The three marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 (only the third march actually made it to Montgomery) were the culmination of years of grass roots and national struggles for the right to vote for African Americans in the South. This was finally achieved by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. One of the greatest moments in American history was when the third march reached the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery with about 25,000 people and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “How long? Not long.” speech to the nation and world.
The struggles were led by:
- SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) led by John Lewis, and others
- DCVL (Dallas County Voters League) led by Amelia Boynton Robinson, Samuel William Boynton, and others
- SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, and others
- NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
- CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)
These were the three marches in March 1965 to go from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, to demand voting rights for African Americans and for all citizens:
- The first march “Bloody Sunday” on March 7 was stopped by violent state trooper and local police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
- The second march “Turnaround Tuesday” on March 9 only went as far as the Edmund Pettis Bridge where it turned around when met by state troopers and local police.
- The third march on March 21 had the support of federal troops. It crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge and reached its final destination on March 25 at the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.
Literacy tests were one of the tactics used to prevent African Americans from being able to register to vote. White (European American) voters were not given the same tests. The intention was to preserve White-only control of the government while pretending to be a democracy.
From 1961 - 1964 the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) had led voter registration campaigns in Selma, Alabama, but were hampered by county law enforcement.
In 1963 the DCVL (Dallas County Voters League) launched a voter registration campaign in Selma together with SNCC, but got no cooperation and stiff resistance from local officials. The DCVL was founded in the 1930’s by Amelia Boynton Robinson, her husband Samuel William Boynton, and other activists to do voter registration. Amelia Boynton Robinson passed away on August 26, 2015 at the age of 104.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the DCVL and SNCC worked to make voting rights in Selma a national issue. They invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to join the efforts. Large meetings were held in Selma from January 1965. Local and regional protests were held and about 3,000 people had been arrested by the end of February 1965. MLK and President Johnson were in communication about the issue and had a phone conversation on January 15.
On February 18, 1965 activist and church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot several times by a White police officer in Marion, Alabama. He had participated in a peaceful march to protest the jailing of another activist, James Orange. Jimmie, his mother, and grandfather fled from violent police to a nearby café where he was shot by the police. He died on February 26. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson created huge outrage and led to the first march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. SCLC Director of Direct Action James Bevel called on the march. This was a pivotal turning point in the Selma marches.
White policemen killing Black men is the same story again and again and again. Police brutality and murder has repeated created outrage, riots, and organized responses, such as the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. Here it inspired the start of the Selma marches.
March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march led by John Lewis of SNCC and Hosea Williams of SCLC with about 600 demonstrators. This march is known as “Bloody Sunday” was brutally stopped by Alabama state troopers and local police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers were mercilessly beaten by the state troopers and police with clubs and tear gas on national TV, provoking outrage across the country. Amelia Boynton Robinson, one of the founders of DCVL, was severely beaten. Alabama governor George Wallace backed the state trooper and police attacks on the demonstrators and did nothing to stop it.
Watch John Lewis recounts his experience on “Bloody Sunday” 50 years later as he and others try to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a US Senator from Alabama and member of the KKK.
March 9, 1965 “Turnaround Tuesday” march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This march had over 2,000 marchers. It turned around at the Edmund Pettis Bridge avoiding confrontation with waiting Alabama state troopers. There was a pending court order to allow a march, but it would not be decided until March 11. LBJ and the federal government tried to persuade MLK to postpone the march. The march proceeded anyway, but unexpected for many, turned around when confronted by state troopers and the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
LBJ issued a statement afterward: ‘‘Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote’’. LBJ met with Alabama Governor George Wallace to try to pressure him into protecting marchers and supporting voting rights. On that same evening March 9, 1965 James Reeb, a White Unitarian minister from Massachusetts that participated in the march, was attacked and beaten by local Whites. He died 2 days later on March 11.
On March 15, 1965 President Johnson delivered a televised speech to Congress calling on legislators to enact a voting rights act to protect the right to vote. LBJ concluded his speech with the words "we shall overcome" (borrowed from the iconic MLK speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963 that is perhaps the greatest speech ever made). Read or listen to LBJ's speech .
On March 17, 1965 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress and later signed into law on August 6. Read the text of the Voting Rights Act. This law had been demanded by MLK and the civil rights movements for years and was finally put before Congress. It was one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement and American history. It prohibited voting discrimination “on account of race or color”. Later amendments added rights, such as reducing the voting age to 18 years, supporting absentee voting, bilingual election requirements for language minorities, and voting assistance for disabled voters.
March 21, 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. completed at state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25. Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. approved the march request submitted on March 16, but only for 300 marchers.
On the last day of the march, the number of marchers had reached about 25,000 people. This time the march was protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents. The marchers camped along the way in the yards of supporters and were entertained by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and others.
The march ended at the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama after 5 days and about 54 miles. MLK spoke on the steps of the state capitol delivering his speech known as "How Long? Not Long." Read the text of the speech.
On the evening of March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer from Michigan, was shot and killed by 4 members of the KKK.
On August 6, 1965 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists attending.
So many people marched, protested and agitated to ensure all Americans can vote, no one should take this right for granted. Voting is one of the most important things you can do in a democracy. Register to vote at www.votefromabroad.org