Crowds are flocking to see the movie Selma, the film depicting the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. While the film may be categorized as ‘entertainment’, its dramatic retelling of this painful and important event in the modern civil rights movement is an essential lesson in Black history for a generation of African Americans.
The events that led up to the Selma-to-Montgomery March were put in motion on January 2, 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King and the SCLC joined the SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in a voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls (originally the U.S. Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote and in the absence of a specific federal law or constitutional provision, each state was given considerable discretion to establish qualifications and most states allowed only Caucasian males or land owners to vote).
This photograph of the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers is credited to Peter Pettus. It shows the marchers before the bloody confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
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The campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the first month. That changed in February, however, when police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased. On the night of 18 February, Alabama state troopers joined local police breaking up an evening march in Marion. In the ensuing melee, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion, as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.
In response to Jackson’s death, some 600 civil rights marchers from Selma and Marion set out on Sunday March 7 – a day that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” -, to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. While King was in Atlanta, his SCLC colleague Hosea Williams, and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march. The marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80 but got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, six blocks away where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen commanded by Sheriff Jim Clark and Major John Cloud who ordered them to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. Cheered on by white onlookers, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.
With strong public outrage following televised broadcast of the confrontation and with public sentiment largely on the side of the marchers, two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a “symbolic” march to the bridge of more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice, to the site of Sunday’s attack. They stopped at the bridge and Dr. King asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and avoiding the issue of whether to obey a court order prohibiting the march.
Civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. A Federal District Court Judge ruled in favor of the demonstrators and on Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong.
Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed at overcoming legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The act is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.
We honor the bravery and the sacrifice of the leaders and the marchers of Selma and we laud the efforts and the talent of the filmmakers and producers of Selma, the movie.