TwHP Lessons

The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March: Shaking the Conscience of the Nation

[Photo] Edmund Pettus Bridge
(Alabama Historical Commission)


illions of people all over the United States were watching television on Sunday night, March 7, 1965, when their programs were interrupted with shocking images of African-American men and women being beaten with billy clubs in a cloud of tear gas.  Attempting to march peacefully from the small town of Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest a brutal murder and the denial of their constitutional right to vote, six hundred people were attacked by state troopers and mounted deputies dressed in full riot gear. ABC interrupted its broadcast of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg to show the violence, suggesting to many a parallel between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of blacks in the South.  Most viewers had never heard of Selma, but after March 7, they would never forget it.

Eight days after “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon Johnson made a famous and powerful speech to a joint session of Congress introducing voting rights legislation.  He called the events in Selma “a turning point in man's unending search for freedom,” comparing them to the Revolutionary War battles of Concord and Lexington.  On March 21, more than one thousand people from all over the United States again left Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma and set out for Montgomery.  This time they were watched over by regular Army and Alabama National Guard units ordered by President Johnson to protect the marchers against further violence.  At the successful completion of the march on March 25, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed a crowd estimated at 25,000 in front of the Alabama State Capitol, quoting the Battle Hymn of the Republic:  “His truth is marching on.” 1  Many of the same people who had seen the earlier violence saw or heard the speech.

Five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.” 2

This lesson explores some of the methods the State of Alabama used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote and how community leaders in Selma worked together with Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other national civil rights organizations to remove those restrictions.  It discusses Brown Chapel in Selma, where the march began, and the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, where the march reached its triumphant conclusion.

Some of the participants in the events of March 1965 are still alive to tell their stories.  This lesson is based, in part, on a rich trove of oral histories.  It illustrates the importance of the testimony of eyewitnesses to history—as well as some of the difficulties in using this type of evidence.

1Quoted in Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 170.
The Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division website (accessed January 27, 2006).


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
1. Route of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March
2. Selma

Determining the Facts: Readings
1. Alabama Literacy Test
2. Selma
3. We Shall Overcome

Visual Evidence: Images
1. Brown Chapel AME Church
2. Marchers and State Troopers, March 7, 1965
3. “Bloody Sunday”
4. On the road to Montgomery, March 22 or March 23
5. Onlookers along the route to Montgomery.
6. View of Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing the marchers at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery

Putting It All Together: Activities
1. Local versus national
2. Nonviolence
3. What If . . .
4. Civil Rights Work in the Local Community

Supplementary Resources


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This lesson is based on the Brown Chapel AME Church, the Alabama State Capitol and the Old Town Historic District, which are among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Brown Chapel AME Church and the Alabama State Capitol (also known as The First Confederate Capitol) have been designated National Historic Landmarks.



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