In January 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists began a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where only two percent of eligible African Americans were on the voting rolls despite repeated registration attempts by local black citizens.
On March 7, 1965, activists attempted to march from Selma to Alabama's state capital in Montgomery to draw further attention to their voting rights campaign, but they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the edge of Selma. When the marchers did not immediately obey an order to disperse, the officers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas, and mounted police chased retreating marchers, continuing to beat them. The event, which became known as "Bloody Sunday," was widely covered on television news, provoking outrage nationwide.
Organizers called for another march to take place on March 9th. President Lyndon Johnson and other federal officials pressured march leaders to postpone the new march until a federal court could order protection for the marchers. On March 9th, Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had responded to Dr. King's call to travel from all over the country to join the marchers, to the site of Sunday's attack. There he stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers, they rose and marched back to Selma, thus avoiding confrontation with state troopers. Many marchers were displeased with the decision not to march on to Montgomery as planned, but President Johnson approved of the show of restraint and promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.
On March 15, 1965, President Johnson addressed Congress, saying, "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. 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. And we shall overcome." Two days later he submitted voting rights legislation to Congress. A day after that the Selma marchers submitted a plan for their march to Montgomery to a federal judge, who approved it.
The marchers left Selma on March 21st, protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents. They marched 7 to 17 miles per day, covering the 54-mile journey in 5 days and camping on supporters lawns at night. Tens of thousands joined in on the final day as the marchers reached the steps of the capitol in Montgomery on March 26, 1965.
In August of that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the presence of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.
Learn more about the Selma to Montgomery march at your Milwaukee Public Library.