Remembering Selma Fifty Years Later
By UAW Region 8 Webmaster and LUCA Advisory Council Chair John Davis
On March 7 and 8, 2015, thousands of people descended upon Selma, Alabama, to observe the 50th anniversary of an important event from the Civil Rights movement that has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” The event was marked with politicians, Civil Rights leaders, celebrities, and activists coming together to remember the event from half a century ago. News networks from around the world attended the event with recounts of the day’s events being featured on TV, print, and internet around the globe. However, fifty years ago the actual event was much different.
Following Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial segregation in public with President Johnson’s backing. Ending segregation was an important step in moving the United States in a direction of equality, but other issues would have to be addressed to see that this was done. One such issue was the tactics used to prevent African-Americans from voting, particularly in the South. America is a democracy and in a democracy the theory of one person, one vote is the thread and without it no true democracy prevails. To begin the process of equality every vote must count and that is where the idea for the Voting Rights Bill was born. The country needed a law that removed obstacles that prevented minorities from being able to exercise their right to vote. To do this an easier, simpler method of registering to vote was needed.
Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned to his friend President Johnson to help push Voting Rights Act through Congress. While the President supported the bill, he asked Dr. King to give him some time to work on education reform and Medicare first. Dr. King insisted the Voting Rights Act was needed now not later, so President Johnson asked him to build support for the legislation by talking about the things taking place in the South to prevent minorities from voting.
Selma, Alabama, was chosen to be the site of a protest against voter intimidation practices taking place in the South. Selma was well known for discriminatory practices, issuing literacy tests to African Americans before allowing them to vote. Earlier in the 1960’s, Selma made headlines for protestors being beaten and arrested for trying to eat in “white’s only” section at lunch counters and setting in the “white’s only” section of the local movie theater. Dallas County (where Selma is located) Sheriff Jim Clark was famous for his violence against African Americans. Sheriff Clark was known to wait at the Courthouse and beat African Americans trying to register to vote. In 1965 only 300 of Selma’s 15,000 African Americas were registered vote, much in part to the actions of Sheriff Clark. These events made Selma the perfect location to highlight voter intimidation practices. On February 18, 1965, a group of protestors marched to the Perry County Courthouse in Marion to protest voting restrictions. The Alabama State Troopers rushed the protesters and began to attack them. During the attack, protesters Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother ran in a café to avoid the violence. Alabama State Trooper James Fowler followed the Jacksons into the café and shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson as he tried to protect his mother.
On March 7, 1965, 600 volunteers organized a march from Selma to the Alabama Capital in Montgomery 54 miles away. The protestors were led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee along with Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Sheriff Clark sent out a call for all white males to come to the Courthouse to be deputized. Sheriff Clark and Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker frequently battled over jurisdiction, so Sheriff Clark and his army of 200 volunteers and State Troopers waited six blocks outside the Selma city limits at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. Edmund Pettus had been a Confederate brigadier general, Democratic Party U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Once the protesters reached the bridge, Sheriff Clark and his men blocked the protesters and beat them with billy clubs, tear gas, and cattle prods. John Lewis had his skull fractured from the beating and Selma resident and Civil Rights activist Amelia Platts Boynton was knocked unconscious and left lying on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A photograph of Miss Boynton lying unconscious on the bridge ran front page on newspapers around the world. TV cameras captured the brutal attack, horrifying United States citizens around the country as they witnessed firsthand the violent attack by Sheriff Clark and his posse. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led 2500 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge who crossed the bridge and stopped for prayer. An injunction had been issued to ban the march and Dr. King was confident the injunction would be lifted and didn’t try to take the group any further. That protest became known as “Turnaround Tuesday” because the group crossed the bridge, prayed, and turned around and went back. While the group waited for the injunction to be lifted, three white Unitarian Universalist ministers were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, with Minister James Reeb from Boston dying from his injuries.
The murder of Minister Reebs created a national stir, resulting in a lifting of the ban on the march. On Sunday, March 21, 1965, 8,000 volunteers began the trek from Selma to Montgomery, with the group being narrowed to 300 as they reached the two lane sections of the highway, per the restrictions given under the lifting of the injunction. For the next three days, a group marched in the rain until they reached Montgomery on March 24, 1965. Dr. King was joined by 25,000 on the final leg into Montgomery where he delivered a speech at the Alabama State Capital. Volunteers from across the country began ferrying the protestors back to Selma following the address. Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five had come from Detroit, Michigan, to support the effort. As she worked carrying protestors back to Selma, she was murdered by four members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The violence and murders involved in this peaceful protest shocked the nation and brought to light the sinister acts taking place in the South. On March 15, 1965, President Johnson convened a joint session of Congress and proposed the Voting Rights Act on live television. Two days later, it was introduced to Congress and became law on August 06, 1965, in a ceremony at the White House. President Johnson signed the bill into law as Amelia Platts Boynton looked on.
Since 1965 the Voting Rights Act was amended five times to strengthen the act. However, the United States Supreme Court in June of 2013 voted 5-4 to strip away the part of the bill that required states with a history of voter discrimination (mostly Southern states) to seek federal approval before making changes to voter laws. Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote stating “our country has changed.” Within two hours of the decision Texas State Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that voter ID laws that had been blocked by the Federal Government would be implemented immediately. Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all followed suit passing laws making it harder on minorities to vote.
It is very fitting that we honor the memory of the brave people who marched, bled, and died to get the Voting Rights Act passed into law. We should mark the occasion with remembrances and marches. However, if we as a nation continue to be apathetic toward the voting process then the sacrifices that were made, were all in vain. Each of us owes it to the brave men and women who risk their lives to vote each and every Election Day and to make educated decisions when we vote. Last fall only 36.4% of registered voters cast ballots in the midterm elections. The 63.6% of registered voters who didn’t bother to vote wasted the sacrifices that were made by the brave Civil Rights Activist and our troops who have died supporting our rights. In 2016 may each of us honor heroes such Congressman John Lewis by exercising our right to vote.