The March on Selma: An Emotional Peak in the Civil Rights Movement



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The March on Selma: An Emotional Peak in the Civil Rights Movement

Kailas Sane

Paper


Junior Division

Over the course of American history, certain events have left indelible marks on the people and places of this country. One such event, which greatly changed the dynamic of the Civil Rights Movement, was the March on Selma, Alabama during in the 1960s. Although it is commonly referred to as the March on Selma, it was actually comprised of several marches, during the span of a couple of weeks, and not a single march. Without a doubt, this series of events which took place near Selma was a turning point in the fight for civil rights in America.

Nearly one hundred years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still faced persecution and segregation in the southern states.1 On a daily basis, they were forced to deal with disenfranchisement, segregation, and numerous types of oppression2. An awful set of laws called “Jim Crow” laws were instituted at the state and local levels prohibiting African Americans from using the same bathrooms, classrooms, and other public places as whites. But as the opposition to black rights grew stronger, so did the cry for equal rights.

One of the men to answer that cry was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. The Atlanta native grew up a strong believer in equal rights and worked tirelessly for civil rights for members of his race. In 1957, Dr. King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC. The organization worked to provide new leadership for the civil rights movement. According to the Nobel Peace Prize website, “King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles.”3 When Dr. King was just thirty-five years old, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest man to receive the prestigious award.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which gave people more freedom at work and stated that discrimination due to race, sex, religion, and so on would not be tolerated.4 The fact that Dr. King had been the recipient of the esteemed Nobel Prize and that this Act was passed in order to limit the persecution that African Americans had to face, pointed toward one thing: African Americans were finally breaking away from being considered second-class citizens.

Of all the people living in Dallas County in Alabama, which included the city of Selma, one half of the residents were African American. Therefore, half of the county’s citizens had no voice in the government simply because of their race. Due to this disparity, a strong call for voting rights emanated from the people of Selma. Then, a march was planned for February 18, 1965 to protest the disparity of voting rights for African Americans.

On February 18, a group of approximately four hundred and fifty marchers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee set out from Zion Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama. Not long after the marchers had departed, they were swarmed by a mob of angry white citizens. An eighty-two year old African American man named Cager Lee was hit over the head by a white person. In an effort to protect Lee from the Alabama troopers, Lee’s daughter and grandson followed Lee into a café. Lee’s grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was slammed into a cigarette machine and was shot twice in the abdomen by Alabama State Trooper, James Bonard Fowler. Jackson fell out the door of the café and laid there for several hours, unconscious and bleeding.5 After more than three hours, the twenty-six year old was transported to a hospital where he perished from his wounds eight days later.

The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson sparked outrage among the community. An angry group of one hundred Selma, Alabama students held their own night march on February 23 outside Brown Chapel. The brilliant preacher, James Bevel, distraught over Jackson’s death, said that he would like to take Jackson’s body and lay it on the steps of the state capitol where Governor Wallace worked every day.6 These events - the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the subsequent outrage of the surrounding communities, were defining moments - they planted the seed which would later germinate to become the Selma Movement.

Despite a ban on further marches announced by Alabama Governor George Wallace, a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama was planned for March 7, 1965 to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the denial of voting rights. Before the march, the tension in the air was palpable. Doctors relayed the information they had about tear gas to the marchers while a marcher named Charles Mauldin reviewed defensive moves with teenagers and kids.7 The group was not composed entirely of African Americans. Some Caucasian citizens were a part of the march. Among these Caucasian citizens was Dr. Frederick Kraus.8 Dr. Kraus had kept quiet about his personal beliefs on civil rights while he taught at the University of Alabama, but then he took a stand for his beliefs.9 He was part of a group called the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama.10 This group was part of the small number of whites who took part in the Selma March, marking one of the first major times that African Americans and Caucasians had worked together during the entire movement.

At about four o’clock in the afternoon on the day of the march, the group set off from Brown Chapel led by Freedom Fighters Hosea Williams and John Lewis. Another Freedom Fighter named Andrew Young remained at Brown Chapel in case of trouble.11 Everything went smoothly until the marchers reached the Pettus Bridge. The marchers were met by a horde of displeased Alabama State Troopers heavily armed with nightsticks and tear gas.12 The troopers, who had donned gas masks, ordered the peaceful marchers to return to their church immediately. When the marchers refused, the brutality began. Sheriff Clark and his deputies began to beat the peaceful protestors and use tear gas.13 Other weapons that were used include cattle prods, whips, and horses to disperse the marchers. The use of cattle prods was a reminder that many Caucasian citizens believed that African Americans were more like animals than humans. As the troopers unleashed their weapons, many of the unarmed marchers fell to the ground. Freedom Fighter John Lewis, who had been struck to the pavement, remembered thinking, “People are going to die here. I am going to die here.” 14

The physical damage from the march was described well by a newspaper article that said, “State troopers and deputies on horseback, under orders from Gov. George Wallace to stop a “freedom” march to the state capital, Sunday tear-gassed 600 Negroes and set them reeling and bleeding under the lashes of clubs, bull whips, and ropes.”15 John Lewis had suffered a possible skull fracture, and at least sixty-seven African Americans had been injured.16

That night, footage of the brutality that took place in Selma was shown on television. Millions of people watched as the deputies furiously beat the unarmed marchers. The footage sparked outrage among Americans. Many people, previously neutral on the subject of civil rights, became furious with the police and felt sympathy for the marchers. Forty-eight million people had tuned in to watch the footage. The world really was watching. Even a senator from Texas named Ralph Yarborough commented on Wallace’s actions against the peaceful protesters proclaiming, “Shame on you George Wallace. This is not the American way.”17

The general public had now seen what the marchers were up against and what they were fighting for. The call for equal voting rights was now heard by the public, turning the tables in favor of the marchers.

In spite of all the adversity the first marched had faced, Dr. King vowed to plan another march. Summing up his thoughts about another march, he stated, “We’ve gone too far now to turn back.”18

Alabama governor George Wallace had a different view on the marches. He said, “Those folks in Selma have made this a seven-day-a-week job. But we can’t give an inch. We’re going to have to enforce state laws.”19 While Governor Wallace remained firm in his opinion, so did Dr. King. Another march was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and unlike during the last march, the highly respected orator, Dr. King, would lead.

On March 9, 1965, the marchers set off again, except this time Dr. King was at the helm. Dr. King had also asked some religious leaders to accompany him. Prior to the march, President Lyndon B. Johnson had warned Dr. King not to proceed until he could issue a court order to protect the marchers.20 Despite President Johnson’s warnings, Dr. King decided to march as planned. As the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the previous violent upheaval, they were again met by protestors. However this time Dr. King had a surprise planned: instead of marching on, Dr. King told his followers to kneel down and pray. Instead of meeting violence with more violence, Dr. King and his followers met their opposition with peaceful prayer.

In Selma, Alabama on March 9, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s act of restraint gained him respect from people around the nation, and in particular President Johnson. The ninth of March then became known as “Turnaround Tuesday”, a better day after the atrocities of “Bloody Sunday.” But meaningful change had not been seen yet, so one final march was to be held.

On March 21, 1965, a group of about 3,200 marchers started the trek from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. The marchers walked a painfully long average of twelve miles each day and stopped and camped in fields owned by supporters of the march. The end of the day was also sometimes filled with a bit of entertainment. Famous African American performers like Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne would frequently entertain the weary marchers after the long days of grueling walking.21

On March 25, the capital was in view. The group that was once around 3,000 strong had multiplied to a group of nearly 25,000 people. Also, something had changed from the last marches. This march was federally sanctioned, and the marchers were protected by a multitude of federal agents and Alabama National Guardsmen. The group would not be stopped this time. Led by Dr. King, the marchers reached Montgomery safely, where Dr. King delivered one of his famous speeches, today known as “Our God is Marching On.” The powerful speech begins by saying how they, the marchers, defied the odds and made it to Montgomery.22 From there, the brilliant orator, Dr. King, went on to say that they will not give up the fight for voting rights and equal rights. He reassured the crowd through his fine words that white supremacy was waning by proclaiming, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 23

The marchers claimed victory that day in 1965, and three events spanning over three weeks had changed the dynamic in the struggle for equal rights in voting as well as other spheres of life. Of course, the fight was not over, but the Selma Movement was a defining moment of change in Civil Rights Movement. After seeing the marches, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced voting rights legislation into Congress and continued pushing for equal voting rights. Those voting rights were already stated in the Fifteenth Amendment, but they did not extend to African Americans and were now formally guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was passed the following August, about five months after the marches.

Sadly on April 4, 1965, the Civil Rights Movement lost its greatest orator and most respected leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., striking a blow to the very core of Civil Rights Movement. But the fight was certainly not over because the March on Selma had laid down the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement to continue with immense strength. Segregation and prejudice were still omnipresent in society, but the marches made many Americans question whether the brutality displayed during the “Bloody Sunday” footage should be occurring within the United States. America stopped for a second and questioned its conscience. After Dr. King’s death, the nation took time to mourn, but as time moved on, so did the Civil Rights Movement. Along with the movement marched on Dr. King’s legacy and spirit, but the Civil Rights Movement could not have continued without the occurrence of the March on Selma.

The March on Selma was without question a huge turning point in the struggle for civil rights. The public eye finally was able to see what the African Americans fighting for civil rights dealt with day in and day out, with the brutality at the Pettus Bridge leaving an indelible impression on the American psyche. Also, it was the emotional peak of the Civil Rights Movement. During the first march, many African Americans were wounded or killed. The damage left behind by those deaths and wounds was not only never erased in the minds of the marchers, but it also intensified the marchers’ will to continue the battle for civil rights. After the marchers’ victory, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced a voting rights bill into Congress and began pushing for civil rights for African Americans. And of course, President Johnson had his own thoughts about the marches. He declared, “At times, history and fate meet together at a single time at a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

And along with its effect on society fifty years ago, the Selma March still is a part of society today. It is re-enacted every year in Selma. And on January 21, 2013, President Barack Obama mentioned it in his inaugural address stating, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” And by saying that those marchers left footprints, he was stating that he believes it was a turning point as well.

The March on Selma was an extremely important event that changed our nation forever. President Johnson stated that the Selma Marches were a turning point, and the lasting impact of the march is still existent as President Obama pointed out. But of course the nation had to move on after the March on Selma, as it did, but we should always remember what happened on that March day in Selma, Alabama.




1 Civil Rights Movement. History Channel, n.d. Web. 13 Jan. 2013. 
     .






2
 Ibid.







3
 The Nobel Peace Prize 1964: Martin Luther King Jr. Nobleprize.org, n.d. Web. 13
     Jan. 2013.





4

 Civil Rights. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.
     .







5


 Partridge, Elizabeth, and Jim Hoover. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together,
 Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.








6

 Ibid.








7

 Ibid.








8

 Sturgeon, Kelso. "Alabama Professor Explains Why He Marched in Selma." The
     Washington Post, Times Herald 8 Mar. 1965: n. pag. Print.







9
 Ibid.







10
 Sturgeon, Kelso. "Alabama Professor Explains Why He Marched in Selma." The
     Washington Post, Times Herald 8 Mar. 1965: n. pag. Print.






11

 Partridge, Elizabeth, and Jim Hoover. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together,
 Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.







12


 "Incident at Selma." New York Times 9 Mar. 1965: n. pag. Print.







13


 Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. New
     York: Abbeville, 1996. Print.








14

 Partridge, Elizabeth, and Jim Hoover. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together,
 Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.







15
 "Alabama Policemen Halt Negro 'Freedom March.'" Rome News-Tribune [Rome,
     Georgia] 8 Mar. 1965: n. pag. Print






16

 Ibid.






17

 Finlayson, Reggie. We Shall Overcome: The History of the American Civil Rights
     Movement. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2003. Print







18


 Finlayson, Reggie. We Shall Overcome: The History of the American Civil Rights
     Movement. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2003. Print








19

 "Alabama Policemen Halt Negro 'Freedom March.'" Rome News-Tribune [Rome,
     Georgia] 8 Mar. 1965: n. pag. Print







20
 The Selma to Montgomery March: The Struggle for Voting Rights. America's Byways,

  n.d. Web. 6 Jan. 2013. .









21
 The Selma to Montgomery March: The Struggle for Voting Rights. America's Byways,
     n.d. Web. 6 Jan. 2013. .






22

 Our God Is Marching On. Minnesota Public Radio, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.
          mlkselmaspeech_20090320_64.mp3?_kip_ipx=1080400951-1350151244>.

23

 Ibid.




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