In the early 1960s, Selma, Alabama was 57% black, but of the 15,000 blacks old enough to vote, only 130 were registered. This was a trend that was, unfortunately, found in dozens of cities across Alabama. Organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted to register black citizens during the 1960s. Their efforts were blocked by local officials and the Ku Klux Klan.
The drive to register blacks to vote reached an apex in the winter of 1965 when blacks in the town began to protest. On February 18th, 1965 the Selma protest spilled out to the neighboring town of Marion. Protesters began to march around the courthouse, but were met with by fifty state troopers that ran wild against the protesters and began to beat people at random. State troopers went after blacks by smashing heads and ribs with clubs.
Two of the victims were Viola Jackson and her frail father, Cager Lee. Viola’s son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, an army veteran, leaped to their defense and was shot twice in the stomach by a state trooper. He died a week later. Jackson’s killing set local activists over the edge. To accuse Alabama’s racist governor, George Wallace, the protesters planned to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery and deposit Jackson’s corpse on the capitol steps.
On March 7th 525 demonstrators began to march. As they passed over Edmund Pettus Bridge, the demonstrators saw their way blocked by a small army of state troopers brandishing night sticks, white helmets, and gas masks. The troopers and deputies attacked the demonstrators in the most savage police riot of the civil rights era. Police blinded the marchers with tear gas and then swarmed on the protesters and clubbed many of them until dozens lay unconscious. ‘Please, no!’ a terrified marcher cried. ‘My God, we’re being killed!’ another cried. When night fell, 57 blacks were treated for injuries ranging from broken teeth and head gashes to fractured limbs. Hosea Williams, a World War II combat veteran, insisted that ‘the Germans never were as inhuman as the state troopers of Alabama.
Martin Luther King Jr. vowed to carry on the march. ‘There may be beating, jailing, and tear gas. But I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience by compromising with evil’. The massacre of the Selma Marchers shocked the nation. Television networks interrupted their programming to flash the savagery of ‘Bloody Sunday’ across the country.
Bloody Sunday prompted President Lyndon Johnson to give a stirring address to congress and 70 million Americans. In his deep Texas Drawl, he fully embraced the civil rights movement: ‘It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.’ Congress soon passed landmark legislation to that provided federal oversight of elections to make sure blacks could register and fully exercise their rights as American citizens.
Today, we remember the 500 brave Selma marchers who sparked the federal government to pass sweeping legislation to end voting discrimination against blacks in the Deep South.
I’m Harold Dorrell Briscoe. Thanks for reading.