The Selma to Montgomery March proved to be a turning point in our nation’s history. Black civil rights leaders and demonstrators from across the South gathered in Alabama to demand their right to vote and participate fully in our democracy.
What unfolded on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday struck at our nation’s core, exposing the faultlines of a nation that declared itself a democracy while allowing its citizens to be beaten and bloodied for demanding their right to vote. The Voting Rights Act was passed four months later.
We owe a great debt to the civil rights leaders and demonstrators who put their lives on the line to secure the right to vote. Their tenacity and determination never wavered. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the enfranchisement of millions of Black Americans, our nation had finally begun to live up to its democratic ideals.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Selma, Alabama became the home base for voting rights efforts and organizing. Alabama had a deeply entrenched history of racial violence, and state officials undermined the right to vote for Black Alabamians at every turn. Organizers targeted Selma for voting rights efforts 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, vigilante violence, arrests and police brutality, and economic reprisals.
Organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), activists initiated the Selma Campaign, an initiative centered around increasing Black voter registration in Dallas County, Alabama. The Selma Campaign culminated in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies were infamous for their brutality and oppression of Black Selmans. Throughout the campaign, activists were often met with police violence and arrested several times.
After years of tireless organizing and countless arrests, the Selma Campaign culminated in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.
25 miles north of Selma in Marion, Alabama, SCLC helped residents organize a rally and impromptu march to the Marion Courthouse from a local church in February 1965. They were met by an army of state troopers, county policemen, angry civilians, and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. Demonstrators were ordered to disperse and then law enforcement charged the crowd, beating protestors and journalists in the process. It was in this sea of violence that 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed.
Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death shook activists in Selma, and they became even more determined to conduct a demonstration that could gain national support for legislation protecting the vote. Originally conceptualized by activist Diane Nash and her husband James Bevel, the Selma March was born in the wake of Jackson’s killing.
The plan was to walk fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery in a peaceful march. On what would later be known as “Bloody Sunday,” demonstrators attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in a peaceful demand for their right to vote. As they crested the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by Sheriff Jim Clark and a mob of county police on foot and on horseback. Unprovoked, police attacked the crowd, tear-gassing, whipping, and ferociously clubbing foot soldiers.
The appalling display of violence from police was filmed by newscasters and broadcast on television. ABC interrupted a documentary about Nazi war crimes to broadcast the acts of violence unfolding on the Edmund Pettus bridge. The images of peaceful marchers being attacked by a mob of police that flashed across the screen pushed Americans to confront the injustice at the heart of our nation. After Bloody Sunday, in towns and cities across the country people took to the streets to march in solidarity with the foot soldiers.
Despite the horrific acts of state-sponsored violence that occurred on Bloody Sunday, foot soldiers were not deterred. It is because of their fierce courage and determination that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in August.
This day, known as Bloody Sunday, would forever stand at the forefront of our national consciousness as one of the darkest days of American history.
After the events of Bloody Sunday, the Legal Defense Fund stepped in to protect the First Amendment rights of the marchers and to ensure that the Selma to Montgomery March had the legal framework needed to proceed as planned. LDF attorneys Jack Greenberg, James Nabrit, Norman Amaker, and Charles H. Jones worked with cooperating attorneys Fred Gray, Solomon Seay, Jr., Oscar Adams, Jr., and Demetrius Newton to file the case Williams v. Wallace.
LDF was involved in drawing up the plans of the Selma to Montgomery route that would ensure a safe passage for marchers and worked with Gray & Seay Law Firm of Alabama to file a proposed plan for the march on behalf of plaintiffs Hosea Williams, Peter Hall, and John Lewis. The plans detailed a march that would begin at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal in Selma and ended at the Capitol in Montgomery, the services that would be provided, and the behavior that was expected. The plan also detailed the plaintiff’s intentions to organize a 20-person meeting with Alabama Governor George Wallace upon arrival at the Capitol.
Ultimately, the plan was enshrined in the court’s order and the march was allowed to continue without fear of violent police intervention. Six months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be passed in direct response to the bravery shown on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. LDF is proud to have played a direct role in this struggle for voting rights and to continue to defend against modern-day voter suppression and police terror.
Every year, LDF staff sojourn to Selma, Alabama to honor the foot soldiers who braved state-sanctioned violence to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and to invigorate our spirits for continuing their brave work to open access to the ballot box. 2022 marked LDF’s return to an in-person Selma Weekend and march. A LDF-hosted redistricting panel was joined by journalist Errin Haines, Professor Melissa Murray, and Evan Milligan of Alabama Forward and the named plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, the Supreme Court case challenging Alabama’s redistricting maps. LDF will once again return to Selma in 2023 to march in honor of the Selma foot soldiers and continue the fight to live out the promise of Selma by securing equal access to the ballot.
Traveling to Selma is a time-honored tradition at the Legal Defense Fund and allows us the opportunity to be on the ground with the communities we dutifully serve. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with grassroots organizations and Selma community organizers always serves as a poignant reminder of our history and why we are called to the work.
"What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.