History & Culture

Map of the historic march route from Selma to Montgomery
Map and timeline of the historic march route from Selma to Montgomery

NPS Photo

Dallas, Lowndes, and Montgomery Counties in the Early 1900s

In the years of post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws, suppression of African American citizens' right to vote through the use of targeted voter registration restrictions and intimidation was widespread in the American South. Because of this, 0% of the African American population in Lowndes County was able to vote, and only 2% percent in Dallas County.

The barriers to voting in the these counties had prompted Black community leaders in Selma to organize and create the Dallas County Voter's League (DCVL), and by the 1960's, the movement gained national attention with civil rights groups and activists protesting in Selma in order to bring awareness to these voting injustices. Protests against voter registration discrimination increased in the county and nearby areas, with many of them often met by violence from the local sheriff's department, leaving many wondering what was going to happen next.‏‏

The Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson

On the evening of February 18th, 1965, a night protest took place to free Southern Christian Leadership Conference supporter, Rev. James Orange, from the Perry County Jail, in Marion, AL. Alabama state troopers violently broke up the demonstration, resulting in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Perry County native. Jackson was shot in the abdomen while protecting his mother and grandfather, he died from his wounds on February 26th, 1965. In response to Jackson's death, a march to the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery was planned — Sunday, March 7th, was the chosen day for the first march attempt.

First March Attempt

On March 7th, approximately 600 non-violent protestors, the vast majority being African-American, departed from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma intent on marching 54 miles to Montgomery, as a memorial to Jimmie Lee Jackson and to protest for voter's rights. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by state troopers and local volunteer officers of the sheriff's department who blocked their path.

The non-violent protesters were told by Alabama State Trooper, Maj. John Cloud, that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the law enforcement officers with nightsticks and teargas, violently driving them back into Selma. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media; however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time. Known as "Bloody Sunday," the attack caused outrage around the country, receiving large scale media coverage that garnered national sympathy for the civil rights movement.

Second March Attempt

In response to the attack, Dr. King called for another march on Tuesday, March 9th. Known as the Ministers March, Dr. King led a second march of approximately 2,000 protestors to the site of the Bloody Sunday attack where state troopers blocked the path of the march again. Dr. King and other clergy led the group in prayer, turned them around, and led them back to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Because of this, March 9th is also known as "Turnaround Tuesday".
However, that evening, three Unitarian ministers who had traveled to Selma in order to join the protest were attacked by a group of white men. On March 11th Rev. James Reeb died from his injuries.

The crowd of over 25,000 marchers at the foot of the Alabama Capitol on the final day of the march
The crowd of over 25,000 marchers at the foot of the Alabama Capitol on the final day of the march.

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History

Third and Final March Attempt

On March 17th, Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. ruled that the march could go on to Montgomery and provided federal and state protection for the marchers. Alabama State Troopers and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies were ordered not to impede the marchers in any way.

On March 21st, the final Selma to Montgomery March began, with more than 8,000 protestors departing from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to begin the five-day march. Marchers spent nights at four campsites along the trail — the final campsite at the City of St. Jude, on the outskirts of Montgomery, had thousands more protestors waiting to join the marchers on the last leg of their journey.

On Thursday, March 25th, the last day of the march, the crowd making their way to the state capital building had grown to nearly 25,000 protestors. On the grounds of the capital building, Dr. King gave his Our God is Marching On speech, calling for the enfranchisement of African Americans with their voting rights, saying that it would not be long before the day would come when their fight for freedom and equality would be realized.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The march brought national attention to the voting rights struggle faced by African Americans, and the media coverage of the march and the violent protests leading up to it put pressure on Congress and the Johnson administration to take action on the issue. On August 6th, five months after the marches, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, making it possible for African Americans in the South to register to vote. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, registration of African American voters in Central Alabama increased dramatically.

Last updated: October 24, 2023

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