Today marks the anniversary of the brutal suppression of a peaceful civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 that would lead to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. It is also the day the first woman director won an Academy Award.
THE ROAD TO SELMA
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) focused their attention on voting rights, including addressing the literacy test and other barriers to African-Americans voting in the South. In February 1965 they chose Selma, Alabama as the battleground for this effort.
After an Alabama state trooper had shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a deacon during a peaceful protest, SCLC called for a dramatic march of nearly fifty-miles from Selma to the state capital in Selma. Alabama Governor George Wallace declared “[t]here will be no march between Selma and Montgomery” and order Highway Patrol to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march”.
On Sunday, March 7, approximately 600 civil rights marchers headed out of Selma led by the SNCC’s John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams of the SCLC only to find a wall of state troopers and a posse waiting for them as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers ordered the demonstrators to disband and then began shoving and beating the demonstrators with nightsticks, as mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback and tear gas was fired at them as television cameras captured it all.
March organizer Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march, was beaten unconscious; John Lewis’ skull was fractured. In total 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries.
The nation recoiled in horror over the events and a week later President Johnson spoke before a special session of Congress
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
Johnson signaled his plan to send voting rights legislation to Congress.
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.
TURNAROUND AND THE ROAD TO MONTGOMERY
The following Tuesday, Martin Luther King, Jr. led 2,500 marchers to the very same bridge. He held a short prayer session before turning around in accordance with a court order.
On March 21, the March to Montgomery resumed protected by 1,900 Alabama National Guard under federal command and on March 25 they entered the state capitol 25,000 strong.
Sadly, when President Obama came to Selma to honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the nation was going in the opposite direction on Voting Rights. The Supreme Court had invalidated a portion of the law in 2013 and states had begun to reenact voter suppression measures. The President’s speech called for a restoration of the Voting Act, but it fell on deaf ears among the Republican Congress.
The Republicans continue to push for what is often race-based voter suppression at the state level.
SELMA ON FILM
The events of Selma were depicted in Ava DuVernay’s 2015 film “Selma”. The film was nominated for Best Picture.
Below is its depiction of “Bloody Sunday”.
Also on this day:
Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone.
The Senate revised its filibuster rule, reducing the threshold to invoke cloture to end debate to 60 votes instead of two-thirds of those present.
Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director for her Iraq War thriller “The Hurt Locker,” which won six Oscars, including best picture. Bigelow beat out her ex-husband James Cameron who was nominated for “Avatar”.