On March 21, 1965, 3,200 civil rights demonstrators began a march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to protest discriminatory voting laws. The march came to weeks after “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful marchers in Selma were attacked by state and local police.
Demonstrators March 54 Miles to Montgomery
In early 1965, the SCLC, SNCC and other black civil rights organizations launched a voter registration campaign in Selma, Ala., where because of intimidation and literacy tests just 2 percent of the African-American population was registered to vote.
On Feb. 18, during a protest march in nearby Marion, police shot and killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather from police beatings. In response, John Lewis of SNCC and Hosea Williams of SCLC organized a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, 54 miles away.
On March 7, about 525 people began marching over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were met by local police and state troopers, who had been ordered by segregationist Gov. George Wallace to stop the marchers. Brandishing tear gas, whips and sticks, the officers attacked the marchers and drove them back over the bridge, injuring 56.
The event, known as “Bloody Sunday,” was captured on film and broadcast across the country, horrifying many Americans. SCLC leader Martin Luther King soon arrived in Selma and organized a second march while his lawyers filed for a federal injunction to stop Wallace from inhibiting the march.
On March 9, King led a symbolic march onto the bridge and back, avoiding conflict with the police. On March 17, District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. granted the injunction, ordering that police could not stop a peaceful civil rights march.
On Sunday, March 21, 3,200 marchers left Selma with federal troops guarding them to begin their third and final march. Over the course of five days, many of the demonstrators walked 54 miles to Montgomery. They slept in tents at night and continued the march through rain on the third day. By the time the march reached Montgomery, there were 25,000 people in the crowd.
When they reached the capitol, they presented a petition reading, “We have come not only five days and 50 miles [80 kilometers], but we have come from three centuries of suffering and hardship. We have come to you, the Governor of Alabama, to declare that we must have our freedom NOW. We must have the right to vote; we must have equal protection of the law, and an end to police brutality.”
King delivered a speech from the steps of the capitol. “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” he declared. “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.”
PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize” features a video clip of “Bloody Sunday.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Sources in this Story
- Stanford University: King Institute: Selma to Montgomery March (1965)
- Encyclopedia of Alabama: Selma to Montgomery March
- America.gov: Free At Last: The Selma-to-Montgomery March
- U.S. Department of Justice: Introduction To Federal Voting Rights Laws
Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery march spurred President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to begin work on federal legislation protecting African-Americans’ right to vote. Johnson presented a voting rights bill to Congress on March 15 and referenced Selma in his address.
“Their cause must be our cause too,” he said. “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.”
On Aug. 6, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discriminatory voting laws such as literacy tests. It also allowed for federal examiners to oversee voter registration in areas where the right to vote had been threatened.
In his remarks at the Capitol, Johnson said the “outrage of Selma” inspired the act, which he called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”
The Alabama Department of Archives and History shows a sample copy of one of the tests administered to potential black voters.
The Civil Rights Movement
The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil Rights Movement features links to the best primary and secondary sources on the movement.