On March 25, 1965, triumphant civil rights demonstrators led by Martin Luther King, Jr. marched into Montgomery, Alabama. It was the culmination of a fifty-mile procession from Selma. As they entered the capital, the marchers -- largely African American but joined by a small number of whites -- sang:
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on.
I've never been to heaven, but I think I'm right,
You won't find George Wallace anywhere in sight. . . .
The road from Selma to Montgomery may have been a mere fifty miles, yet the journey had spanned nearly two years of violent opposition.
Dallas County, a mostly rural area in Alabama's "Black Belt," had seen nineteen lynchings between 1882 and 1913. Violence in the region declined during the first half of the century, but there were almost no advances made in civil rights; in the early 1960s, only one percent of Dallas County's eligible African Americans were registered to vote.
Selma was a medium-sized town in Dallas County and a successful commercial center. In 1963 a group of community activists formed the "Dallas County Improvement Association" with the goal of having "White" and "Colored" signs removed from public buildings, an investigation of police brutality against blacks, and increased access to jobs and voter registration. Local officials ignored the Association's concerns.
At the invitation of the Improvement Association, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chose Selma as a locus for civil rights demonstrations in 1964. The mayor of Selma, along with the chief of police, kept the government response mild. The mayor did not want the bad publicity that violent confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement officials would bring. Selma's sheriff, Jim Clark -- infamous for leading a band of thuggish irregulars in the oppression of blacks -- had told the mayor he would not involve himself in the demonstrations in Selma.
However, demonstrations in the town of Marion, twenty-five miles northwest of Selma, were another matter. Civil rights organizers there, discouraged by their lack of progress in getting county officials to register black voters, requested help from the SCLC. After an emotional night rally at a Marion church, SCLC staffers led an impromptu march to the Marion courthouse just a few blocks away.
The marchers were met by a force of 200, made up of state troopers, county deputy sheriffs, local policemen, civilians, and Sheriff Jim Clark. With national and local journalists looking on, the marchers were ordered to disperse. Then the law enforcement officials and irregulars charged the crowd. Demonstrators and journalists were beaten and terrorized. One demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson -- who had entered a cafe with his mother to escape the violence -- was shot by police. He died a week later.
The idea of a march from Selma came from the desire to "go to Montgomery with Jimmie Jackson, take his body and lay it on the steps of the capital," said Marion civil rights organizer Albert Turner. The SCLC planned a march to Montgomery for Sunday, March 7, 1965. George Wallace swore to stop it.
That Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, the marchers encountered a cordon of state troopers backed by Sheriff Jim Clark and a group of horsemen armed with clubs and whips. The resulting bloodshed was a public-relations disaster for Wallace. National television news crews captured footage of the marchers being ferociously clubbed, whipped, and tear-gassed. In Washington, congresspeople of both parties voiced support for legislation with the power to stop the violence and guarantee voting rights for all citizens in places like Selma. President Johnson would soon submit the Voting Rights Act, which would be signed into law in August.
On March 18, 1965, a federal district judge (Wallace's college friend, Frank Johnson) sanctioned a second protest march from Selma to Montgomery. Alabamians were indignant at yet another intrusion of the federal government into "local affairs." Wallace refused to spend any state funds on providing protection for the demonstrators, sending his approval ratings in his home state soaring. President Johnson countered by federalizing the Alabama National Guard.
At the conclusion of the march, King addressed the 25,000 demonstrators. Said King during his speech, "I know you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' . . . How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow! . . .'"