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50 Years Ago: Selma to Montgomery and the Right to Vote

Selma to Montgomery March Research Topic in ProQuest eLibrary

Selma to Montgomery March Research Topic in ProQuest eLibrary

Imagine you go to your county clerk to register to vote. You complete the required registration forms and give them to the clerk. However, before being added to the voter roll, you are told you must pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test—a test with questions such as “How many county judges are there in the state?” or “Name each of the county judges in the state.” Many people, educated or not, would not be able to answer these questions. Scenes like this (as depicted in the recent movie Selma) played out in the South daily for many African Americans when trying to register to vote.  Though the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the denial of the right to vote of any citizen based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude” by both the federal and state governments, it would be 100 years before African Americans had that right fully enforced.

Efforts to register black voters in Selma (Dallas County) Alabama began in 1963 with local organizers joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned racial discrimination and protected voting rights, African Americans continued to be disenfranchised at every turn. In the spring of 1965, at the urging of local activists, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the cause.

On February 18, during a peaceful protest march, activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state police officer. He died from his wounds on February 26. His death would be the catalyst for the march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.

Police attack Selma to Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965 (Bloody Sunday).

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

At Dr. King’s encouraging, supporters from all over the country came to Selma to march. The first march took place on March 7.  Some 600 marchers would be attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by troopers and county locals armed with barbed-wire billy clubs and tear gas. John Lewis, one of the leaders, sustained a head injury. Another leader, Amelia Boynton, beaten unconscious, lay on the bridge. Images of the violence on Bloody Sunday as it would become known were seen worldwide.  Two days later, instead of walking through the police presence which had moved to allow the marchers to pass, Dr. King led marchers back to Selma in order to receive federal protection for the march.  That same night, James Reeb, a Unitarian pastor from Boston who had heeded the call to come to Selma, was murdered.  The nation was outraged by what it had seen in Selma.  In response, on March 15, President Lyndon Johnson before a televised session of Congress asked for the passage of a voting rights bill stating “the real hero of this struggle is the American negro…he has asked us to make good the promise of America.”

The final march to Montgomery began six days after President Johnson’s appeal.  With federal protection, marchers walked 54 miles on Route 80 sleeping and eating on the side of the road.  Arriving in Montgomery on March 24 and at the state capitol building on March 25, the group was 25,000 strong.

The Selma marches were pivotal in the civil rights movement.  From the small town of Selma, Alabama one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation was born.  On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.  The pressure of activists, many whose names are not known, resulted in the enfranchisement of millions of African Americans over the years.