In 1965 a series of events in Alabama inspired a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
Early in the year, civil rights activists launched a voter-registration campaign in Selma, where fewer than 1% of eligible blacks were registered to vote. They were confronted by Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, and his deputized citizens’ posse who rounded up civil rights activists using gestapo tactics and cattle prods.
On the night of February 18th, State troopers savagely attacked Vivian and other demonstrators. In the chaos, a young man named Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot at point blank range in what the local newspaper called “a nightmare of state police stupidity.”
The tragedy galvanized the Selma voting rights campaign. James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference proposed a symbolic march from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery—more than fifty miles away.
On March 7, 1965, SNCC’s John Lewis and the SCLC’s Hosea Williams led a procession of more than 500 marchers over the Edmund Pettus bridge. The demonstrators were met by Alabama State troopers—clad in gas masks and bearing riot gear.
When the marchers refused to disperse, State troopers and county possemen attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. News cameras immortalized a hellish scene of police brutality and chaos. The event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation. Time Magazine reported that, “Rarely in human history has public opinion reacted so spontaneously and with such fury.”
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King led more than three thousand demonstrators in a repeat of the “Bloody Sunday” march. The events in Selma inspired President Johnson to convene a joint session of Congress. The President invoked images of the American Revolution and Civil War. “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, 'What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'"
25,000 demonstrators participated in the Selma to Montgomery march. Ten years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott christened the Civil Rights Movement, the crusade was at its zenith: unified, triumphant and non-violent.
Martin Luther King addressed the crowd in Montgomery, saying “I know you’re asking today, how long will it take. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because mine eyes have seen the glory...”
But even as King reassured the faithful that their goal was within reach, divisions between the “old guard” and young militants within SNCC threatened to splinter the movement itself.
The story of the Selma campaign and the Civil Rights Movement are documented in "The Civil Rights Movement"—watch it in the Streaming Room™.