This weekend democrats around the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march for African-Americans’ voting rights.
It was on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday as it became known, that 600 people started to march 85 kilometres from the town of Selma, Alabama, to the State capital. It was a symbolic action to show that they wanted to exercise their right to vote – something effectively denied them in southern states by discriminatory local laws and white obstructionism.
The march had hardly begun when the protestors were set upon by police and state troopers using tear gas and clubs with which they mercilessly beat the unarmed marchers. Several were hospitalised.
Two days later a second march led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr was abandoned because the marchers could not be guaranteed safe passage.
That night, March 9, 1965, a white priest who had joined the march, James Reeb, was beaten senseless by white vigilantes. His subsequent death finally triggered action on high: President Lyndon Johnson, who had already been planning a law to safeguard voting rights, addressed a joint sitting of Congress to call for urgent action and vowed “We shall overcome”.
Still, the state governor, George Wallace, would not provide protection for marchers. So Johnson stepped in and committed thousands of US Army soldiers and the Alabama National Guard (commanded by Federal officers) to protect the third Selma march, led by King, from March 21 to 25. That political pressure from the marchers, supported by Johnson, led to the passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act 1965.
President Obama and his family will join the thousands expected to attend ceremonies to honour those who put their lives and safety on the line for the rights and freedom of future generations.
The events in Selma “marked the political and emotional peak of the American Civil Rights Movement”, according to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.
The Newsroom recognises the significance of those events for Americans and for oppressed groups around the world, many of whom, including those in Australia, were inspired and emboldened by those actions. Below is a timeline of the struggle, from the beginning of the protests in Selma, Alabama, to the freedom for African Americans across the United States of America to vote without discrimination.
November 1964 – A campaign for voting rights is promoted by Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in Selma, Alabama. Prejudicial state practice had resulted in less than 2 per cent of qualified African Americans being registered to vote.
January 2 1965 – King starts the Selma campaign with a gathering at Brown Chapel, Selma.
January 5, 1965 – President Johnson, in his State of the Union address, tells America voting rights for all citizens will be a priority of his administration.
January 22, 1965 – Black school teachers rally at the Dallas Country Courthouse, Selma.
February 1-5, 1965 – King and 500 schoolchildren are arrested in Selma while calling for voting rights. Dana McLean Greeley, a Unitarian church leader, calls on Johnson and Congress to promise voting rights for all citizens.
February 18, 1965 – Marchers in Marion, Alabama, are attacked by police. An African American man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot in the abdomen by a police officer in a cafe where he was trying to protect his family. (A man was finally charged with his murder in 2007 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010. It took that long to achieve justice – of sorts.) Jackson’s death in hospital on February 26 inspires the idea of a Selma-Montgomery march, the purpose of which was to tell the state governor that black people demanded their voting rights.
March 9, 1965 – The second march is led by King as supporters across the United States hold rallies in support of the civil rights activists. That night James Reeb is attacked.
March 11, 1965 – Reeb dies in hospital and Johnson is moved to act (though nothing was done when Jimmie Lee Jackson died).
March 20, 1965 – Johnson issues an Executive Order to the Defence Secretary to take any action necessary to protect marchers.
March 21, 1965 – Around 3,200 people, outnumbered by the protective military umbrella, set off from Selma to Montgomery.
March 25, 1965 – The marchers, now numbering almost 30,000, gather at the Alabama state legislature, where King delivers his How Long, Not Long speech.
That night, members of the Ku Klux Klan shoot and kill a civil rights activist, Viola Liuzzo, as she drives to Montgomery to help the marchers. Liuzzo was the only white female killed during the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s. No one was ever successfully prosecuted.
August 6, 1965 – President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law, making it illegal to stop African Americans from registering for the vote, or casting a vote.
2007 – At the 42nd anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery marches, the then Senator Barack Obama says he owes his career to the March 7, 1965, protest. “I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me,” he tells Selma’s people, including many survivors of the marches.
More images of the 1965 Selma-Montgomery marches can be seen here. CNN has collated a superb collection of speeches by the great Martin Luther King Jr. Be inspired – Compiled from web sources by Keisha Miller