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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama

March 1965

"I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick... I thought I saw death."
—John Lewis, SNCC leader

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On March 7, demonstrators start a 54-mile march in response to an activist's murder. They are protesting his death and the unfair state laws and local violence that keep African Americans from voting. Led by SNCC activists John Lewis and Hosea Williams, about 525 peaceful marchers are violently assaulted by state police near the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma.

Television networks broadcast the attacks of "Bloody Sunday" nationwide, creating outrage at the police, and sympathy for the marchers. Alabama police turn back a second march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious leaders, on March 9th. Following a federal judicial review, the march is allowed to resume, escorted by the National Guard. On March 25, 25,000 marchers arrive at the State Capitol building in Montgomery. Soon afterward, the U.S. Congress will pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, forcing states to end discriminatory voting practices.

Context

Other Events: Early 1965

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is created.

The first American combat troops arrive in Vietnam, and the first anti-war "teach-in" takes place in the United States. Congress makes the destruction of a draft card a criminal offense.

Bill Cosby wins an Emmy for his role in the television hit, "I Spy."

Baseball player Willie Mays wins the National League's Most Valuable Player award.

The rock group The Grateful Dead forms in San Francisco.

"The Sound of Music" wins the Best Picture Oscar.

Press

The Montgomery Advertiser, March 10, 1965

Rights March Turned Back

Selma -- State troopers quietly turned back a massive right-to-vote march led Tuesday by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had begun the pilgrimage to Alabama's capital in defiance of a federal court ruling and a plea by President [Lyndon] Johnson...

...The march he made brought him face to face with a stern Maj. John Cloud, commanding a force of more than 100 blue-helmeted troopers, armed with billy clubs. Five hundred troopers had poured into Selma in advance of the march.

"This march is not conducive to the safety of those using the highways," said Cloud. He spoke as he stood at the head of a line of troopers massed across the pavement. He ordered the marchers to return to their church...

The Selma Times-Journal, March 11, 1965

Alabama is Disfigured
(Reprinted from The Anniston Star)

...The confrontation of Negro ambitions and the power of the law was provocative, but in that moment's surrender to the heady application of overwhelming force we lost the opportunity to show that we are equal to the sharpest demand of courage -- the courage of restraint.

Governor [George] Wallace was absolutely correct in directing that the protest march planned by the Negro leadership be stopped...

...Disagreement with the governor's instructions could have been expressed more sensibly by appeal to the injunctive powers of the law, not be flouting the law, or by some more sane public expression not endangering lives and property...

...We will never know, now, because of the hasty swinging of clubs and lashes, the hurried use of tear gas, the angry pursuit by mounted possemen that portrayed Alabama as the home of Cossacks and head-crackers unable to cope with a situation like this without losing control.

Those who planned this march did not act wisely, but proud and decent Alabamians cannot endorse the reckless brute force used against it Sunday...

The Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1965

Letters to the Editor: The March at Selma

...Tear gas, whips, and clubs were used to implement the charge by the troopers to disperse the Negroes.

The actions of the troopers were those of a police state effecting its will upon the populace by brute force and terrorism...

...It's the duty of the federal government and President [Lyndon] Johnson to intervene and restore civilization to the south.

John Charles Moore
Wheaton, IL

Some say the police did not have to use tear gas and nightsticks on the marchers at Selma, Ala. How else were the police going to get the marchers out of the way? Those people got exactly that they deserved and what they expected. They were looking for publicity and sympathy.

David W. Shiflet
Wilmette, IL

The Washington Post, March 17, 1965

Letters to the Editor: Reactions to Selma

The good people of a great state have been sullied with shame. What on earth has become of the hundreds of thousands of educated, intelligent and basically brave citizens of Alabama? Where are its Senators, Representatives, public officials sworn to uphold the Constitution...

...How long must the Nation and the world wait for the Americanism, Christianity, respect for law and for fellow human beings of the great majority of the people of Alabama to rescue that State from the infamy into which it has fallen?

James P. Davis
Falls Church, VA

The picture of Alabama State Troopers using clubs, tear gas, and, some say, bull whips on men, women and children was enough to make any decent person feel sick, revolted and furious. If the caption was missing... one might almost think this was a photo from Nazi Germany...

Florence Sherman
Washington, DC

The Washington Post, March 31, 1965

Letter to the Editor: Publicity and Protest

Alabama has been invaded by thousands of civil rights demonstrators... in the biggest publicity stunt of the Twentieth Century -- the Selma to Montgomery March...

...It should be apparent by now that this latest and greatest publicity stunt is all part of a campaign to remove government by law and substitute government by demonstration. The specter these demonstrations in Alabama and elsewhere create is nothing less than the threat of anarchy. Our officials are being blackmailed by sit-ins, mass marchers, traffic obstruction and business stoppage to force them to give in to the unending demands of power-hungry demonstration leaders.

John Railami
Silver Spring, MD

Music

Governor Wallace
Songwriter: James Orange
Performed by: The Freedom Singers
Listen to the Music

The Selma to Montgomery march was a public-relations disaster for Alabama governor George Wallace, and his role in opposing protesters was condemned in a doo-wop style song named after him. The harmonies of doo-wop were popular at the time of the march.

In 1958, Wallace had made an unsuccessful bid for office, saying, "If I didn't have what it took to treat a man fair, regardless of his color, then I don't have what it takes to be the governor of your great state." His opponent, backed by the Ku Klux Klan, beat Wallace by more than 64,000 votes.

By 1963, having learned what Alabama's white constituents wanted, he rode to victory on a segregation platform. That year, he famously said, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and barred the University of Alabama from integrating.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama
Duration: 7:45 min
Watch the Video

The first clip is of people singing.

Footage follows of Martin Luther King arriving in Selma and speaking in a church.

The next clip shows state troopers attacking marchers and tear gas in the air during the bloody assault at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Then King is shown speaking again, followed by footage of marchers elsewhere walking in solidarity with those in Selma.

Next, King speaks on the steps of a Selma church.

The following clips show marchers preparing and then walking down the road to Montgomery in the march's second attempt, King among them. Troopers stop the march; marchers kneel in prayer, and then turn around.

Last is a clip of the third march to Montgomery, and King speaking ("Our feet are tired but our souls are rested...") after the group successfully arrives there.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY and courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.

Map

The Route of the Freedom March

  1. Selma
    March 7, 1965
    525 marchers are attacked on "Bloody Sunday"
    Edmund Pettus Bridge
  2. Montgomery
    March 21, 1965
    25,000 protesters complete the march
    Alabama State Capitol

Select an image to open the gallery.

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