It is March 7, 1965, a Sunday unlike any other Sunday. Parents dress their children and walk across town to the Brown Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama. They're greeted by hundreds of others, but no one is there for the sermon. These families are starting out on a march to protest the racist voter registration policies that exist in Dallas County and across the southern states. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. / To Stand Where He Stood: Protests, Arrests, Boycotts and Beatings
It is March 7, 1965, a Sunday unlike any other Sunday. Parents dress their children and walk across town to the Brown Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama. They're greeted by hundreds of others, but no one is there for the sermon. These families are starting out on a march to protest the racist voter registration policies that exist in Dallas County and across the southern states.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. / To Stand Where He Stood: Protests, Arrests, Boycotts and Beatings
But even before the three minutes are up, the police go after the marchers with tear gas, billyclubs and bullwhips.
Freedom Rider John Lewis had his skull fractured that day. Women were beaten up. Children were sprayed with tear gas. The day went down in history as "Bloody Sunday" and spiraled into a series of events that led to one of the greatest legislative accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement: the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To learn more about the events surrounding the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Stephanie and I visited the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. As we entered the building, we met a daunting site: hundreds of slips of paper covering an entire glass wall. Across the top was a sign that read, "The I Was There Wall." The papers beckoned us forth: each had a story to tell.
Since 1993, when the museum was opened, hundred of visitors who participated in Civil Rights activities have put their experiences on one of these notes. Stephanie and I stood spellbound as we read the words:
I was seven months pregnant on the Bridge on Bloody Sunday. A trooper saw that I was pregnant and deliberately tried to run me down with a horse. --Delois Norris (from "The I Was There Wall")
Arrested seventeen times for participating in marches. Billy clubbed, spat upon and cattleprodded. Only God cold have given the strength to take it all with a smile. --Jerry Harriston (from "The I Was There Wall")
We came from everywhere, we linked arms, marched. We saw the school called hope with smiling little faces. On rounding the corner and seeing the capitol, we cheered, we heard a great voice speaking to us, urging us on. --William P. Gregory (from "The I Was There Wall.")
And on and on.
To understand why "Bloody Sunday" happened, you need to know that in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote, and that in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. But as history has shown, the right to vote doesn't always mean polls are accessible to everyone. For years the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws
But in the early 1960s, some people believed their rights were stronger than the obstacles thrown in front of them. Some even were willing to die for those rights.
were encountering mobs and bombs as they tried to make their way through the South. Four little black girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. And, although blacks had the right to vote, literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence keep most from even being able to register.
In Selma, Alabama, 15,000 blacks were eligible to vote, but only 355 were actually registered. In some cities, the registrar's office was open only a couple of times per month. Registrars came in late, took long lunches and left early. Literacy tests included ridiculous questions that even the white registrars themselves couldn't answer. Questions like, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" or, "How many grains of sand on the seashore?"
What do these questions have to do with being able to read, or even to vote?
Groups like The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) brought white and black activists together to lead nonviolent protests like marches and sit-ins. Across the South, there was a major campaign to educate and register black voters. In Selma, the SNCC and the SCLC brought hundreds of African-Americans to Dallas County Courthouse to register. The local police force and whites in the community responded with violence.
Finally, Congress began to pass laws protecting black voters' rights. But people ignored them. In Marion, Alabama, a state trooper killed activist Jimmie Lee Jackson during a protest. After Jackson's death, protesters planned to march the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery to let Governor Wallace know that blacks still weren't being given their constitutional right to register to vote, and that the time had come for change. But the protesters made it only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas. Footage of "Bloody Sunday" was aired on television that night, interrupting a documentary on Nazi war crimes. So horrible were the images that some viewers believed the news story was part of the Nazi documentary!
Two days later, after leading a short and peaceful march back to the bridge, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was waiting to hear from Washington D.C. and President Lyndon Johnson, whom he had asked for court protection and the right to march all the way to Montgomery. There was more violence that night, when locals in front of a bar killed a white minister from Boston. A week after the minister's death, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, giving protection for the march to proceed.
On Sunday, March 21, 3,200 marchers -- including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks -- began the march from Selma to Montgomery. They walked 12 miles a day and slept in the fields. When they reached Montgomery five days later, there were 25,000 marchers! No one expected so many people to turn out. On the steps of the Alabama Capitol, Dr. King gave a speech to a nationwide audience, his words strengthened by a federal court order which protected blacks' right to vote and to protest their unfair treatment.
Less than five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It guaranteed every American 21 and older the right to register to vote. A week after the march, more African-Americans registered to vote in Selma in one day than in the previous 64 years!
But the struggle for voting rights continues even today. Take our last presidential election for example. The race in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore was the closest our nation has seen in decades.
Activists made a strong effort to mobilize voters in Florida because they knew it would be a pivotal state. Before the election, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped register 5,000 students at Florida's A&M University. On Election Day, Tallahassee had its highest minority turnout: more than 85 percent of registered citizens voted.
But there were problems that weren't so different from those of the 1960s. The NAACP began receiving calls early on Election Day that newly registered voters hadn't received their registration cards in the mail and were being turned away from voting places. Voters encountered roadblocks and intimidation from police. There were faulty, outdated voting machines. Faulty directions given to voting locations. Moved voting locations. And locations that closed early despite the fact that voters hadn't finished.
All of this happened in minority neighborhoods in Florida. As I read the news clippings from Election 2000, I wonder: have we really come that far since the 1960s?
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