This day in Alabama history: Selma to Montgomery March
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - On March 25, 1965, thousands of nonviolent demonstrators, led by Martin Luther King Jr., arrived at the capitol steps in Montgomery after a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma after failing to do so twice before.
At the conclusion of the march, when King spoke to the crowd, he stated, “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.”
Although the march was largely successful on this day, it was not easy to achieve, considering the senseless violence that had occurred leading up to this moment.
In early January, Dr. King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and local activists in a voting rights campaign focused their efforts in Selma.
Selma was chosen despite repeated registration attempts by local blacks, and only 2% were on the voting rolls. The SCLC decided to focus here because they anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would garner national attention, which in turn would pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.
Mass arrests were made throughout the campaign in Selma and Marion, but little violence happened during the first month. However, on February 18, that changed when civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was brutally beaten and shot during a march from Zion United Methodist Church to the city jail in Marion.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on March 7. At the time, King was in Atlanta, so Hosea Williams of the SCLC and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march. However, the marchers were met by a blockade of state troopers and local laymen commanded by Sheriff Clark and Major John Cloud across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The marchers were ordered to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. The troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. As the group retreated, the mounted police chased them and continued to beat them.
The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and was televised nationally. The horror of the day triggered national outrage. That night King sent a mass of telegrams and public statements, calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join them on Tuesday in a peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom two days later.
Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson notified the movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least March 11. President Johnson also pressured King to call off the march until a federal court could provide protection for the marchers.
Despite the warning, King led more than 2,000 marchers on March 9th to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the Sunday attacks. He stopped there and asked everyone to kneel and pray. After prayer, the group turned back towards Selma, avoiding another confrontation.
President Johnson issued a public statement following the events of March 9th, saying, “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 also promised to introduce a voting rights bill to congress.
On March 15th, Johnson addressed congress on television, stating, “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.” The following day Selma demonstrators submitted a detailed march plan to Judge Johnson, who approved the demonstration and prohibited Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers.
Finally, on March 21, the march left Selma. The demonstrators were protected by Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents. The group would cover around ten miles a day. They would camp in supporters’ yards at night and were even entertained by celebrities such as Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte. The number of demonstrators reached 25,000 people by the last day.
Once reaching the capitol, King addressed the crowd, delivering what is now known as his How Long, Not Long” speech, where he famously stated, “I know you are asking today, how long will it take? How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne? How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The result of the march from Selma, along with the events leading up to that day, ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed by President Johnson. 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.”
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