1965 - Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March, Alabama

The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks -- and three events -- that represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma. Alabama State Troopers and deputies beat civil rights marchers in the outskirts of Selma as they were beginning a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery. National outrage at the televised images led to President Johnson's federalization of the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers when they left Selma for Montgomery a second time on 21 March.

African Americans have long struggled for full rights of citizenship. In the antebellum period, slaves sought, at the very least, the right of freedom, whereas free blacks petitioned for full citizenship. But, although restricted by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery expanded and the Supreme Court decided in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that no African American could claim citizenship rights.

After the South lost the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted citizenship and voting rights to all native-born Americans except American Indians. However, this act was not enforced. Thus, in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which extended citizenship and voting rights to African-Americans. The following year, 1869, the 15th Amendment was added, forbidding discrimination in voting based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Numerous African-Americans were then elected, during the brief econstruction period, to local, state, and federal offices as blacks exercised their right to vote.

When Reconstruction ended, almost all of the rights theretofore bestowed upon African-Americans were reversed. Alabama accomplished this reversal with its 1901 Constitution, effectively disfranchising almost all African-American voters in Alabama. In 1960 in Alabama counties like Blount, Clay, DeKalb, Marshall, Morgan, and Tallapoosa, where few blacks lived, there were very few, if any, black voters. Even in the Black Belt counties of Lowndes and Wilcox, where African-Americans comprised 80% or more of the population, there were almost no black voters.

A struggle by Alabama blacks to regain their citizenship and voting rights began in earnest by 1936. African-American communities throughout the state established civic and voter leagues known as citizenship schools. These schools tutored prospective African-American voters on how to complete the literacy test and how to respond to potential questions asked by usually hostile registrars. The most important aspect of the citizenship schools, however, was to instill pride, perseverance, and persistence. Despite being constantly insulted and denied by recalcitrant registrars, these applicants would try again and again to register to vote. These persistent attempts were the heart and soul of the struggle, and they helped give rise to the 1965 voting rights movement.

Throughout 1964, the SCLC and SNCC had been working independently to register voters in various Alabama counties. A coalition including the SCLC and SNCC concentrated its 1965 efforts in Selma, Alabama, where segregationist Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark led the resistance. In February 1965, after attending a voting rights rally in a church in the Black Belt community of Marion in Perry County, the parishioners were attacked by state troopers as they exited the church. Jimmie Lee Jackson, while attempting to protect his mother from the troopers' billy clubs, was shot point blank by two of the troopers. Seven days later, on February 25, Jackson died from his gunshot wounds. Large-scale demonstrations and mass arrests in Selma that began in January continued into March.

Saddened by the killing of Jackson, African-Americans, especially in Perry County and in adjacent Dallas County, were determined more than ever to advance their voting rights struggle. Almost immediately after the funeral of Jackson plans began to be made to march from Selma to Montgomery to petition for a redress of wrongs by the State of Alabama.

King and other leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery for March 7, 1965, designed to draw attention to the refusal to register black voters. When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the east side of Selma, state troopers and "possemen," deputized by Sheriff Clark, charged into the demonstrators, beating them with billy clubs and firing tear gas. Graphic national television coverage of the incident sparked widespread outrage. On March 7, 1965, ABC News interrrupted the network's premiere showing of Judgement at Nuremburg (a movie about bringing to justice the Nazis guilty of war crimes), to show 15 minutes of raw footage from the attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a "symbolic" march to the bridge. Then civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., weighed the right of mobility against the right to march and ruled in favor of the demonstrators. "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups...," said Judge Johnson, "and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways."

The repression of the Selma march brought growing numbers of supportive northern white clergymen and labor leaders to the city and increased pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to protect voting rights. On Monday evening, March 15, President Johnson appeared before Congress and a national television audience to introduce legislation that would send federal agents to the South to oversee voter registration.

A total of 4,000 Alabama ARNG and ANG were federalized 20-29 March 1965; authorized by EO 11207 of 20 March 1965. Protected by federalized National Guard troops and a court order, King led a march of about 3,200 marchers from Selma to Montgomery March 21 through March 25, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. The marchers traveled along U.S. Highway 80 in Dallas County, continued through Lowndes County and Montgomery County, and ended the five day trek at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the logistics for the march-providing food, water, sanitation, and other services for the marchers, who camped out along the way. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong, and the march ended with a rally on the steps of the Alabama state capitol.

Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- the best possible redress of grievances. The voting rights legislation was enacted in early August, with King attending signing ceremonies at the Capitol in Washington.

Historians view the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March as one of the last great grassroot campaigns for human rights and the summit of the modern civil rights movement that originated in the 1950s. The March and complimentary events brought the issues associated with voting rights to the forefront of the United States political agenda and raised the nation's consciousness about the struggle of African-Americans for equal rights.

In 1996 the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail was created by Congress under the National Trails System Act of 1968. Like other "historic" trails covered in the legislation, the Alabama trail is an original route of national significance in American history. An inter-agency panel of experts recommended, and the Secretary of Transportation designated the trail an "All-American Road"--a road that has national significance, cannot be replicated, and is a destination unto itself. This designation is the highest tribute a road can receive under the Federal Highway Administration's National Scenic Byways Program, created by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

The March route is a component of the National Trails System, and is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). The route is also designated as a National Scenic Byway/All-American Road, awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Additionally, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is a key partner in interpreting and protecting this historic route; with the majority of project funding provided through the Scenic Byways Program.

SEMO is the shortest of the 23 historic and scenic trails in the National Trails System. The National Trails System Act institutes a national system of recreation, scenic, and historic trails. Historic trails are extended routes that follow nationally-significant, original routes of travel as closely as possible.

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