Remembering the march from Selma to Montgomery

February 20th, 2015

Selma to Montgomery

The 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery will be commemorated in Alabama next month. The film “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, is also bringing renewed attention to the movement in a small Alabama community that was largely responsible for the introduction of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Origins of the Selma movement

In 1963, local civil rights activists formed the Dallas County Improvement Association with goals that included investigating police brutality against blacks and fair access to voting registration and jobs. After being ignored by local officials, the Improvement Association convinced the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to make Selma a national focal point in the struggle for voter registration.

At first, local officials in Selma, fearing bad national publicity, responded with some resistance to the registration efforts. In nearby Marion, however, efforts to register to vote were meeting much greater opposition. On February 18, a spur-of-the-moment march was organized. More than 200 law enforcement officers ordered the crowd to disperse and then violently charged the crowd. Many demonstrators were beaten. A state trooper shot church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson as he tried to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died from his injuries eight days later.

According to Marion civil rights organizer Albert Turner, activists came up with the idea for a march from Selma in order to “go to Montgomery with Jimmie Jackson, take his body and lay it on the steps of the capitol.” A march was planned for March 7, and Governor George Wallace announced he would stop it.

As the marchers approached Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local officials, led by Sheriff Jim Clark and Major John Cloud. When the marchers refused to disperse, they were attacked with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased fleeing protestors, continuing to beat them. National news crews captured the massive violence on the day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Selma and the Voting Rights Act

Dr. King and the SCLC immediately began summoning clergy from across the country to come to Selma for another march in just a few days’ time. As religious leaders made their way to Alabama, a federal judge notified them that he intended to put a restraining order on the march until at least March 11. After consulting with other civil rights leaders and Justice Department officials, King led more than 2,000 marchers to Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they knelt, prayed, and then turned around rather than continuing to Montgomery. King’s decision was controversial, yet the compromise may have been critical in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that same day that he would submit a voting rights bill to Congress.

The evening after the march, Unitarian minister Reverend James Reeb was attacked by a white mob and died two days later. President Johnson used Reeb’s death to pressure Governor Wallace to protect participants who still planned to march from Selma to Montgomery. Wallace refused, and Johnson responded by federalizing Alabama National Guard troops, who would go on to protect the marchers alongside FBI agents. The Voting Rights Act was introduced days before the march began on March 21. By the time demonstrators arrived in Montgomery, the crowd had swelled to more than 25,000.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6th, with Johnson surrounded by King and other civil rights leaders. The legislation included provisions that prohibited using literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration. It also designated certain states as requiring federal monitoring because of widespread discrimination. These states were not allowed to change voter laws without first receiving federal approval.

Contributions of ordinary people to the Civil Rights Movement

Much of the news and commentary around Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” has focused on the relationship portrayed between Dr. King and President Johnson. According to Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, a look at the film’s portrayal of Johnson has both historical accuracies and inaccuracies. Zelizer says that analysis of White House tapes of Johnson show that he was already supportive of voting rights legislation, while the film shows Johnson as initially uninterested in voting rights.

However, Zelizer says the film is correct in portraying Johnson, prior to events in Selma, as believing that the political timing was wrong for voting rights legislation. It was only after watching the violence in Selma that Johnson began to think he might have to take action on voting rights sooner.

DuVernay has responded to criticisms of her portrayal of Johnson by stating, “I’m not a documentarian. I am an artist who explored history. And what I found, the questions I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into the project that I have made.”

What may have been missed in the controversy over President Johnson’s portrayal is the stories of ordinary people that are told in the movie. DuVernay says that she felt “very, very adamant about the fact that this film be broadened to include the community of people who came together to make it so.” The actions of thousands of people whose names are not well-known pushed “politicians to take action that they [didn’t] have the courage to take on their own,” writes Julian Zelizer.

It also tells the story of many women organizers whose contributions have often not received the same recognition as men. One such woman was Amelia Boynton, who began fighting for voting rights in Alabama alongside her husband as early as the 1930’s. The Boyntons’ home and office served as a headquarters for SNCC’s work in Selma. Boynton was key in persuading Dr. King that the SCLC should focus its voting registration efforts in Selma.

On Bloody Sunday, Boynton was at the front of the march. In a book she later wrote about that time, she says, “Like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, we marched toward the Red Sea, and we were on our way, not knowing what was before us.” Boynton was beaten until she was unconscious, and some thought she was dead. When people called for an ambulance, Sheriff Jim Clark said, “I’m not sending for an ambulance. Let the buzzards eat them.” When Clark died over 40 years later, Boynton attended his funeral to live out the Christian teaching of forgiveness.

Selma’s significance today

The Selma movement began with a focus on the right to vote. What got the attention of many people outside the South was witnessing the police brutality activists faced for simply trying to exercise that right. The 50th anniversary of Selma comes at a time when violence committed by the police, especially against African Americans, is again at the center of national concern and controversy.

We remember the people of Selma and what they sacrificed at a time when many civil rights leaders are once again concerned about people being fully able to exercise the right to vote. New voter laws requiring state-issued photo identification and reducing early-voting periods have been passed in a growing number of states. What impact will these laws have on the ability of low-income, elderly, rural, and minority people to cast their ballots?

The courageous acts of civil rights activists in Selma — and the brutal response they faced — give us much food for thought as we consider the struggles for freedom, peace, and equality in our own time. The Southern Civil Rights Movement was largely led by people of faith. How can we as people of faith show in not just our words but also in our actions that injustice is an issue of faith and morality? Are we willing to take risks for what is right, whether that risk is facing violence or the rejection of those who disagree with our actions? Will we listen to the voices of those who face oppression, voices that ask us to act now rather than waiting, to speak for what is right? In remembering the story of Selma, we cannot help but wrestle with the difficult questions of where our faith and the world’s struggles meet today.


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