At the end of 1961, the focus of the civil rights movement began to shift. Dr. King stated, “The central front is that of suffrage. If we in the South can win the right to vote, it will place in our hands more than an abstract right. It will give us the concrete tool with which we ourselves can correct injustice.” For several years before the Selma-to-Montgomery march, grassroots organizations such as the SNCC and SCNC began organizing around the issue of voting rights. Organizers targeted Selma because it typified the Black Belt; only one percent of the voting age black citizens were registered to vote. Those who tried to assert their rights faced lynchings, nighttime shootings, beatings and economic reprisals. The brave few not deterred by fear faced a “literacy test” which often required that they interpret a section of the Alabama constitution. While essentially illiterate white applicants passed the literacy test with ease, 175 black applicants with high-school diplomas were rejected, along with 21 applicants with college degrees and one who had a master’s degree.
By the beginning of October 1963, the SNCC and local activists began organizing “Freedom Mondays” – hundreds of men and women from Dallas County would line up outside the registrar’s office waiting for their opportunity to register to vote.
As the activities stepped up so did the number of arrests. Hundreds of activists were taken to the Selma jail at the hands of the notoriously violent Sheriff Clark. By 1964, despite the grassroots organizing efforts, the majority of the county’s black voting age population was still un-registered.
Dr. King met with President Johnson after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to discuss the need for a voting rights act. President Johnson, though he put Attorney General Katzenbach to work drafting the legislation, instructed Dr. King that it would probably be until late 1965 or 1966 before moving on it. President Johnson believed the American people were tired of the civil rights movement and needed a break before attempting anything further.
On January 18, 1965, Dr. King and John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC, led 400 men and women from Brown’s Chapel to the county courthouse. When they arrived, Sheriff Clark ordered the group to step into the alley next to the courthouse, no one was allowed into the courthouse and no one was registered to vote. The next day they marched to the courthouse again. This time when Sheriff Clark ordered the group to step into the alley, they refused.
That day sixty-six marchers went to jail. So began the tug-of-war between the marchers and Sheriff Clark.
As the number of arrests increased so did the intensity of the movement. On February 18, activists gathered in nearby Marion for a nighttime march to Selma. Just as the group stepped out of the church to begin their march Sheriff Clark and his posse confronted them. That night, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a twenty-six-year old Army veteran, was shot while trying to protect his mother. On February 26, Jimmie Lee Jackson died. At his funeral the idea to march from Selma-to-Montgomery was born.
On March 8, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams, one of Dr. King’s aids, led the march known as “Bloody Sunday.” As the group of 525 marchers crossed Pettus Bridge, they met 200 troopers and possemen.
When they were 50 yards away a trooper came over the loud speaker and addressed the crowd, “This is an unlawful assembly. Your march is not conducive to the public safety. You are ordered to disperse and go back to your church or to your homes.” Williams responded, “May we have a word with the mayor?” The trooper replied, “There is no word to be had.” Though the group was given a two-minute warning, the troopers were ordered to advance on them after only a minute had passed.
A United Press International reporter gave his account of the violence that continued even after the marchers retreated: “The troopers and posseman, under Gov. George C. Wallace’s orders to stop the Negroes’ ‘Walk for Freedom’ from Selma to Montgomery, chased the screaming, bleeding marchers nearly a mile back to their church, clubbing them as they ran. Ambulances screamed in relays between Good Samaritan Hospital and Brown’s Chapel Church, carrying hysterical men, women and children suffering head wounds and tear gas burns.” The marchers eventually retaliated throwing bricks and bottles until the troopers were momentarily recalled back and the marchers were allowed to enter the church.
Once again, the media played an important role in the movement. As the troopers and Clark’s posse violently attacked the non-violent marchers, ABC television broadcast the gruesome scenes from Selma. The network presented a powerful metaphor to the nation when they interrupted a documentary about Nazi war crimes to show the violent scene that was unfolding in Selma. Public support for the movement swelled. Public opinion polls showed that except for the South, the nation sided with the marchers. During the first forty-eight hours after “Bloody Sunday,” there were demonstrations in more than eighty cities protesting the brutality and urging the passage of the voting rights act.
The next day Dr. King sent a request to Federal District Judge Frank Johnson for a federal injunction barring state interference in the march from Selma-to-Montgomery; however, Judge Johnson would not grant an injunction without a trial so the march would have to wait. On March 9, Dr. King led a group to the Pettus Bridge where they knelt, prayed and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
As the hearing was taking place, Governor Wallace went to Washington D.C. to urge President Johnson to stop the march. President Johnson would not stop the march – he was appalled by the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” and sent an important message to the American people:
The events of last Sunday cannot and will not be repeated, but the demonstrations in Selma have a much larger meaning. They are a protest against a deep and very unjust flaw in American democracy itself. Ninety-five years ago our Constitution was amended to require that no American be denied the right to vote because of race or color. Almost a century later, many Americans are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Therefore, this Monday I will send to the Congress a request for legislation to carry out the amendment of the Constitution."
Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American Life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of use who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.