March for Justice: From Selma to Montgomery

African American struggle for the right to vote

ROBYN H. JIMENEZ | 1/20/2015, 11:49 a.m.
Not too long ago, the right to vote was a White-only privilege. Even 100 years after the Civil War, African ...
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, head for the capitol in Montgomery, during a five-day, 50-mile walk to protest voting laws, March 21, 1965. Before the 1964 "Freedom Summer" registration drive in Mississippi, just 5.8 percent of Blacks in that state could cast ballots. File Photo

The Dallas Examiner

Not too long ago, the right to vote was a White-only privilege. Even 100 years after the Civil War, African Americans were denied the right to register and vote. Voters in the South faced the majority of the discrimination at the polls. Most Blacks that attempted to register faced barriers such as a poll tax, tests and intimidation. Often, White groups resorted to death threats and/or threats to burn down the homes and businesses of Blacks. As a result, only a very small percent of African Americans were able to register. Even fewer were able to vote.

On March 7, 1965, a multitude of 600 civil rights marchers set out on a journey – from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery, along Route 80 – and a mission to demand the right to vote for all citizens. African Americans made up close to 50 percent of the residents in both cities.

John Lewis, an Alabama resident and the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the key organizer for the marches.

As the marchers began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, just at the edge of the city and not yet at their destination, marchers were met by police and mounted officers dressed in riot gear. Marchers passed for a moment then proceeded onward. The town’s sheriff warned the demonstrators to turn around and head back. The activists continued their march. The lawmen then attacked them with tear gas, beat them with billy clubs and trampled them with their horses – all while spitting on them and yelling racial slurs. Wounded during the one-sided battle, the peaceful marchers headed back to Selma to regroup. Throughout the country, television stations interrupted shows to broadcast the devastating violence, while newspapers published photographs and articles of the horrifying attack on the marchers. The brutal incident would soon be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Horrified and outraged, African Americans began holding demonstrations throughout the country. Civil rights and religious leaders headed to Selma to participate in the demonstrations. African American leaders in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked together to organize the larger group of marchers.

On March 9, led by King, marchers headed toward the bridge but did not cross. Instead, King petitioned the courts for protection as they attempted a third march.

After receiving assurance for protection along their route, the activists reorganized and headed back to Montgomery on March 21, led again by King. The several hundred marchers grew to over 3,000 marchers from across the country. During the four days it took for them to reach the capitol, their numbers grew to about 25,000.

When they arrived, King was blocked by a state trooper and not allowed to make his address from the steps of the capitol. Yet, that didn’t stop him from addressing the marchers, the residents of Alabama, citizens throughout the United States and the U.S. Congress.

“I can say, as Sister Pollard said – a 70-year-old Negro woman who lived in this community during the bus boycott – and one day, she was asked while walking if she didn’t want to ride. And when she answered, ‘No.’ The person said, ‘Well, aren’t you tired?’ And with her ungrammatical profundity, she said, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.’ And in a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested,” King encouraged the marchers.