Selma to Montgomery March I
Selma, Alabama was known as one of the most intransigent communities in the South when it came to voting rights. In 1963 less than 1% of blacks were registered to vote, as opposed to 65% of whites.
SNCC began voter registration classes in Selma that year, but made little headway. Blacks who attempted to register were shocked with cattle prods, and attacked by Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse of deputies. As added intimidation, their pictures were published in the local newspaper. Meanwhile, the Federal government paid little attention.
But in January, 1965 shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King launched a major voter registration drive in Selma. Scores of black citizens trooped to the courthouse where they faced violence and arrest, but this time the attention of the nation was focused on Selma. Within days 100 black teachers, the elite of the community, joined the demonstrations, then King himself went to jail where he was soon joined by 800 school children, and hundreds of adults.
In mid-February SCLC staff member C.T. Vivian was beaten by Sheriff Clark during a courthouse confrontation. Days later a Vivian speech in nearby Marion was followed by a nighttime march, a very dangerous undertaking. In the dark, whites and police attacked the marchers, and Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and killed while attempting to defend his mother and 82-year-old grandfather.
From Jackson's murder and funeral arose the idea of carrying black grievances to the seat of power in a fifty mile march from Selma to the Capital in Montgomery. King announced the march for the following Sunday, but was not himself present when 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge leaving Selma and were met by clubs, tear gas and troopers on horseback. Scenes of this violence on the television evening news galvanized the entire nation. Hundreds of Americans from all walks of life converged on Selma. Following the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation, a second march was called for March 7. This time King had everybody's attention, but when he led a group of 1500 across Pettus Bridge to face the waiting troopers, he knelt and prayed, and then to almost everyone's surprise turned around and led the throng back across the bridge. That evening three white ministers were attacked with clubs as they left a Selma restaurant, and Reverend James Reeb was killed.
This second murder provoked a national outcry and demonstrations in many cities. President Johnson, addressing a television audience of 70 million, announced that he would bring a voting rights bill to Congress. A Federal Court ruling cleared the way for a third march, and when Governor Wallace refused to provide protection for the marchers, Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, ordering its 1800 men to secure the march, along with 2000 US Army troops, 100 FBI agents, and 100 US marshals. On Sunday, March 21, the Selma-to-Montgomery March finally got underway.