Editor’s note: This post is the last in a series of ongoing articles that cover a five-part lecture series presented by David Domke, professor and chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. The series is entitled “Marching to Selma: How MLK, LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement Changed the World.”
“Tonight we will be marching to and from Selma. We need to go in strength, together.”
With those words, David Domke, professor and chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, launched his final lecture of a five-part series about how the civil rights movement converged in Selma 50 years ago. To prepare for the evening’s journey, he asked audience members to close their eyes for 30 seconds and “Picture images of Selma, whatever comes to your mind.” Stillness fell over the room.
To bring the moment of silence to a close, a young man midway up the lecture hall stood and sang “Stand By Me” a cappella, clicking his fingers to the beat. Some in the crowd joined in. The audience, now unified by a moment of silence and song, was prepared to go back in time to visit Selma of the 1960s.
Selma, Alabama, located near the center of the state, is a small town today, just as it was in the mid-1960s. Why did this seemingly innocuous community become a magnet for civil rights workers and the crucible for the voting rights movement?
Let’s start with Bernard Lafayette who, at age 22, was already looking for his next assignment after leading nonviolent sit-ins to desegregate downtown Nashville, organizing the nonviolent Freedom Rides, and enduring beatings and jail time in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. During discussions with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders, Lafayette saw a map of Alabama on the wall with a big black “X” drawn through the town of Selma and asked, “What’s that X about?”
In video just captured in Selma on March 7, Lafayette describes what happened next, “They told me nothing could happen in Selma because the white people are too mean and the black people are too afraid.” He continued, “They told me I could go take a look at it, but I said, ‘No. I will take it. If it’s impossible and you don’t expect anything, that’s my assignment.’”
Amelia Boynton, a longtime voting rights activist, waited for him. Ms. Boynton and her husband Samuel provided office space forSNCC headquarters and welcomed activists into their home for meetings, meals, and lodging. Born in 1911, to this day Boynton remains a vital, lucid storyteller, remembering clearly her experiences working on the frontlines for voting rights.
Also waiting for Lafayette was Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark, a brutal, fearsome man who was like “Birmingham’s Bull Connor on steroids,” according to Domke. He wore a button that said “Never,” as in “never integrate,” and a billy club, pistol and cattle prod dangling from his belt.
Civil Rights Leaders Convene in Selma
Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed on July 2, 50 civil rights activists marched to the courthouse in Selma to register to vote. At that time only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age in Selma were registered to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark arrested all of the marchers on the steps of the courthouse. He then asked Circuit Judge James Hare to issue an injunction that would prohibit people from meeting in groups; the judge issued the injunction a few days later.
The injunction banning meetings caused the civil rights work in Selma to falter in a matter of months. In December 1964, Boynton told SNCC organizers that she wanted to contact Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to ask for help in leading the voting rights campaign. She wrote to Dr. King. and he replied, “I’ll come.”
By this time, most of the “A-Team” of the nonviolent civil rights movement had gathered and gone to work organizing for voting rights in Selma. In addition to Lafayette, James Bevel, Diane Nash, CT Vivian, John Lewis, James Forman, and Ralph Abernathy, were on the scene. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived on January 2 1965, but was promptly jailed.
At about this time, Malcolm X contacted the A-Team and said that he wanted to come to Selma to help reinvigorate the movement. He had recently
returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca and now had a new take on the possibilities for integration. After much discussion and planning, the nonviolent Selma organizers agreed that he could talk at Brown Chapel on February 4. (Brown Chapel functioned as the headquarters of civil rights organizing in Selma.) Malcolm X’s visit did help energize the movement. But, he died on February 21 1965, assassinated as he began a speech in New York City.
Plans to March from Selma to Montgomery
On February 18 1965, in Marion, a small town 30 miles from Selma, Jimmie-Lee Jackson, a military veteran and a deacon in his church, joined a peaceful gathering at Zion United Methodist Church. The group of 200 activists planned to sing freedom songs outside the local jail where one of their own was being held. When the group walked from the church to the jail, police attacked in a brutal crackdown and Jackson was shot and killed.
At a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church to discuss how to respond to
Jackson’s murder, Bevel introduced the idea of marching from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol, in a pilgrimage. Out of this idea grew the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery to present a petition in support of voting rights. On Sunday, March 7, in what would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis and Hosea Williams led about 600 people in the march.
They left Brown Chapel walking quietly in pairs, observing traffic laws, and not obstructing traffic. Six blocks into the march, Alabama state troopers, some on horseback, and Sheriff Clark and his deputies met the marchers at the now-iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge. Wielding whips, billy clubs, and tear gas they rushed the group at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and beat them back to Selma.
Sixteen people were hospitalized and at least 50 others injured. Amelia Boynton was knocked unconscious. John Lewis sustained a skull fracture. The brutal scene was captured on television, shocking many across the country and around the world. The attack drew civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest.
On March 9, King himself led another attempt to march to Montgomery. He walked with 2,000 peaceful marchers from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they encountered state troopers lining the sides of the road. King knelt in prayer and asked all the marchers to kneel, as well. Fearing a set-up, he made what must have been a profoundly difficult decision to turn the march around and head back to Brown Chapel in what became known as Turnaround Tuesday. That night, a group of segregationists beat another protester, the young white minister James Reeb, to death.
The third and final march to Montgomery started on March 21. Shortly after his historic speech in support of voting rights for all Americans on March 15, President Johnson ordered 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command, and many FBI agents and federal marshals to protect the marchers as they made their way From Selma to Montgomery.
They averaged 10 miles a day and arrived in Montgomery on March 24, where many thousands of others had gathered in support of voting rights. On the steps of the capitol, King delivered his “How Long? Not Long.” speech, also known as “Our God Is Marching On.” It includes the now iconic line, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Just seven months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Amelia Boynton and John Lewis were invited as special guests to the signing.
March 7, 2015: 50-Year Commemoration of Bloody Sunday
On March 7, 2015, at the 50-year commemoration of Bloody Sunday, President Obama remembered the voting rights marchers saying, “We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who, despite the gush of blood and splintered bone, would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.”
In the 50 years since passage of the Voting Rights Act, some backsliding has occurred. From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states and many of them have passed laws making it harder to vote. In 2013, the US Supreme Court modified the Voting Rights Act, removing the requirement that states with the worst histories of voting discrimination clear their voting changes with the federal government.
Twenty-one states have put voting restrictions in place just since the 2010 election. President Obama alluded to this in his speech at Selma: “Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.”
As now Representative John Lewis says on his website, “The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. Today we must be vigilant in protecting that blessing.”
The time is ripe for our nation to revisit the vision for voting rights spelled out in the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Did you miss the “Marching to Selma” lecture series and now wish you had been there? You’re in luck! Professor Domke will present the “Marching to Selma” lecture series again on March 30, April 6, April 13, April 20, and April 27. Register online at uwdomketoselma3.bpt.me, or call Jessica Herzog at 206-543-2660. All funds collected for admission to the lectures go to support students in the UW Department of Communication.