March 7, 1965: The first Selma to Montgomery March (“Bloody Sunday”) takes place. 

During the 1960s, only small percentages of the large populations of eligible black voters in certain parts of the South could actually vote, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Voter registration programs organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups (including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were established in these states, but they were met with fierce opposition: during the 1964 “Freedom Summer” campaign, designed to register African-Americans in Mississippi, eighty civil rights workers were beaten by white residents; in one notorious incident, local Klansmen ambushed and murdered three workers as retribution for their efforts in attempting to register and educate disfranchised voters. 

In 1965, a voter registration campaign focused in Selma, Alabama, began - at the head of this revived effort was Martin Luther King, Jr., the SNCC, and the SCLC. On March 7, a group of several hundred people set out from Selma on a fifty-four-mile march toward Montgomery, but this protest was stopped short in a brief and violent confrontation (later known as “Bloody Sunday”) between the marchers and state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of the main catalysts for the march, besides the ongoing struggle over voting restrictions, was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama State Trooper a week earlier; however, the events of Bloody Sunday garnered more national attention than Jackson’s murder.

As the Selma marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by state troopers, who began to shove and beat them, while another detachment fired tear gas into the crowd. Among those injured in the attack was John Lewis, who escaped the beatings with a fractured skull. These acts of violence against peaceful protesters were widely publicized and highly influential in turning public opinion in favor of the Civil Rights Movement. Following the second ceremonial march, conducted on March 9, a white minister named James Reeb was severely injured by KKK members and later died after the hospital in Selma turned him away; the death of a white minister captured the public’s attention even more securely. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led a third march on March 21, 25,000 people gathered in Montgomery to hear him speak and deliver his "How Long, Not Long" speech, and after President Johnson witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television, he was compelled to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress and did so on March 15; he also delivered his own speech to a joint session of Congress in which he quoted an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement - “we shall overcome" - in an obvious and momentous display of support for the movement.

Johnson’s bill passed in August as the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

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