The 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama helped to change American history. The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail commemorates the events, people, and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama. Following the February 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a voting rights activist in Marion, Alabama, a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery brought the conflicts of the voting rights movement into homes across the country and focused the nation’s attention on the ways segregated policies continued to divide society.
From 1870, the Constitution of the United States guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but a number of States sought to prevent African Americans from being able to register to vote. Often, this was through the institution of selectively enforced arbitrary qualifications for registration or a poll tax, which was beyond the ability of most blacks to afford. In Alabama, these methods were so effective at excluding blacks from voting that, according to a ruling permitting one of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, the percentage of eligible black voters registered in some counties was zero in contract to the registration of 100% of eligible white voters. To highlight the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, national civil rights groups organized a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marches culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that, while permitting registration practices, required them to be nondiscriminatory.
America at mid-century marched toward great social change, though this change was not without struggle. While President John F. Kennedy dies before he was able to see his social agenda fully implemented, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to put anti-poverty programs, immigration reform, and designs for urban renewal in place. Despite the goals of these programs to increase jobs and job training opportunities, better urban life, and fundamentally rethink the paths to citizenship and immigration, unresolved issues from the Civil War 100 years earlier persisted, most prominently in Southern States. National civil rights groups, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were among many who called for equality.
Led by Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lewis in January of 1965, marchers went to the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma to rally for voting rights. Subsequent less well-known marches heightened tensions as voter registration activists clashed with police. In February, Malcolm X visited Selma to support those fighting for the right to vote. Dr. King and another protester were arrested, and Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed. While a ruling in federal court compelled Dallas County to permit at least 100 people per day to register to vote, tensions remained high.
From this tension and unrest, one building in Selma emerged as the natural headquarters for a number of activities related to the Civil Rights movement. Founded by freed slaves in 1908, Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was the site of Malcolm X’s address in support of voting rights, Dr. King’s eulogy for Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Jackson’s funeral. Three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama began from this church, which also served as the temporary headquarters for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during 1965.
The first group of approximately 500 Civil Rights advocates left Brown Chapel on March 7 and attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to march along US Rte. 80 to Montgomery, the State capital. Hosea Williams and John Lewis led the group. At the bridge, though, the Alabama State Police blocked the road and ordered the assembled marchers to disperse. When the marchers refused, the troopers attacked and beat them, and forced them back to Brown Chapel. Assembled television and still cameras captured the scene and broadcasted the event to a much wider audience presenting images to the nation from what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Though the marchers did not succeed in reaching Selma, their treatment by the police during Bloody Sunday highlighted the danger to people of all races who supported the Civil Rights Movement, and voting rights specifically. Undaunted, supporters continued to come to Selma, including many ministers. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference sought to march again on March 9 and asked Frank M. Johnson, Jr., a federal judge, to force the State of Alabama and relevant counties to permit a march from Selma to Montgomery. In a compromise while awaiting a response from the court, a second march occurred on March 9, but only as far as the Pettus Bridge. Despite a peaceful, prayerful second march, someone struck one of the ministers who participated in the march on the head afterwards and he later died. These events were impossible to ignore.
President Johnson addressed Congress and the nation on March 15, 1965. As the President said so eloquently in his address, “[t]here is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.” Echoing the words of the marchers who themselves drew from a hymn, Johnson assured the nation later in the same speech that “we shall overcome.” The “American problem” was not voting rights alone but rather, in his words, the “crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
As the President spoke to the nation, the SCLC’s case against the State of Alabama continued. Judge Johnson issued a ruling from the United States Post Office and Courthouse (now renamed in his honor) in Montgomery that recognized the right of the marchers to assemble peacefully and to ask the government to allow them to vote. This ruling underscored that discrimination in voter registration was a larger, national, and Constitutional issue. Known for his earlier rulings in favor of the desegregation of public schools and transportation, Judge Johnson affirmed the right of the marchers to petition their government peaceably. His ruling, unpopular with those who wanted to preserve the status quo, noted that neighboring Wilcox County had 100% of eligible white voters registered, while no black voters were on the rolls.
The Selma to Montgomery marchers wanted the right to vote guaranteed to them by the Fifteenth Amendment, a Reconstruction-era amendment to the Constitution that prohibited discrimination against voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Judge Johnson’s ruling concluded that for marchers barred from political participation, social demonstration was a legal way in Alabama and elsewhere to have a voice in the political process.
Judge Johnson’s ruling also allowed for a third march, under the protection of the Federal Government. Beginning on March 21, marchers walked for five days, camping during the night in the fields of farmers sympathetic to their cause. The rules for the march allowed only a select number of the marchers to enter Montgomery. On the last night before reaching Montgomery, thousands of marchers stayed and rested at the City of St. Jude hospital complex, a facility founded to address the inadequate segregated medical facilities made available to blacks in Alabama.
On the fifth day, the marchers reached the Alabama State Capitol in downtown Montgomery and attempted but were unable to present a petition to Governor George Wallace. Even so, the tide was turning. In August of 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, granting the redress sought by the thousands who marched and countless others. While the third march ended peacefully on March 25, 1965, that night a white voting rights advocate, Viola Liuzzo, was shot while driving marchers home to Selma from Montgomery. She died after being taken to St. Jude.
The fight for access to the polls is the story of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Visitors can drive the historic route from Selma to Montgomery crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In Selma, they can take the Martin Luther King, Jr. Street Walking Tour, which includes Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, First Baptist Church, Carver Homes and wayside exhibits, and other sites. The Lowndes County Interpretive Center, a National Park Service visitors center, is along the Trail route midway between Selma and Montgomery. In Montgomery, visit the Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Parsonage, and the Alabama State Capitol to follow in the footsteps of the marches that were some of the most important and stirring events in the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.