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Selma to Montgomery March

Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King led a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery; among those pictured are, front-row, politician and civil rights activist John Lewis (1940 – 2020), Reverend Ralph Abernathy (1926 – 1990), Ruth Harris Bunche (1906 – 1988), Nobel Prize-winning political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche (1904 – 1971), activist Hosea Williams (1926 – 2000). | Source: William Lovelace / Getty

UPDATED: 9:30 a.m. ET, March 7, 2024

The historic “Selma to Montgomery marches,” the first of the three protest marches known as “Bloody Sunday,” took place 59 years ago on Thursday and highlighted a turbulent time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led voter registration drives in the small town of Selma, Alabama, with the intent of combating white resistance toward African Americans gaining the right to vote in elections.

This year’s anniversary falls on the same day that President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address, during which he is expected to not only speak about the ongoing primary process and upcoming general elections but also about voters’ rights to cast ballots freely and without opposition or suppression.

Last weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris in a speech linked Bloody Sunday to the demand for human rights by Palestinians in Gaza. During a speech on Sunday in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which brave protesters famously marched across 59 years ago, Harris demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, calling the conflict a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

The 59th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday marches also marks the fourth time in the march’s history that it will take place without several of its founding organizers.

That includes the legendary John Lewis, for which significant voting rights legislation is named and was reintroduced just last week in an effort to restore key provisions that undermine Republicans’ efforts to decrease access to the ballot, particularly for Black voters.

Lewis, along with three other civil rights icons who helped organize the Bloody Sunday marches — the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and attorney Bruce Boynton — all died in 2020.

Along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the gathering of activists held several demonstrations to protest the death of fellow protester Jimmie Lee Jackson (pictured below) who was shot and killed by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler.

Selma Commemorates 50th Anniversary Of Historic Civil Rights March

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty

On March 7, 1965, more than 600 hundred marchers led by the SNCC and SCLC gathered in Selma to march in solidarity. Coupled with the original aim of the protest, marchers also wanted to call attention to the denial of their voting rights. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act passing, King and other leaders hoped the gathering would speed along the opportunity for fairness.

Led by the late Georgia congressman John Lewis (then-chairman of the SNCC) and Rev. Hosea Williams of the SCLC, the marchers were undeterred until they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the Alabama River heading into Montgomery.

Civil Rights Marchers on Bridge

State troopers watch as marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama, as part of a civil rights march on March 9, 1965. Two days before troopers used excessive force driving marchers back across the bridge, killing one protester. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

Police gathered and formed a wall barring the passing of the marchers after Sheriff Jim Clark called all able-bodied white men to become temporary deputies and assist in enforcement.

When Rev. Williams tried to peacefully reason with the officers, shoving matches ensued and the carnage began, officers fired tear gas into the crowd and began beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs.

The aggressive actions of the Alabama police force were televised nationally and around the world, sparking fierce debate and renewed support for the Civil Rights Movement. Reports vary, but between 17 and 50 people were injured and hospitalized with one woman, Amelia Boynton, nearly beaten to death.

Watch real-time news coverage of Bloody Sunday here:

Defiantly, Dr. King roused nationwide support for the following march known as “Turnaround Tuesday” and returned to Selma on March 9.

Although the SCLC tried to legally obtain a court order to march to Montgomery, they were denied the document. The march went on, but to stay within legal means, King did not violate the court order and instead instructed the 2,500 walkers to turn around after a short prayer.

Selma To Montgomery Civil Rights March

Two young African American boys stand in the street with other onlookers watch the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marchers go by on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama. | Source: Stephen F. Somerstein / Getty

It was known that the SNCC wanted more radical action compared to the peaceful tactics of the SCLC, but King was able to manage the tensions between the groups. On March 21 and under federal protection, a massive group of 8,000 marched successfully to Montgomery and were met with a “Stars For Freedom” rally, featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone and more.

Sadly, Ku Klux Klan members angered by the protests killed two White persons who supported the marchers and their movement.

It would be several months until the Voting Rights Act Of 1965 would pass in August of that year, solidifying that the SNCC’s and SCLC’s hard work was not in vain.


President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (R), one of the original marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton (2nd R), First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and Rep. John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. | Source: SAUL LOEB / Getty

With Black people in Alabama finally able to cast ballots without being blocked by racist authority figures, Sherriff Clark was voted out immediately.

The Selma marches show that through concerted effort and some measurable pain, African Americans were able to withstand the brunt of racism and achieve heights long denied to them simply because of racism.

Today, many of us reap the benefits of the Selma marchers’ determination to create a fair and balanced life for all.


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Selma Marches
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