The Selma to Montgomery Marches

In 1965, African-Americans were still facing barriers which either prevented or made it very difficult for them to register to vote. Many Southern states used poll taxes and literacy tests to deny African-Americans their right to vote. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and others sought to highlight this injustice with a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery, 54-miles away.

In Selma, African Americans made up almost half the population, but only two percent were registered voters. Discrimination and intimidation tactics aimed at blacks kept them from registering and voting. The SCLC and Civil Rights activists hoped the march would bring attention to their cause and bring fairness to voter registration.

One of the key organizers of the march was 25-year-old John Lewis. Lewis was the son of an Alabama sharecropper and a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC was dedicated to ending segregation and to registering black voters through non-violent means. Lewis and other leaders asked the demonstrators not to fight back against anyone who committed violence against them during the peaceful protest.

On March 7, 1965, about 600 people gathered in Selma and headed east on Highway 80. The protest went according to plan for the first 6 blocks until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and entered Dallas County. There, they encountered a wall of state troopers and deputized white men waiting for them on the other side.

The County Sheriff told demonstrators to disband and go home and warned them that they had two minutes to break up the march. Only seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another group of troopers fired tear gas while mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback. Television and newspaper cameras captured the event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Images of the brutal event outraged people throughout the country. Soon, demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in 80 cities. Many of America’s civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., flew to Selma. After one more failed attempt, King led a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery with over 3,000 marchers. President Lyndon Johnson soon sent a voting rights bill to Congress.

That summer, the bill would be signed into law as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned literacy tests and guaranteed all African-Americans right to vote.