Selma-Montgomery March Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., was a significant factor in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and marked increased pressures toward both political and economic reforms in the United States.

Summary of Event

The Selma-Montgomery march of 1965 is often viewed as one of the most decisive events in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. It was marked by considerable violent resistance, a high degree of emotional intensity for those who participated, and political impact not often matched. Its basic purpose was to extend voting rights to black Americans in a period when many southern white leaders adamantly resisted broadening the franchise. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 , signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964, did contain provisions for minority voting rights. Its eleven titles spanned the spectrum of basic rights, including equal access to public accommodations, schools, and employment. Title VI gave the federal government the power to cut off funds from state or local authorities that discriminated, but there was little increased authority in the voting rights provisions of Title I. Nor was it certain that any of the desegregation mandates would be respected in the Deep South. Selma-Montgomery March (1965)[Selma Montgomery March] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Voting Rights March (1965) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;violence [kw]Selma-Montgomery March (Mar. 21-25, 1965)[Selma Montgomery March] [kw]Montgomery March, Selma- (Mar. 21-25, 1965) [kw]March, Selma-Montgomery (Mar. 21-25, 1965)[March, Selma Montgomery] Selma-Montgomery March (1965)[Selma Montgomery March] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Voting Rights March (1965) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;violence [g]North America;Mar. 21-25, 1965: Selma-Montgomery March[08370] [g]United States;Mar. 21-25, 1965: Selma-Montgomery March[08370] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 21-25, 1965: Selma-Montgomery March[08370] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 21-25, 1965: Selma-Montgomery March[08370] King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;protests and demonstrations Williams, Hosea Lewis, John Robert Clark, James G. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights Wallace, George C.

Although Selma was a small city in an essentially rural part of Alabama, it was in the highly segregated Dallas County region that some civil rights leaders believed would be a good place to launch a concerted voter registration drive. In February, 1963, well before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field workers such as Bernard and Colia Lafayette, John Love, Worth Long, and others began to work with local black leaders. The results were meager because of intense resistance by the forces of Sheriff James G. Clark and the entrenched white power structure. On the other hand, Clark’s roughness provided the kind of focus needed to stir a grassroots movement. Throughout 1963 and 1964, SNCC and the Dallas County Voters’ League held monthly voter registration clinics and occasional mass rallies. Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizers such as James Bevel, C. T. Vivian, Harry Boyte, and Eric Kindberg participated in some of these activities and began to consider the Dallas County area as a possible target for the SCLC’s heightened voter registration drive begun in earnest after the Civil Rights Act.

If voter registration was the chief focus of Dallas County black leaders such as Albert Turner, Amelia Boynton Boynton, Amelia , and Voters’ League president Frederick D. Reese, it was by no means the only issue with which they were concerned. There was widespread concern among African Americans about police roughness, barriers to school integration, and widespread poverty because of job discrimination. They believed that gaining the vote would open the door to other reforms in the local communities. The Johnson administration had already introduced a voting rights act in Congress by late 1964, but passage was uncertain and some of its terms were considered weak by the SCLC, SNCC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other advocacy groups. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC’s president, shared these concerns and came into Selma in January, 1965, to spur the voter registration effort.

King met forceful resistance, as did several others. He was slightly injured when a white detractor attacked him as he tried to integrate Hotel Albert. On January 19, Sheriff Clark roughly shoved Amelia Boynton as she participated in a march to the courthouse on behalf of black voter registration. That incident was pictured in the national and international media and drew the world’s attention to Selma, a city in south central Alabama that had fewer than thirty thousand residents. It became obvious that voting rights were tied to other basic American constitutional rights. When King, by then a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was jailed in early February, a new wave of activists poured into Selma to give aid to the effort. Many of them were students, but ministers, workers, and others were also attracted to the increasingly dramatic Selma campaign. Even Malcolm X Malcolm X , just days before his assassination on February 21 in Harlem, went to Selma to support King. The fatal shooting of young Jimmie Lee Jackson Jackson, Jimmie Lee by police in nearby Marion added to the determination to continue the voting rights drive and the effort to deal with the various violations of rights that blacks faced. The original plan for a motorcade from Selma to Montgomery was abandoned in favor of a walking demonstration along the rural highway leading to the state’s capital. This brought to light a complex pattern of racial segregation that reached all the way to the governor’s office and state laws.

Participants in the Selma-Montgomery March in March, 1965.

(Library of Congress)

The first effort to march from Selma to Montgomery was made on Sunday, March 7. King and Ralph Abernathy Abernathy, Ralph were at their churches preaching. The SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC Chairman John Robert Lewis led a crowd of more than five hundred people out of Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge Edmund Pettus Bridge Bridges and toward Montgomery, along Highway 80. Governor George C. Wallace had banned the march the previous day, and Clark was expected to try to stop it, but no one anticipated the military-like force that waited to confront the marchers. Across the bridge, a large volunteer posse put together by Sheriff Clark waited, along with well-equipped state troopers under Colonel Albert Lingo Lingo, Albert . As the marchers approached the bridge, they were ordered to stop and told to disband within two minutes.

Before the short warning period had ended, the police began to attack. Some were on horseback, swinging billy clubs and whips that lashed into the marchers’ bodies. Tear gas canisters were fired as the crowd began to scatter. Some troopers pursued the fleeing demonstrators as they tried to find refuge. The Selma march had suddenly become a rout that would be remembered as “Bloody Sunday” Bloody Sunday (1965) by many people. About eighty injured people were treated at the Good Samaritan Hospital, seventeen of whom were admitted for more treatment and observation. The Bloody Sunday attack was publicized widely, both in the United States and abroad.

King rushed back to the city and prepared for another attempt on Tuesday, March 9, appealing for help from around the nation. Public concern deepened, and within two days about 450 white members of the clergy and a wave of other supporters poured into Selma. This time, a federal injunction prohibited the march, and President Johnson requested a postponement. Local Selma and Dallas County officials disagreed on how to approach any renewed effort to march to Montgomery. Public Safety Director Wilson Baker Baker, Wilson had opposed the use of force against the first attempted march, and now he urged compromise to avoid a repetition of its violence. Behind the scenes, federal and local officials worked with King and other leaders to arrange a symbolic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with promises that police would let marchers pass. The march would then halt without continuing to Montgomery.

Few people knew of these arrangements, however, so that the March 9 trek caused confusion and some disillusionment. A crowd of about nine hundred people left Brown Chapel once again. The number swelled to more than fifteen hundred as they neared the bridge. King told them, “We must let them know that nothing can stop us, not even death itself.” Most assumed that they were on their way to the capital. As the marchers crossed the bridge, the police lines widened to let them pass. The marchers paused to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and then the march leaders turned the group around and headed back into town.

Despite this ostensible retreat, the events in Selma were important in the history of civil rights activism in the United States. The week following the second attempted march was filled with significant legal and political moves. A federal court declared the Alabama bans on demonstrations invalid, and President Johnson spoke out forcefully to Congress and the nation on March 15 in support of the effort in Selma. He declared what had happened on March 7 to be “an American tragedy,” and said that the Selma campaign was important to all Americans. In Johnson’s words, “Their cause must be our cause, too.” No president had ever taken this bold a public stand on civil rights. The fact that Johnson ended his address by saying, “And we shall overcome!” won wide applause from black activists.

On March 17, Judge Frank M. Johnson Johnson, Frank M. authorized the march to Montgomery and ordered Governor Wallace not to interfere. The same day, President Johnson sent his completed voting rights bill to Congress. Certain restrictions were placed on the march, such as a limit of three hundred on the number of marchers on two-lane sections of the road, but it would proceed with police protection to its destination. About eight thousand people started out of Selma on Sunday, March 21. It took five days to complete the trip. Along the way, a number of prominent entertainers and political figures participated, among them Harry Belafonte and Leonard Bernstein. King left on Wednesday, March 24, to fly to Cleveland for a speech, but rejoined the march as it entered Montgomery on Thursday, its final day. About thirty thousand people had taken part in the march.

There were some violent eruptions in places, but the march proceeded in an orderly way without major incident. After the march, however, a white Michigan housewife and mother, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo Liuzzo, Viola , was shot to death in her car as she drove black marchers back home from Montgomery. When the SCLC board of directors met in Baltimore in early April, they considered a boycott campaign against the state of Alabama in response to that and other violence.

Significance

The Selma march has a significant place in civil rights history. It helped convince Congress that a voting rights act was necessary. Such a bill was passed by Congress in May, 1965, and signed into law by President Johnson on August 6. It covered all states where screening devices such as literacy tests were used to restrict voting and states in which either fewer than half of the voting-age citizens were registered as of November 1, 1964, or fewer than 50 percent voted in the 1964 presidential election.

In another major sense, this march was historically significant. After Selma, the Civil Rights movement gave more attention to the socioeconomic conditions of racial minorities and poor people in the United States. It seemed imperative after 1965 to exercise the right to vote and thereby seek to bring about some of the reforms that were impossible when black Americans were systematically prohibited from voting. The Selma march was also psychologically important. It boosted confidence and energized new enthusiasm for future changes. King biographer Stephen B. Oates concluded that, “In truth, Selma was the movement’s finest hour, was King’s finest hour.” There is much truth in this estimation. The Selma experience not only effected political changes but also infused the movement with a new confidence. Some scholars see in it the culmination of the trend from nonviolent persuasion to nonviolent coercion, that is, the transition from using marches and other demonstrations to win support to using them to bring higher legal and political authority to bear on local opposition. This distinction is not absolute since, from the beginning, both elements were present.

At the personal level, Selma is remembered as an inspirational experience. Marchers were resisted violently, yet they persisted. Many children and young people who witnessed the March 7 confrontation recalled years later being helped to safety by the adults. Voter registration efforts, furthermore, were thereafter regarded by increasing numbers of individuals as important direct action contributions to social reform in the United States. After Selma, the nonviolent Civil Rights movement in the United States began to venture out of the South into places such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Louisville. Selma-Montgomery March (1965)[Selma Montgomery March] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Voting Rights March (1965) Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights Civil Rights movement;violence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fager, Charles E. Selma, 1965: The March That Changed the South. 2d ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. Written by a white participant who knew the black leaders involved in the Selma march, this account provides useful insight into the dynamics of the surrounding politics. Fager discusses the tensions between Sheriff Clark and Police Chief Baker as well as the differences among Voters’ League president Frederick D. Reese and various other voter registration campaign leaders. Fager also traces the background of the march, its details, and its immediate results. New introduction and postscript, illustrations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. A thorough account of the background and development of the Selma campaign. Garrow draws upon a rich array of sources to trace methodically the work of SNCC, the Dallas County Voters’ League, and local politics to show the importance of the Selma experience in forcing Congress to act on the Johnson administration’s voting rights proposals. A solid, basic study of the campaign and its effects. Notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. The first of the critical analyses of King’s life. Discusses the charge of King’s personal misconduct with women. His treatment of Selma is among the best parts of the book in the sense of capturing both the drama and the significance of the anti-integrationist violence that produced Bloody Sunday. Notes, bibliographical references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The Unfinished Agenda of the Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March. Edited by the editors of Black Issues in Higher Education. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Part of the Landmarks in Civil Rights History series, this collection presents a detailed, step-by-step history of the Selma-Montgomery march of 1965 and its aftermath. Recommended. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">We Shall Overcome: Historical Places of the Civil Rights Movement. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. http://www.cr.nps.gov/NR/travel/civilrights/. A Web site devoted to the significant places of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Includes historical details of the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Sheyann, and Rachel West Nelson. Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil-Rights Days. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980. A moving personal account by two women who were small children during the Selma campaign. Part of a growing genre of personal literature that is enriching civil rights studies, this work is warmly presented, very readable, and highly informative on the experience of young blacks during the intense period of civil rights activism. Fears, expectations, and personal views are presented in a refreshing way.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolk, Allan. The Presidency and Black Civil Rights: Eisenhower to Nixon. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. Although not specifically about the Selma campaign, Wolk’s study puts the Johnson administration in perspective, showing the evolution of the relationship between presidential politics and civil rights issues from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Its chief value in this connection is its information on Johnson’s much higher level of involvement in civil rights than any other president of the period covered. Chronological chart of civil rights policies, bibliography, index.

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Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

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