Selma is the town in Alabama in the American South where blacks in 1965 at long last won the right to vote all across the country.
The Constitution gave black men the right to vote in 1870. But whites in the South found ways to take away that right bit by bit: by requiring poll taxes, reading tests, by threats, arrests, violence and even murder.
Selma was in a county where only 1% of blacks were registered to vote while over 60% of whites were. In neighbouring Lowndes county 0% of the blacks were registered while 118% of whites were.
The two main wings of the civil rights movement at the time were:
- SCLC – made up of church leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr. It had the big names and could raise plenty of money.
- SNCC (“Snick”), the student movement.
Both practised civil disobedience along the lines of Gandhi.
SNCC was more fearless. It led the fight for the vote in Alabama. It made the town of Selma the centre of that fight: its top policeman was an easily angered, physically violent, made-for-television racist. They hoped that protests would cause him to discredit himself and white rule.
In February 1965 during a protest in a nearby town Jimmie Lee Jackson, while trying to protect his mother, was shot dead by police.
Anger among blacks over Jackson’s death threatened to tear the movement apart. It needed be expressed somehow. The SCLC came up with the idea of a five-day march to the state capital, Montgomery.
Bloody Sunday: On March 7th they set out for the capital. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and there stood the police. Some were on horses. Governor George Wallace had ordered the police to block the way.
The protesters stopped. The police ordered them to leave. The protesters stood their ground. The police started pushing them back. Then with whips and clubs they beat up utterly defenceless people. There was tear gas and screaming everywhere.
The police had stopped the march, but that night on television the whole country saw them in action. It was shocking – even to Jim Crow racists.
Hundreds of people from all over the country, even whites, came to Selma to join a new march.
On March 9th the marchers and the police faced off again at the foot of the bridge. This time Martin Luther King led the march. They prayed and turned back.
That night three of the white protesters were beaten up with clubs. One of them, James Reeb, a Christian minister, died. That set off protests across the country. The president got on television and promised to sign the Voting Rights Act, which would outlaw poll taxes, reading tests and all the rest.
On March 16th King set out again, leading over 8,000 marchers. The third time was a charm: a state judge ruled they had the right to march. The governor would not protect them but the president did.
Along the way Stokely Carmichael and others in SNCC began what would later become the Black Panthers.