Friday, March 30, 2012
Selma to Montgomery- The March for Voting Rights
By JENNIFER NGUYEN
(The author is an eighth grade student in Mr. Randy Turner's communication arts class at Joplin East Middle School.)
A life started it all. Not a life beginning, but a life ending, a life being taken away. It started a revolution. It started a revolution so big, that the impact was made at a very great price. At least three lives were taken that year, the year of 1965. Many peaceful citizens were arrested, beaten, and assaulted while marching on the pathway to equality, to the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Join this paper as it travels back to the year of 1965, when protestors of all races and religions united together as one to make the long march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol city of Montgomery as they fought for voting rights among all.
The Beginning of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign
“Click.” The bullet is released from the state trooper’s gun as it lands in the body of twenty-six-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson. His unconscious body falls to the ground, leaving his poor mother unprotected from a trooper’s nightstick. He is rushed to a nearby Selma hospital, but unfortunately, dies eight days later. His life was one of many that inspired protestors and civil rights activists to take action and put a stop to the injustice being done in the nation of the “free” when he was shot on the evening of February 18, 1965. Jackson was an African American church deacon from the town of Marion, Alabama, who decided to join in one of the public voting marches taking place. There, he was shot. On the other side of the gun stood an Alabama state trooper, trying to break up the march. On his side was a young man lying cold on the ground. This wasn’t the first violent action displayed in the voting rights marches; it was one of many since the first march that took place on February 1, 1965.
On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Dallas County Voters League in their campaign for voting rights. After a number of unsuccessful attempts from the SNCC, only two percent of the black population was on voting polls. The SCLC had been planning a campaign since the earlier months of 1964 with a focus on national attention when discovering that this attention could be gained through protests. With the help of Martin Luther King Jr. and David Abernathy from the SCLC, a march from the town of Selma, Alabama, to the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, was organized. The committees chose the town of Selma, because this town was known for hard-core, violent law enforcement under the order of local county Sheriff Jim Clark. When the SCLC marched in Birmingham, they learned that unprovoked violence would gain attention. Thus, this was their key. Hopefully, in the minds of the civil rights workers, President Lyndon B. Johnson would see the cruelty being done and consider making a new voting rights legislation. This, along with the reaction from the nation when seeing the Alabama news coverage, would start a new era.
Many small marches were held in the month of January as the progression of the campaign in Selma and Marion increased; many marchers were arrested, but there was little violence for the first month of the campaign. It wasn’t until February that police attacks against peaceful protestors increased and became very forceful. On February 1, 1965, the first march from Selma to Montgomery was attempted with seven hundred seventy people being arrested as the march was stopped by police officers. This was the very beginning of the revolution.
March 7, 1965 marked a day in history to be remembered for generations to come. On this day, hundreds of protesters both black and white were attacked by Alabama state troopers and police. They were beaten, hit, and tortured with tear gas, a toxic that causes people to vomit and become nauseating. This gruesome event became known as “Bloody Sunday,” because indeed, it was quite bloody.
The day started out like any normal day, with a clear blue sky and a few purple clouds here and there. Only, it wasn’t a normal day. On this day, a march was to be held in honor of Jimmie Lee Jackson and to protest his death during a voter registration drive held previously by the SNCC. The march was originally planned to be led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But, as it turned out, Dr. King could not attend the march due to many missed church services and the need of a sermon; he had also received many death threats and was convinced by his staff not to come. At half past noon, two hundred fifty marchers were already gathered around Brown’s Chapel, ready to face any danger. They were being taught by SCLC staffers a technique of kneeling and protecting their bodies if ever attacked. King had sent a messenger, Andy Young of the SCLC, to give word to co-leaders Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and John Lewis that the march was to be delayed until the following Monday. Seeing that the march could not be stopped, a call was made to Dr. King and it was decided young John Lewis, along with another co-leader, would lead the great march. Andy, Hosea, and Bevel flipped coins to see who would join Lewis, and by fate, Hosea won. And so, the march was assembled. Many protestors had come straight from church and were still wearing their Sunday outfits. The Medical Committee for Human Rights had also traveled to Selma from New York to prepare for any confrontation and injuries. Rumor had it that Sheriff Clark had issued a call for more deputies the night before. Around four in the afternoon, the marchers were gathered as John Lewis read a statement for the benefit of the press and Andy Young said a small prayer as everybody knelt. Next thing you know, six hundred people set out to be “roughed up a little bit,” expecting nothing worse than that…
The six hundred marchers, including a white SCLC staffer by the name of Al Lingo, marched east out of Selma onto Highway U.S. Route 80. As they passed through the black sections of town, cheering and singing could be heard from several onlookers and marchers, but as the march branched out towards the river and down Walter Street, a silence was flushed over the crowd as a feeling of holiness replaced the noisy excitement possessed before. The march was very disciplined; there was no pushing or shoving to get to the front. The protestors were organized in two rows, with John Lewis and Hosea Williams at the front, Albert Turner and Bob Mants behind them, Marie Foster and Amelia Boynton behind them, and a crowd of people of all ages and races filed in the back.
Actually, at the very back, four ambulances followed along in case of any violation to the protestors. As the march neared the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a group of armed white men could be seen gathered around a nearby building. This was not a surprise to the marchers, but quite a few other surprises were definitely made. Clear across the other side of the bridge was a swarm of uniformed Alabama state troopers. Among that swarm of cops was a group of deputies that Sheriff Clark called his “posse.” Some were on horseback, while others just stood, but they all had clubs that could very well be compared to baseball bats. Camera crews and news reporters form channels such as ABC were wedged in where there was space, and cop cars were lined along the bridge; one of them holding Commander Al Lingo and Sheriff Clark, himself. The marchers continued silently onto the bridge, but they didn’t get very far. About fifty feet away from the swarm of troopers, Major John Cloud, another trooper, held a bullhorn to his mouth as he spoke a message to the civil rights marchers. Apparently, they had two minutes to disperse back to their church and homes. If not, physical force would be used. At this time, several troopers slid masks onto their faces. The marchers, not sure what to do, stood there until Mr. Lewis proposed the idea that they should kneel and pray, which is what they did. Less than a minute after the warning, Major Cloud gave troopers the order to advance. What happened next was total chaos. Troopers came forward swinging bullwhips, billy clubs, nightsticks, shooting guns and even spraying tear gas. The effect of this was almost immediate. The marchers had no chance to retreat, and people began choking, coughing, vomiting, weeping, and worse. Leader John Lewis was swung against the left side of his head with a club, a young teen had a huge flow of blood out the side of his head, and many women were lying on the nearby grass, such as Ms. Amelia Boynton. While this occurred, many protestors curled up in the “prayer for protection” position, covering what they could. Several white onlookers cheered, while the blacks kept quiet. The torture didn’t end until the mob of marchers pushed to the front of the bridge and were chased all the way back to Brown’s Chapel.
(Lewis 325- 329)
On Tuesday, March 9, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march, only to be turned around. Thus, came its nickname, “Turnaround Tuesday.” After what had happened the previous Sunday, the civil rights activists decided to go to court with their case and plea for armed forces to protect their marchers. The judge delayed his decision until the next Thursday, and during this day, a march was held. The crowd of one thousand five hundred marchers singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” was met at the Pettus Bridge by the same forces present on Bloody Sunday. When asked to turn around, the diversely spread religious and racial contents of the march knelt down and prayed. At the order of Dr. King, they then got up, turned around, and marched back to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Dr. King’s reasoning for ending the march was to protect his fellow protestors; he didn’t want further violence. That night, after the march had disassembled, three white ministers heading along the road were attacked and beaten with iron pipes. One of the three, Reverend James Reeb suffered a serious injury to the head and later died in a hospital bed. His death gained national attention and influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Bill.
The death of Reverend Reeb definitely gained national attention. After the incident, Governor Wallace, the governor of Alabama, flew down to personally tell the president that he didn’t have enough force to protect the civil right activists. The president took the matter into his hands and ordered troops, marshals, National Guardsmen, and FBI agents down to Selma for protection. He also made a speech about the horrible occurrence of Bloody Sunday, but many skeptics thought that it took a white minister’s death to get the president involved. Others thought otherwise. Nobody really knows.
Anticipation hung in the air as everyone waited for the final decision to be made. Would the civil right leaders be granted the forces they requested? While some leaders were in the court room, others were outside in the busy Washington traffic. They stood linked by the arms and wouldn’t move until the police had to practically carry and drag them out of the busy street of Pennsylvania Avenue. A huge mob of clergymen, activists, and churchmen were all gathered outside the White House for a second time in two days. This day marked the twelfth of March. The huge mob totaled to about four thousand people. They demanded that the president reconsider voting rights and protection for the people in Selma protesting.
(Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 1965)
Clergymen and civil right leaders spent four hours talking to President Johnson about the situation in Selma. Two of these hours were focused on the officers that so roughly handled the peaceful marchers, while the other two were based on legislation for black voting rights to stop the current violence. The president claimed that he took full responsibility for the cruel actions in Selma and that he had prepared a message on voting rights for the Congress. The Justice Department was working on a follow up bill.
(Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 1965)
All the while, seventy-five FBI agents were present outside the White House to monitor the clergymen gathered around the perimeter. Thirty-six people had been arrested and were fined a fee of ten dollars for disorderly conduct. Some paid the amount just to rejoin the protest, while others simply refused. And more and more clergymen gathered around the Lutheran Church of Reformation, two blocks from the Capitol, as buses brought more people. The clergymen that negotiated with Congress said that they sensed President Johnson seemed to be feeling pressured.
(Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 1965)
And then, the decision was finally clear. After seeing the taping of Bloody Sunday and considering the constitutional rights, Federal Court Judge Johnson decided to side with the protestors and their case. “These rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways,” he said. And with that, he ordered the government not to interfere with the march organized to take place starting March 21, 1965. That night, Dr. King sent a telegram around the country asking ministers of all faiths to come to Selma for the march. The protest for voting rights would indeed take place.
The Final March
A crowd. Gathered around Brown’s Chapel was a crowd of nearly three thousand two hundred citizens of the U.S. nation. These people of diverse race and religion banded together for the big march aiming to take place that day. This crowd held a combination of people, from ministers, to leaders, to common townspeople. Big celebrities like Harry Belafonte and Ralph Bunche even joined in on the activity.
On Sunday, March 21, 1965, three thousand two hundred marchers started walking towards the capitol once more. This time they were successful. The civil rights activists traveled twelve miles a day by foot and slept in fields at night. After traveling seven miles from Selma the first day, though, only three hundred select marchers were allowed to walk along Highway 80. The other two thousand were taken back to Selma by trains, cars, and buses of transportation. This time, the march was also given security. Twelve planes and helicopters flew over the protestors to restrain any sudden violence done to the peaceful marchers.
By the time they reached Montgomery, on Thursday, March 25, 1965, the crowd led by Martin Luther King had increased from three hundred people to twenty-five thousand people. It was a truly unbelievable sight. They tried to deliver their petition to the governor, but he wouldn’t accept it; they weren’t even allowed on the Capitol Building’s steps! During this time, Martin Luther King gave one of his speeches, thought to also be one of his most powerful, about the horrible treatment and injustice done to the black people of Alabama. By six in the evening, the marchers were taken back to Selma by different means of transportation. They were advised to leave the city before dark. As a young woman by the name of Viola Liuzzo traveled home that night from the march, she and a young colored man she was taking home were both attacked. In the end, she was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, while the other passenger was brutally injured. This was another sad death taken for the righteous cause.
The Signing of the Voting Rights Act
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a law stating that states couldn’t restrict any type of people from voting, whether they be judged by race, religion, etc. It empowered the national government to enroll the citizens, previously denied, on the voting list. That very same day that the president passed the bill, three hundred black voters were registered in Sumter County, Georgia after a two week black opposing drive was dropped. The race had finally been completed. The battle had been won. And, indeed, our nation had overcome.
Garrow, David. Protest at Selma. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 1978.
Lewis, John. Walking With the Wind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.