: “…[I]n Gadsden, the police used cattle prods on the torn feet [of young protesters] and stuck the prods into the groins of boys. Selma was just brutal. Civil rights workers came into town under the cover of darkness.”
4. Though civil rights activists typically used nonviolent tactics in public demonstrations, at home and in their own communities they consistently used weapons to defend themselves.
On June 12, 1963, the night Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, whites viciously attacked Bernard Lafayette outside his apartment in Selma in what many believe was a coordinated effort to suppress Black activism.
Lafayette believed in nonviolence, but his life was probably saved by a neighbor who shot into the air to scare away the white attackers.
This practice of armed self-defense was woven into the movement and, because neither local nor federal law enforcement offered sufficient protection, it was essential for keeping nonviolent activists alive.
5. Local, state, and federal institutions conspired and were complicit in preventing black voting.
Even with the work of SNCC and the Dallas County Voters League, it was almost impossible for African Americans to register to vote. The registrar’s office was only open twice a month and potential applicants were routinely and arbitrarily rejected. Some were physically attacked and others fired from their jobs. Howard Zinn, who visited Selma in the fall of 1963 as a SNCC advisor, offers a glimpse of the repression, noting that white officials had fired teachers for trying to register and regularly arrested SNCC workers, sometimes beating them in jail. In one instance, a police officer knocked a 19-year-old girl unconscious and brutalized her with a cattle prod.
Photos: A brave young boy demonstrates for freedom in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma on July 8, 1964. Selma sheriff deputies approach and arrest him. Source: Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos, used by permission.
In another example, in summer 1964, Judge James Hare issued an injunction making it illegal for three or more people to congregate. This made demonstrations and voter registration work almost impossible while SNCC pursued the slow appeals process. Although the Justice Department pursued its own legal action to address discrimination against Black voters, its attorneys offered no protection and did nothing to intervene when local officials openly flaunted the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
The FBI was even worse. In addition to refusing to protect civil rights workers attacked in front of agents, the FBI spied on and tried to discredit movement activists. In 1964, the FBI sent King an anonymous and threatening note urging him to commit suicide and later smeared white activist Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered after coming from Detroit to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
6. SNCC developed creative tactics to highlight Black demand for the vote and the raw violence at the heart of Jim Crow.
Howard Zinn, James Baldwin, and a journalist on Freedom Day in Selma, Alabama, October, 1963.
To highlight African Americans’ desire to vote and encourage a sense of collective struggle, SNCC organized a Freedom Day on Monday, Oct. 7, 1963, one of the monthly registration days. They invited Black celebrities, like James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, so Blacks in Selma would know they weren’t alone.
Over the course of the day, 350 African Americans stood in line to register, but the registrar processed only 40 applications and white lawmen refused to allow people to leave the line and return. Lawmen also arrested three SNCC workers who stood on federal property holding signs promoting voter registration.
By mid-afternoon, SNCC was so concerned about those who had been standing all day in the bright sun, that two field secretaries loaded up their arms with water and sandwiches and approached the would-be voters.
Highway patrolmen immediately attacked and arrested the two men, while three FBI agents and two Justice Department attorneys refused to intervene. (Read an account of the day by Howard Zinn here.)
This federal inaction was typical, even though Southern white officials openly defied both the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and constitutional protections of free assembly and speech. The FBI insisted it had no authority to act because these were local police matters, but consistently ignored such constraints to arrest bank robbers and others violating federal law.
7. Selma activists invited Dr. King to join an active movement with a long history.
By late 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were looking for a local community where they could launch a campaign to force the country to confront the Southern white power structure’s widespread discrimination against prospective Black voters.
At the same time, Mrs. Boynton, the longtime leader of the Dallas County Voters League, wanted to escalate the struggle in Selma and invited SCLC in. SCLC saw Selma as ideal because: (1) the ongoing work of SNCC and the DCVL provided a strong base of organizers and people who could be counted on to attend mass meetings, march in demonstrations, attempt to register, and canvass prospective registrants (2) Sheriff Jim Clark’s volatile white supremacy led King to believe he was likely to attack peaceful protesters in public, drawing national attention to the white violence underlying Black disfranchisement and finally, (3) the Justice Department’s own lawsuit charging racial discrimination in Dallas County voter registration reinforced the need for action.
8. Youth and teachers played a significant role in the Selma Movement.
An important breakthrough in the Selma Movement came when schoolteachers, angered by a physical attack on Mrs. Boynton, marched to the courthouse on Jan. 22, 1965. Despite the prominence of King and a handful of ministers in history books, throughout the South most teachers and ministers stayed on the sidelines during the movement. Hired and paid by white school boards and superintendents, teachers who joined the Civil Rights Movement faced almost certain job loss.
Young women singing freedom songs in a Selma church. 7/8/1964. Source: ©Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos.
In Selma, the “teachers’ march” was particularly important to the young activists at the heart of the Selma Movement. One of them, Sheyann Webb, was just 8 years old and a regular participant in the marches. She reflects in Voices of Freedom:
What impressed me most about the day that the teachers marched was just the idea of them being there. Prior to their marching, I used to have to go to school and it was like a report, you know. They were just as afraid as my parents were, because they could lose their jobs. It was amazing to see how many teachers participated. They follow[ed] us that day. It was just a thrill.
9. Women were central to the movement, but they were sometimes pushed to the side and today their contributions are often overlooked.
In Selma, for example, Mrs. Amelia Boynton was a stalwart with the DCVL and played a critical role for decades in nurturing African American efforts to register to vote. She welcomed SNCC to town and helped support the younger activists and their work. When Judge Hare’s injunction slowed the grassroots organizing, she initiated the invitation to King and SCLC.
Marie Foster, another local activist, taught citizenship classes even before SNCC arrived. In early 1965 when SCLC began escalating the confrontation in Selma, Boynton and Foster were both in the thick of things, inspiring others and putting their own bodies on the line. They were leaders on Bloody Sunday and the subsequent march to Montgomery.
Though Colia Liddell Lafayette worked side by side with husband Bernard, recruiting student workers and doing the painstaking work of building a grassroots movement in Selma, she has become almost invisible and typically mentioned only in passing, as his wife.
Diane Nash, whose plan for a nonviolent war on Montgomery inspired the initial Selma march, was already a seasoned veteran, leading the Nashville sit-ins, helping found SNCC, and taking decisive action to carry the freedom rides forward.
These are just a few of the many women who were critical to the movement’s success—in Selma and across the country.
10. Though President Lyndon Johnson is typically credited with passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Movement forced the issue and made it happen.
The Selma campaign is considered a major success for the Civil Rights Movement, largely because it was an immediate catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act guaranteed active federal protection of Southern African Americans’ right to vote.
Although Johnson did support the Voting Rights Act, the critical push for the legislation came from the movement itself. SNCC’s community organizing of rural African Americans, especially in Mississippi, made it increasingly difficult for the country to ignore the pervasive, violent, and official white opposition to Black voting and African American demands for full citizenship. This, in conjunction with the demonstrations organized by SCLC, generated public support for voting rights legislation.
This brief introduction to Selma’s bottom up history can help students and others learn valuable lessons for today. As SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson said,
“If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”
▸ A longer version of this article is available on the Teaching for Change website.
This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series.
© 2015 The Zinn Education Project, a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.
Emilye Crosby is a professor of history and the coordinator of Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom (University of North Carolina Press) and the editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up (University of Georgia Press).
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Teaching Activity. By Julian Hipkins III, Deborah Menkart, Sara Evers, and Jenice View.
Role play on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that introduces students to a vital example of small “d” democracy in action. For grades 7+.
Stepping into Selma: Voting Rights History and Legacy Today
Teaching Activity. Teaching for Change. 2015.
Introductory lesson on key people and events in the long history of the Selma freedom movement.
Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days
Book – Non-fiction. By Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson as told to Frank Sikora. 1980.
The moving story of two young girls who were caught up in the 1965 movement in Selma, Alabama.
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Comprehensive documentary history of the Civil Rights Movement.
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Historical materials, profiles, timeline, map, and stories on SNCC’s voting rights organizing.
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