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.
March 2, 1965: Operation Rolling Thunder begins.
“Rolling Thunder” was an aerial bombardment campaign conducted over North Vietnam by the U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces and U.S. Navy from March 1965 until its discontinuation in November of 1968. By that point, the operation had, according to American estimates, killed 182,000 North Vietnamese civilians. It was the successor to Operation Flaming Dart, a shorter joint operation carried out over the course of seventeen days in February, and it was an escalated effort by the American government with broader targets and broader goals - namely, the destruction of North Vietnam’s infrastructure and industry and the demoralization of the North Vietnamese government and people. The North Vietnamese were undeniably outmatched in terms of technology, but the Americans were met with their own problems, which limited the effectiveness of the entire operation. Historians debate whether Rolling Thunder crippled North Vietnam’s capacity to fight, or whether the United States’ lack of coordination (among many other shortcomings) made Rolling Thunder a failure.
Its failure, if it was indeed a failure, was not due to a lack of firepower; by 1968 around 900,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by American aircraft during Rolling Thunder alone, compared to 698,000 throughout the entire Korean War.
February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated.
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain - and we will smile. Many will say turn away - away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man - and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate - a fanatic, a racist - who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.
Eulogy of Malcolm X, delivered February 27, 1965
Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery - March 25, 1965.
Full speech here.
March 25, 1965: The third Selma to Montgomery march reaches the Alabama State Capitol.
The first Selma-to-Mongomery march ended in March 7th’s “Bloody Sunday”, and the second by court order. During these first attempts, dozens of marchers were injured by tear gas and clubs, while one white minister - James Reeb - was beaten to death. It was Reeb’s death that finally attracted attention from the national media and political leaders, allowing the third march to ultimately succeed.
The marchers were organized by a local voting rights group, the SNCC, and the SCLC, and led by individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. They were a multiracial group - mostly black - but including whites, Asians, and Latinos, as well as people of many different religious backgrounds (and famously, nuns). On March 25th, after a four-day-long trek, 25,000 people walked to the Alabama State Capitol, where Dr. King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech, in which he declared:
“However frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.”
The march had a profound effect on the national psyche; for the first time, mostly because of widespread media coverage, Americans as a whole began to favor the Civil Rights movement. After witnessing the events of “Bloody Sunday”, President Johnson himself said:
“Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
“It was an extraordinary sensation… I had never felt quite like it before. I was free above the planet earth… and I saw it was rotating majestically below me…”
March 18, 1965: Alexey Leonov becomes the first person to conduct a space walk.
On this day, just three months before Ed White became the first American to ‘walk’ in space, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov piloted Voskhod 2 (Восход-2) into space and climbed out of his spacecraft - making him the first human to walk in space. Connected to his craft only by a tether, he remained outside for a total of twelve minutes. Despite the Soviet officials’ description of the space walk, Leonov’s body temperature heated up over three degrees Fahrenheit from physical strain, and he was barely able to make it back into the craft (you can read Leonov’s own recollection of his experience here).
Leonov, who also served as the Soviet commander of Soyuz 19, was also an accomplished artist, and often took colored pencils into space with him. He is the only one of the five Voskhod cosmonauts still alive today.