In Context

In the winter of 1965, the SNCC and the SCLC began a voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. Tensions between segregationists and civil rights activists ran high. In February, after a nighttime rally protesting the arrest of an SCLC leader, the electrical power went out and a mob of white men seized the moment and attacked a group of protestors. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black army veteran, died as a result.

In response, activists conceived of a march from Selma to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, where they intended to confront the governor about the recent episode of police brutality. James Bevel, an SCLC strategist explained,

If you don't deal with negative violence and grief, it turns to bitterness. So what I recommended was that people walk to Montgomery, which would give them time to work through their hostility and resentments and get back to focus on the issue. The question I put to them was, "Do you think Wallace sent the policemen down to kill the man? Or do you think the police overreacted? Now if they overreacted, then you can't go around assuming that Wallace sent the men down to kill. So what we need to do is go to Montgomery and ask the governor what is his motive and intentions."

The 40-mile march would serve another purpose as well: The five days' time that the march would require would allow the national media sufficient time to debate the issues.

On March 7, 1965, about 600 demonstrators, including James Armstrong, marched out of Selma and attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Police officers met them there and prevented them from marching any further. Protestors were sprayed with tear gas and beaten in a widely publicized incident that later became known as Bloody Sunday.

Pressure on then-president Lyndon Johnson to sign the voting rights bill immediately intensified. Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a second march, this time with the protection of federal troops. The second group of marchers successfully crossed the bridge and reached Montgomery. Five months later, on August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which finally eliminated all voter registration tests that had been used to discriminate against black voters. Among other stipulations, the act contained special provisions targeting areas of the country that Congress deemed more likely to have discriminatory voter registration practices. These areas--which included Birmingham--were prohibited from making any changes to their voter registration policies without first submitting those changes for review by the attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Caption: March across Edmund Pettus Bridge after Bloody Sunday
Credit: Photo still from The Barber of Birmingham

» American Civil Liberties Union. "Timeline: Voting Rights Act."
» BBC. "1964: Three Civil Rights Activists Found Dead."
» Facing History. "Episode 5: Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964)."
» Facing History. "Episode 6: Bridge to Freedom (1965)."
» National Park Service. "Civil Rights in America: Racial Voting Rights."
» The United States Department of Justice. "Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws."
» Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. "Documents of the Southern Freedom Movement 1951-1968."