This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the first of the Selma to Montgomery marches. During the month of March 1965, civil rights leaders led three protest marches that were pivotal in advancing the rights of black Americans. Here are five sets of facts you should know about these historic marches:
1. Segregation in America officially ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet in some Southern states measures were still being taken to obstruct black Americans from registering to vote. During the same month as the passage of the civil rights legislation, an Alabama judge issued an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of numerous civil rights groups. This order shut down efforts to oppose disenfranchisement in the state for the remainder of 1964.
2. During the first few months of 1965, several groups and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the injunction and lead marches in Selma, Alabama. During a peaceful protest on February 18, white segregationists attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators in the nearby town of Marion. In the ensuing chaos, an Alabama state trooper fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Baptist deacon. Civil rights groups organized a march for March 7 from Selma to Montgomery to demand justice for the murder of Jackson and to confront Governor Wallace over voting rights. In response, Wallace issues a declaration forbidding the protest and orders the state troopers to "Use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march."
3. After Sunday morning church services on March 7, approximately 600 demonstrators headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. When they came to Edmund Pettus Bridge, just outside the city, state troopers confronted them. The police shot tear gas into the crowd and began using their clubs to beat the protestors. By the end of the day, which will become known as “Bloody Sunday”, 100 of the 600 marchers required medical attention for fractured skulls, broken teeth and limbs, gas poisoning, and whip lashes. The brutality was broadcast on national television, causing Americans across the country to be dismayed by the police violence. Numerous civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths traveled to Selma to join the protest.
4. On Tuesday, March 9, King leads another march of 3,000 protestors. When they reach the bridge this time they are met by 500 state troopers. As the marchers near, the troopers open their ranks, seemingly to allow the protestors to continue on. King realizes that continuing will incite the police to more violence, so he had the marchers turn around and returned back to their rally point at Brown Chapel.
5. The injunction against the protestors is lifted on March 17 by a federal judge, with the backing and support of President Lyndon Johnson. The president then federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 army troops to escort the march from Selma. On Sunday, March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel for the third attempt. On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from to the State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech How Long, Not Long. In the speech, King said:
"They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."
Because of the attention raised by the protests, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote—first awarded by the 15th Amendment—to all black Americans.