Selma and Civil Rights

Mark Rathbone examines the importance of one Alabama town’s contribution to the civil rights movement.

marchers carrying banner 'We march with Selma!' on street in Harlem, New York City, New York, 15 March 1965. Library of Congress.

If you drive into Selma, Alabama, from the north along Highway 20 and follow Broad Street past the gas stations, chain burger restaurants and shops which make up the townscape of so many similar towns in the United States, you will see looming in front of you the girders of a bridge which takes the road across the Alabama River onto Route 80 towards the state capital Montgomery. It is not beautiful, its utilitarian grey-painted steel structure towering over the road, but it is a site full of historical resonance, for this, as large letters on the bridge girders remind us, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a structure familiar from many historic photos of the civil rights movement.


Bloody Sunday

Here on 7 March 1965 an event happened which was to change the face of America for ever. Led by Rev Hosea Williams and John Lewis, 600 civil rights marchers set out from the Brown Chapel Church, which served as the local headquarters of the civil rights movement, to march to Montgomery, 55 miles away, to protest against the persistent denial of voting rights to African Americans in Selma. They got as far as crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge when their path was blocked by state troopers, under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark. He told them that the march was illegal and gave them two minutes to disperse.

After one minute and five seconds, the state troopers assaulted the marchers, using whips, clubs, rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire and tear gas. The marchers offered no resistance or retaliation and many of them prayed on their knees as blows rained down upon them. Five women were beaten into unconsciousness and 70 of the marchers required hospital treatment, including John Lewis who suffered a fractured skull. Several hundred of the marchers were arrested on what was labelled ‘Bloody Sunday’.

So what were the marchers trying to achieve, and why have the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Sunday come to be seen as a milestone in American History?



It was ten years since Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery. By means of a two-front strategy of using African American economic power to put pressure on the city authorities by boycotting the buses, while NAACP lawyers took the case, Browder v. Gayle, to the US Supreme Court, a great victory had been won. The young Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a stone’s throw from the Alabama State Capitol, had emerged as an eloquent spokesman for the civil rights movement. His name was Dr Martin Luther King, and his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became the vanguard of the civil rights movement.

A great deal had been achieved during the decade since those events, culminating in the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This Act, pushed through Congress by President Lyndon B Johnson in the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination, at last banned segregation in hotels, restaurants and other public venues. It gave the federal government the power to bring lawsuits to force the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and provided for the withdrawal of public funding from educational institutions which failed to comply.

Finally, Title 7 of the Act banned private sector employers from discriminating against anyone on grounds of race, religion, national origin or gender. The inclusion of gender discrimination was surprisingly radical and arose almost by accident. Southern congressmen added the mention of sex discrimination believing that it would never pass and would wreck the entire bill. This tactic misfired as the amended bill passed in both houses of Congress intact. Also included in Title 7 was the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was charged with administering and enforcing the new law. President Johnson extended the scope of the Act by Executive Order to rule that ‘Employers holding contracts with the government must take affirmative action to ensure that they were not discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.’


Affirmative Action

All this added up to the most powerful piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and, by introducing the concept of affirmative action, it set the agenda for the civil rights battleground for the 1970s and beyond. For affirmative action argued that it was not enough merely to remove discrimination, but that it was necessary to compensate racial minorities for the denial of opportunity they had suffered for generations by positive action in their favour. This was controversial and remains so, as Supreme Court cases brought by white Americans who were denied places in universities in favour of African Americans they regarded as less well-qualified show. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School (1996) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) are examples.

President Bill Clinton found it necessary to defend affirmative action in a speech on 19 July 1995: ‘Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the doors of education, employment and business development opportunities to qualified individuals who happen to be members of groups that have experienced longstanding and persistent discrimination ... When affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair, and it works.’

These battles over affirmative action, however, still lay in the future, for the issue of voter registration was the most immediate battleground in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Whilst the act was cause for celebration for the civil rights movement and had outlawed arbitrary discrimination in voter registration, the enforcement mechanism for this provision was weak and in practice many African Americans throughout the south could still not register to vote. Voting rights were to be the next focus of civil rights action.


Jimmy Lee Jackson

Activists from the SCLC and the SNCC (Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee) across the south worked to increase African American voter rolls, often with limited success. Selma, Alabama, was a case in point. In a town of 29,000 people, just over half the population, some 15,000, were African Americans, but only 383 of these were on the voting register. The Registrars’ Office in the town was rarely open and would only process a limited number of applications each month. Forms submitted by African American citizens would often be ‘lost’.

In January 1965, local activists invited Martin Luther King to lead a 400-strong protest march to the Dallas County Court House in Selma. Sheriff Jim Clark used the well-worn tactic of closing the office for the day. Another march on 1 February led to the arrests of King and John Lewis. Later in February, Sheriff Clark personally assaulted another SCLC leader, Rev C T Vivian, pushing him headlong down the steps of the Court House in front of television news cameras. In a separate incident, rank-and-file civil rights campaigner Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot dead at close range by a state trooper. The tension in Selma was increased by the arrival of the radical African American leader Malcolm X, invited to speak by local SNCC leaders, perhaps in the hope that the Selma authorities might see what the alternative could be if they continued refusing to negotiate with King.

This then was the background to the plan for a march from Selma to Montgomery. When it was announced, Alabama Governor George Wallace banned it and sent state troopers to enforce the ban. On 7 March, as already related, 600 marchers led by Rev Hosea Williams and John Lewis were attacked by Sheriff Clark and his state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Television pictures of the event caused outrage throughout America. As Robert Dallek wrote in his 1998 biography of Lyndon Johnson, ‘The national reaction to what the press called “Bloody Sunday” was everything advocates of a voting rights law could have wished. Television provided graphic descriptions of the police actions, and newspapers all over the country featured the story on their front pages.’ Hundreds of sympathisers, both black and white, flooded to Selma to lend their support to the marchers. Among them were Viola Liuzzo and Rev James Reeb, two white Americans who paid with their lives for their participation in the movement – both were murdered a few days after Bloody Sunday by gangs of local segregationists.

A further attempt to stage the march on 9 March ended in disarray when Dr King directed marchers to stop at the far side of the bridge, to kneel for a brief prayer and then disperse. King feared further bloodshed, but radical SNCC members, such as James Forman and Cleveland Sellers, saw his action as an abject surrender to force. This disagreement over tactics marked an important stage in the growing split between Dr King and those who were growing impatient with his insistence on non-violence. The emergence of more militant groups, such as the Black Panthers, arguably weakened the civil rights movement in the mid-to-late-1960s and damaged the liberal pro-civil rights consensus which had accomplished so much between 1963 and 1965.


‘And … We … Shall … Overcome’

King was planning a different approach to the Selma impasse. On the night of 9 March, he flew to Washington to urge President Johnson to intervene. It was this exploitation by King of his contacts with the White House which made the Selma-Montgomery March such a pivotal event in civil rights history. For Johnson responded, immediately and decisively, in three ways. First, on 13 March, he had a meeting with Governor Wallace and put pressure on him to allow the march, while agreeing to limit its size to 300 marchers. Secondly, he took action through the courts to lift the ban on marches in Alabama, a decision which was confirmed on 17 March. The march eventually took place four days later. Thirdly, and most significantly, on 15 March, Johnson sent a Voting Rights Bill to Congress.

Johnson had ordered the drafting of a Voting Rights Bill in January 1965, but was inclined to delay its submission to Congress until 1966. Events at Selma and King’s plea for intervention persuaded the President that this bill should go ahead at once. Johnson made a point of going to Capitol Hill and addressing a joint session of both houses of Congress in person: ‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not only negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And … We … Shall … Overcome.’ The President’s adoption of the words of the civil rights movement’s anthem had a powerful effect.

Passed in August, by 333 votes to 85 in the House of Representatives and by 77 to 19 in the Senate, the Voting Rights Act not only outlawed literacy tests, but also gave the US government the power to impose federal control of voter registration in areas where there was discrimination against African Americans trying to register. The result was a dramatic reversal of practice, as local registration officials, anxious to prevent a federal takeover, did their utmost to encourage African Americans to register. An attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the Act in 1966 was rejected by the Supreme Court in South Carolina v Katzenbach. At last, African Americans could freely register to vote.


Charles Evers

Within a few years, African Americans were being elected in increasing numbers at city, state and federal levels, as the table on page 18 indicates. Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader murdered in Mississippi in 1963, was elected Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, the first African American to be elected mayor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Conversely, many white segregationists were voted out, among them Sheriff Jim Clark, who lost a Democratic primary election in 1966. In 1967, President Johnson nominated the NAACP civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice, the first African American to sit in the United States Supreme Court. Successes such as these paved the way for the major roles in US politics played early in the twenty-first century by African Americans such as Condaleesa Rice, Barack Obama and Deval Patrick. ‘The Voting Rights Act,’ concludes James T Patterson in Grand Expectations, his 1996 study of the USA from 1945 to 1974, ‘largely wiped out a blight on American democracy and transformed the nature of southern politics in the United States.’

And what of Selma today? The site of Bloody Sunday is marked by a Civil Rights Memorial, with tributes to Williams, Lewis and other leaders and a pleasant walk through woodland to the banks of the Alabama River, with more memorials under the trees to civil rights workers killed during the struggle, including Liuzzo and Reeb. It is a peaceful spot today, very different from 1965.


National Voting Rights Museum

On the Selma side of the bridge is the National Voting Rights Museum, dedicated, in the words of Sam, the museum’s curator since it opened in 1991, to the foot-soldiers of the movement. There are numerous photographs and panels telling the stories of events leading up to the march and of individuals who were involved. But the most moving part is the I Was There Wall, which is covered in Post-It notes with messages from people who took part in the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965. The route of the march along Route 80 is now designated a National Historic Trail. The starting point is the Brown Chapel Church, which served as the local headquarters of the civil rights movement in 1965, a role which is commemorated with a memorial in front of the building, and it finishes at the State Capitol in Montgomery.

The town is proud of its history, with plaques commemorating people and events in Selma’s past, not just the civil rights history, but also its role in the Civil War, when it was a major garrison town for the Confederate Army and was burned by the Union forces when they captured it. Benjamin S Turner, a former slave who was manager of the St James Hotel during the Civil War, was the first African American from Alabama to be elected to the US Congress, in 1870. As well as fighting for civil rights for his fellow freedmen, he campaigned for an amnesty for former Confederate leaders, which seems very decent of him under the circumstances! The St James Hotel itself is still there and was restored to its former glory in 1997. It is a marvellous ante-bellum historic building, with rooms on three floors built around an internal courtyard.

The restoration of the hotel in 1997 was intended to lead to the regeneration of the riverside area. The row of ante-bellum properties next to the hotel looks picturesque and a plaque describes them as among the best historic riverfront buildings in the south, but the shops and cafés which occupied them have all closed down and the buildings will soon sink into dereliction if they are not used. There is, however, a considerable number of boarded up shops and businesses, suggesting that the town’s economy is not strong. A survey in 1994 revealed that the average household income for African Americans in Selma was $9,600, while for whites it was $25,600. The predominant issue for African Americans (and other ethnic minorities) today is an economic one.

This was recognised as early as April 1965 in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, a report commissioned by President Johnson and written by his Assistant Secretary for Labor, Daniel Moynihan. The Moynihan Report noted the rising unemployment, high family break-up rates and dependency on welfare amongst the African American community, and, as the title suggested, called for action to combat this. Martin Luther King shifted the emphasis of his campaigning towards the poverty issue and was planning a Poor People’s March on Washington at the time of his assassination in 1968.

Full civil rights for all may have been won in the 1960s, through the courageous work of the civil rights movement, by a series of favourable judgements by the Supreme Court under Earl Warren, and from such laws as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As we have seen, Selma played a vital part in that struggle. But today many African Americans remain at the bottom of the heap, either unemployed or in low-paid jobs, comprising 13 per cent of the population but owning only 3 per cent of the wealth.



Civil Rights Act bans segregation in hotels, restaurants and other public venues and prevents employers from discriminating against anyone on grounds of  race, religion, national origin or gender.

January 1965
Local activists invite Martin Luther King to lead a march protesting against denial of voting rights to the Dallas County Court House in Selma; President Johnson orders drafting of Voting Rights Bill.

February 1965
King and John Lewis are arrested; Sheriff Clark assaults Rev C T Vivian; Jimmy Lee Jackson is shot dead; Malcolm X speaks in Selma.

7 March 1965
Bloody Sunday: 600 civil rights marchers are attacked by state police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma.

9 March 1965
King directs a second march to disperse after crossing bridge, then flies to Washington to urge President Johnson to intervene.

13 March 1965
Johnson puts pressure on Governor George Wallace to allow the march.

15 March 1965
Johnson sends Voting Rights Bill to Congress and tells a joint session ‘We … Shall … Overcome’.

17 March 1965
Court lifts ban on marches in Alabama.

April 1965
Moynihan Report calls for action to combat poverty amongst African Americans.

August 1965
Voting Rights Act is signed into law by Johnson.

Supreme Court upholds Voting Rights Act in South Carolina v Katzenbach; Sheriff Jim Clark loses a Democratic primary election.

National Voting Rights Museum opens in Selma.

Restoration of St James Hotel begins regeneration of Selma waterside district.


Issues to debate

  • Which was the more important event  in the history of the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education or the Selma-Montgomery March?
  • Did President Lyndon B Johnson do more for African American civil rights than any other president in US History?
  • Do you agree with James T Patterson that ‘The Voting Rights Act … transformed the nature of southern politics in the United States’?


Further Reading

  • Kwame Anthony Appiah & Henry Louis Gates Jr (eds), Africana: Civil Rights, an A-Z Reference of the Movement that Changed America (Running Press, 2004)
  • Bruce Dierenfield, The Civil Rights Movement (Longman, Seminar Studies, 2004)
  • David Paterson, Doug & Susan Willoughby, Civil Rights in the USA, 1863-1980 (Heinemann, 2001)
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974 (Oxford, 1996) Kevern Verney, Black Civil Rights in America (Routledge, 2000)
  • Vivienne Sanders, Race Relations in the USA 1863-1980 (Hodder Murray, third edition, Access to History, 2006)

Mark Rathbone is Head of History at Canford School, Wimborne, Dorset, and a prolific writer of articles on British & American History & contemporary British Politics.