A Different Kind of Fight
At home, another battle was going onthe battle for civil rights. President Johnson's Civil Rights Act hadn't solved the voting problem. It did allow black people to check into any hotel they desired, sit on buses wherever they wished, and eat in any restaurant. But in much of the rural South, blacks still couldn't vote. In 1964, when black people tried to register to vote in Alabama or Mississippi or some other southern states, they were likely to be beaten, or to lose their jobseven though the Fifteenth Amendment says that every citizen has the right to vote. Those who kept trying to register were given impossible questions to answer, or asked to pay a poll tax they couldn't afford. Among others, the President himself was outraged about the situation. He said, "Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote!"
The town of Selma was the seat of Dallas County, Alabama. It was a town of 30,000 people; more than half were black. Before the Civil War, one of the town's buildings had been used to hold slaves as they waited to be auctioned off. During the Civil War, Selma was a Confederate military depot. In the 1960s, the streets in the black section of town were red dirt; those in the white section were paved. And in a town where 15,000 blacks were of voting age, only 333 were registered voters.
In early 1965, Selma's black leaders ask Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), to come to town with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, known as the SCLC. They need help getting people registered to vote. King saw it as a prime focal point for action. He said, "The ugly pattern of segregationist denial flourishes in Alabama, Mississippi and other southern communities. What is malignant in Selma must be removed. Selma is to 1965 what Birmingham was to 1963."