In 1963, Selma, Alabama, was a small town of about 30,000 people. It was located in Dallas County, where only 1% of eligible blacks were registered to vote. Many blacks were apathetic about voting, which they saw as "white folks' business." As in Mississippi, it was supremely difficult for blacks to register to vote. The registrar's office was only open twice a month, and the registrars often came in late, took long lunch breaks, and went home early. Few blacks passed the required test for registration, even though they were sometimes more educated than the registrars. Once, an official giving a test to a black teacher stumbled over some words. "The teacher finally said, `Those words are "constitutionality" and "interrogatory,"'" remembered Amelia Boynton, a black Selma resident and activist. "The registrar turned red with anger. [The teacher] flunked the test and was refused her registration certificate."
In addition, whites met attempts by blacks to register with strong resistance. When SNCC organized a "Freedom Day" on October 7, 1963, a local photographer, under orders from Sheriff Jim Clark, took pictures of the 250 blacks who lined up to register and asked them what their employers would think of the pictures. Police beat SNCC workers who tried to bring food and water to those in line.
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC decided to turn their attention towards Selma. When Mayor Joseph Smitherman heard of King's plans, he urged Sheriff Clark not to use violence against the civil rights leader. Smitherman had just been elected that fall with a promise to bring industry to the town, and he did not want the negative publicity such violence could bring.
Clark, however, proved difficult to control. At one SCLC protest, he arrested Amelia Boynton, who was well-respected in the community. Pictures of the arrest, during which the club-wielding Clark pushed Boynton to the ground, ran in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC mockingly nominated Clark for honorary membership in the Dallas County Voters' League "for publicity services rendered." When Clark heard this on a surveillance tape made of the meeting, "[h]e'd scream bloody murder that he'd never do it again, he wouldn't fall into that trap again and go out the next day and do the same thing," said Wilson Baker, director of public safety.
On January 22, over 100 schoolteachers marched on the courthouse to protest Boynton's arrest. This gave added support to the movement because schoolteachers were considered to be among the elite, but they usually did not get involved in civil rights for fear of retaliation from the white school board. Also, the march meant that Sheriff Clark could no longer claim that blacks were not registered to vote "largely because of their mental I.Q." Andrew Young of the SCLC later wrote, "The teachers' march proved that the talk of blacks being `unqualified' to vote was a smoke screen." Students, inspired by their teachers and by the arrest of King on February 1, began to protest as well. When a group of about 200 teenagers refused to move from the courthouse on February 10, Sheriff Clark led them on a "forced march" that left some vomiting from exhaustion. White citizens, none of whom had ever denounced racial injustices before, were shocked and called for more control of Clark.
SCLC felt that it could not sustain demonstrations in a town as small as Selma for too long, so it turned its attention to protests in neighboring towns. On February 17, it planned a night march from the church to the jail in nearby Marion. Police spread rumors that participants in the march would break James Orange, an SCLC field secretary, out of jail. At the conclusion of the march, police and state troopers attacked the marchers. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Vietnam veteran, was shot as he attempted to protect his mother. He died seven days later. Black leaders were "stunned" by Jackson's death, according to Andrew Young. Albert Turner described the Marion situation as probably one of the most vicious situations that was in the whole Civil Rights Movement . . . . They beat people at random. They didn't have to be marching. All you had to do was be black. And they hospitalized probably fifteen or twenty folks. And they just was intending to kill somebody as an example, and they did kill Jimmie Jackson.
Marion's entire black community turned out for Jackson's funeral march. One of the organizers, Jim Bevel, said that "it would be fitting to take Jimmie Lee's body and march it all the way to the state capitol in Montgomery." Out of that remark grew a plan for a march from Selma to Montgomery, fifty four miles away.
The march started on Sunday, March 7. As marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, named for a Confederate general, they were met by police and state troopers, some on horseback, with orders from Governor George Wallace to stop the march. They told the marchers, "It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. You are ordered to disperse, go home or to your church. This march will not continue." Then they attacked. They fired tear gas into the crowd and severely beat protesters. "They literally whipped folk all the way back to the church," remembered one marcher. "They even came up in the yard of the church, hittin' on folk. Ladies, men, babies, children -- they didn't give a damn who they were." That night, TV stations interrupted their normal programming to show clips of the violence at Selma. ABC was showing a documentary on Nazi war crimes, Judgment at Nuremberg. Many viewers thought the clips of the violence at Selma was part of the film. "The violence in Selma was so similar to the violence in Nazi Germany that viewers could hardly miss the connection," wrote SCLC's Young. George B. Leonard remembered his feelings upon seeing the clash between the marchers and the police:
“A shrill cry of terror, unlike any that had passed through a TV set, rose up as the troopers lumbered forward, stumbling sometimes on the fallen bodies . . . . Periodically the top of a helmeted head emerged from the cloud, followed by a club on the upswing. The club and the head would disappear into the cloud of gas and another club would bob up and down. Un-human. No other word can describe the motions . . . . My wife, sobbing, turned and walked away, sing, "I can't look any more . . . ."
King, who had been preaching in Atlanta on "Bloody Sunday," as it was called, immediately started making plans for a new march on Tuesday. He called on people from all over the country to join him in Selma. Hundreds of people, shocked by what they had seen on TV that night, dropped everything and responded.
To prevent any further violence, the marchers wanted to get a court order prohibiting the police from stopping the march. The federal judge who heard the case often sided with civil rights workers, but he wanted to hold additional hearings later in the week. He issued a restraining order, saying that the march could not take place. SCLC officials had to make a tough decision. On the one hand, they had hundreds of people in town who had come down especially for the Tuesday march. On the other hand, without the court order against the police the Tuesday march would almost certainly be a repeat of Bloody Sunday. Besides, SCLC did not want to anger one of the few southern judges who was on its side. King finally decided to march to the bridge, hold a prayer, then turn around. In this way, at least part of the march would take place, but the marchers would not violate the restraining order, which only prohibited a march from Selma to Montgomery. Only the SCLC leadership was informed of this plan; however, Andrew Young, one of the SCLC leaders, felt that most marchers knew this was going to be a short march. But Orloff Miller, one of the 450 white ministers who had come to Selma for the march, was shocked by the turnaround. "All of a sudden I realized that the people in front were turning around and coming back and I was aghast. What is going on? Are we not going through with this confrontation? What's happening? . . . . We waited to hear Dr. King's explanation of why this had been. We never fully understood." One writer said that the march "remains an inexplicable moment in civil rights history."
King asked anyone who could to remain in Selma for another march. James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, was one of the many who agreed to stay. That night, he went to dinner with two companions at a black café. The three, unfamiliar with Selma, took a wrong turn leaving the restaurant. In front of the Silver Moon Café, a hangout for whites, Reeb was hit with a club. The tiny Selma hospital told his companions to take him to the hospital in Birmingham, a two hour drive away. By the time Reeb got there, he was dead. Reeb's death attracted national attention. This upset many blacks, who had watched Jimmie Lee Jackson's death go virtually unnoticed. "What you want is the nation to be upset when anybody is killed . . . but it almost [seems that] for this to be recognized, a white person must be killed," said SNCC's Stokely Carmichael.
A week after Reeb's death, the federal judge ruled that the state could not block the march. President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to give protection to the marchers. On March 21, fourteen days after Bloody Sunday, the marchers crossed over the Edmund Pettus bridge and kept going. The march took five days. There was no violence, "but the troopers and organized marshals were kept busy beating the bushes for possible snipers," recalled Amelia Boynton.
When the march entered Montgomery, it was 25,000 people strong and included many of the heroes of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. It was a triumphant moment, a return to Montgomery, where the civil rights movement had started ten years earlier with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's wife, remembered,
“I kept thinking about how ten years earlier, how we were . . . just blacks [in the movement] . . . . [But the Selma to Montgomery march] had Catholic priests, and nuns, and you had other clergy, and you had a lot of white people. It was really a beautiful thing to pass Dexter Avenue Church [where King had preached while in Montgomery] and go toward the capitol marching together.”
King told his audience, "However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to the earth will rise again . . . . How long? Not long. Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." It was truly a day for celebration.
That night, Viola Liuzzo, a white homemaker from Detroit, was shot and killed by Klansmen as she drove back to Selma from Montgomery. Her death was a reminder that, despite the triumph of that afternoon, blacks in America were, in King's words, "still in for a season of suffering." A few months later, blacks had reason to rejoice again. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. By 1969, 61% of voting-age blacks in America were registered to vote, compared to 23% in 1964.
The Selma to Montgomery march clearly showed both how far American blacks had come and how far they still had to go. Ten years earlier, they had timidly asked if they could sit in the front of the bus; now, they were demanding their full rights as American citizens. They had courts and a president who were willing to make rulings and pass laws to guarantee their safety and their rights. But, as Viola Liuzzo's murder showed, they still faced strong, violent opposition. Blacks were not at the end of the road, but they were further along than they had ever been.