A crowd gathered on the steps of the Perry County Courthouse to protest the exclusion of blacks in Alabama's voting process on February 18, 1965. When the protest turned violent, Jimmie Lee Jackson ran into a nearby cafe with his mother where he was shot by a pursuing state trooper, later dying from his wounds.
As a protest to Mr. Jackson's shooting and in an attempt to protect black voting registrants, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gathered on March 7 to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama where they would meet Governor Wallace to state their case. Six hundred strong, the civil rights activists only made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by Alabama State troopers in riot gear. When the protesters did not immediately turn around, they were greeted with billy clubs to the head and clouds of tear gas, causing seventeen to be hospitalized. March 7 was heretofore named "Bloody Sunday".
For the second attempt to march to Montgomery, 2500 protesters took to the road. Rev. Martin Luther King, now on board, tried to secure a court injunction to allow the protesters a safe passage, but such a case took time which they did not have. Therefore, the group did a "ceremonial" march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they stopped, a warm up for the march to come. Even so, there was still bloodshed and marcher Rev. James Reeb, a white, was injured. Taken to Selma's Public Hospital, doctors there refused to treat him and he had to be rushed to Birmingham Hospital two hours away. Sadly, he died from his wounds two days later.
Unfortunately, it took the death of a white man rather than a black man to mobilize the media. After securing the protection of 2000 U.S. soldiers and 1900 Alabama National Guardsmen, the third march got underway on March 16. Averaging 10 miles a day, the protesters marched along U.S. Route 80, their arms locked in solidarity. One participant, Mr. Herschel, said that "When [he] marched in Selma, [his] feet were praying". Finally, on March 25, the protesters arrived at the Montgomery courthouse.
President Johnson had seen the bloody demonstrations on television and was moved to sign the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. by saying "We Shall Overcome". Although Southerners like Governor Wallace were claiming that they were trying to preserve social order in the South by refusing to allow the marches, in the end they simply endorsed terrorism, by attacking nonviolent protesters. In Alabama, 7000 blacks were added to the voting rolls. By 1960, the total of black voters registered in the state increased to 53, 336. Three decades later, it would grow to 537,285.
*First published in 2012.