Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, Civil Rights Marches

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Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, Civil Rights Marches

The Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama , civil rights marches, were a series of three marches that took place in March 1965. They drew national attention to the harsh conditions faced by African Americans in the segregated South. Historians consider the Selma march to be one of the most decisive events in the history of the African American civil rights movement .

Voter registration drive in Selma

Selma was a small city in Alabama's highly segregated (separating black people from white people in public places) Dallas County. In the early 1960s only 3 percent of eligible blacks in the county were registered to vote. Activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “Snick”) began working with local black leaders in Dallas County in 1963 in an attempt to register black voters. The results of their efforts were poor because of the intense resistance of the county sheriff, James G. Clark (1923–2007), who used his police force to intimidate blacks who tried to register to vote. By 1965, only about three hundred of Selma's fifteen thousand eligible black voters were registered.

Voter registration was the chief focus of the black leaders of Dallas County, but they were equally concerned with police brutality, segregated schools, and widespread poverty because of job discrimination. They believed that gaining the vote would open the door to other reforms in the local communities. These local black leaders requested help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a national civil rights organization. SCLC agreed that Selma would be a good place to launch an all-out voter registration campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), the SCLC's president and by then a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, arrived in Selma with other civil rights leaders and activists in January 1965 to spur the voter registration effort. SNCC also took part in organizing and leading events.

The conflict begins

The civil rights workers immediately met forceful opposition in Selma. On January 19, 1965, Sheriff Clark roughly shoved a demonstrator as she participated in a march to the courthouse on behalf of black voter registration. He initially arrested sixty-seven blacks attempting to register to vote; over the next several weeks thousands more were arrested, including King. Clark's treatment of the demonstrators, closely covered by the national media, became more and more brutal. In one case he and his deputies arrested one hundred sixty-five protesters and then chased them out of town with electric cattle prods. A new wave of activists poured into Selma to support the effort.

An interesting arrival was the fiery activist and former Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (1925–1965), who had long criticized King's nonviolent methods and philosophy. Nevertheless he arrived in Selma to support the imprisoned King. Malcolm X was undergoing a change in his views of the civil rights movement, but King, fearing violence, had not invited him to Selma and did not see him while he was there. Whether the two leaders could ever have found common ground was forever left unanswered because Malcolm X was assassinated a few weeks after his Selma trip. The potential connection between these two powerful leaders has intrigued historians since that time.

On March 3, after the police fatally shot a young civil rights demonstrator, King announced a protest march from Selma to the state capital at Montgomery, a distance of fifty-four miles.

Bloody Sunday

The first effort to march from Selma to Montgomery was made on Sunday, March 7, 1965. King and SCLC vice president Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990) were not in Selma for the march. SCLC leader Hosea Williams (1926–2000) and SNCC Chairman John Lewis (1940–) led a crowd of more than five hundred people out of Brown Chapel in Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. From there they had planned to march along Highway 80 toward Montgomery. Alabama Governor George Wallace (1919–1998) had banned the march the previous day, and Sheriff Clark was expected to try to stop it, but no one anticipated what was to come.

As the marchers approached the bridge, they saw on the other side a large volunteer posse (an armed group of individuals brought together to help law enforcement) put together by Sheriff Clark. There was also a large group of state troopers. The sheriff ordered the marchers to stop and gave them two minutes to disband. Well before the two minutes were up, the police charged the marchers. Some members of Sheriff Clark's posse were on horseback, swinging billy-clubs. Others had whips that lashed into the marchers' bodies. Some fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. The marchers tried to flee, but troopers pursued them and continued to beat them viciously. About eighty people were injured that day, some seriously. Filmed and aired on television, the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge provoked moral outrage across the United States. The first Selma march would be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

Second attempt

King, who had been in Atlanta, Georgia , rushed to Selma and prepared for another attempt to finish the march on March 9. He appealed for help from around the nation. After watching the violence on television, the public was deeply sympathetic. Within two days about 450 white members of the clergy and a wave of other supporters poured into Selma.

At that point a federal judge issued a temporary order to stop the marches until he could rule on the validity of the governor's ban on the march. This order created a dilemma for King, who knew that if he defied federal officials he could jeopardize much-needed federal support for the movement. Behind the scenes, he worked out an agreement with the Alabama authorities that had been initiated by the federal government. The civil rights demonstrators could start their march as planned, but the state police would block the bridge. They would allow King and his marchers to stop, offer a prayer, and return to Selma unharmed.

Few people knew of these arrangements, however. On March 9 a crowd of about nine hundred people left Brown Chapel once again. The number swelled to more than fifteen hundred as they neared the bridge. Most assumed that they were on their way to the capital. As the marchers crossed the bridge, the police lines widened to let them pass. The marchers paused to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and then, to their surprise, the march leaders turned the group around and headed back into town.

This compromise arrangement deeply wounded the civil rights movement. SNCC members were already convinced that King's absence from the first march signaled his unwillingness to risk his own safety while SNCC voter-registration volunteers were in danger every day. When King ordered the marchers to return to Selma, they were angry at what they perceived as a betrayal.

Third march

The week following the second attempted march, a federal court declared the Alabama ban on demonstrations invalid. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) spoke out forcefully to Congress and the nation on March 15 in support of the effort in Selma. He called what had happened on March 7 “an American tragedy” and said that the Selma campaign was important to all Americans. No president had ever taken this bold a public stand on civil rights.

On Sunday, March 21, about eight thousand people started out of Selma on the five-day march. Thousands joined as the march was in progress, including a number of celebrities and political figures. In the end about thirty thousand people took part. There were some violent eruptions in places, but the march proceeded without major incident. After the march, however, Viola Liuzzo, a white Michigan woman, was shot to death in her car as she and another marcher, Leroy Morton, drove local black marchers back home from Montgomery.


President Johnson took advantage of the national outrage over events in Selma. In the midst of the conflict, in a nationally televised address to both houses of Congress on March 15, Johnson called for a national effort to eliminate racism and hatred. He outlined the basic provisions of his Voting Rights Act , which he sent to Congress four days later. Congress passed the act, and Johnson signed it on August 6, 1965. Applying primarily to the southern states, the bill empowered federal authorities to take over the voter-registration process in places where discrimination existed. Though the bill was considered weak by many civil rights leaders, it quickly made a positive impact. Voter registration of blacks went from thirty-one percent of those eligible in 1965 to fifty seven percent in 1968. In Dallas County, Alabama, newly registered black voters defeated Sheriff Clark when he ran for reelection.