This picture speaks 1000 words. This picture is the picture of John Lewis' casket traveling over the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time in his "Final Crossing" of this bridge on July 27th, 2020, as he journeys to the US Capitol Building to lay in state as the first African American law-maker to lay in state.
But why is this picture so powerful? In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made it their mission to register African American voters in order to promote the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The county seat of Selma only had about 1 to 2% of eligible black voters registered to vote. It was nearly impossible for African American voters to vote because of arbitrary literary tests, lots of paperwork, limited times the registration office was open, etc (voter suppression at its finest). The goal of the Voting Rights act was to ensure that it was much easier for all registered Americans to vote regardless of the color of their skin.
As the SNCC pushed for more African American voters to register to vote, they reached out to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for help. The leader of the SCLC, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Selma to help.
The Mayor of Selma, Joseph Smitherman, encouraged law enforcement to use non-violent means to interact with protestors and demonstrators because Smitherman feared that bad publicity would encourage people not to invest and bring in new industry in Selma. One segregationist Sheriff, Jim Clark did not listen to Smitherman's directive and started jailing demonstrators and protestors making for a volatile environment.
The area was a hotbed of discontent. African Americans were fighting for their rights that were granted under The Civil Rights Act of 1964, promoting anti-segregation legislation and wanting a Voting Rights Act that would eliminate the barriers for African Americans getting to the polling booth and voicing their right.
On February 18th, 1965, in Marion the county seat of Perry County, near Selma, Activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot during a nighttime protest by a state trooper and taken to Selma where he died a few days later. Finding this unacceptable, the SCLC and the SNCC decided to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state's capital, to protest the injustice of Jackson's murder and to highlight the barriers to African American rights.
On March 6th, Governor George C. Wallace forbade the march and told state troopers to "Take whatever means necessary" to prevent the march from Selma to Montgomery.
On March 7th, 1965, SNCC Chairman John Lewis and SCLC Lieutenant Hosea Williams talked to marchers and reminded them of non-violent tactics while marching, including sitting and praying if they were halted by law enforcement and to wait until they were tear gassed or arrested but not to fight back.
Lewis and Williams led 600 marchers two by two, the six blocks from from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crossed the Alabama River and led out of Selma. When the demonstrators made it to the bridge, state troopers and sheriffs deputies informed the marchers that they had two minutes to disperse. Williams asked to speak to the officer in charge and was told that there was nothing to talk about. The state troopers advanced upon the demonstrators using tear gas and attacked the marchers with billy clubs and bullwhips. 50 marchers were hospitalized including John Lewis.
Broadcasting companies were present for the march and caught the melee on camera, broadcasting the violence on national television and the day became known as Bloody Sunday. Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged people to go to Selma to join in the protest and restart the march.
On March 9th, known as Turnaround Tuesday, King led more than 2,000 individuals to the bridge to finish the march. Because a US District Court Judge, Frank Johnson Jr. had issued a restraining order to stop all demonstrations in the interim while he examined the evidence on whether the protests were allowed, King called off the march when State Troopers ordered the march to stop.
On March 15th, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced voting rights legislation to a joint session of congress and made the following statement:
"What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. 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."
On March 17th, US District Judge Frank Johnson ruled that the protestors had a right to march from Selma to Montgomery by saying:
The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups…and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways."
On March 20th, President LBJ federalized command of the Alabama National Guard and dispatched the US Army and the FBI to Selma to provide protection to the marchers. On March 21st, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led 3,000-8,000 marchers out of Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on onto the road to Montgomery. The protestors grew to more than 25,000 along the 50 mile walk, arriving in the capital of Montgomery on March 25th. At the capital, Martin Luther King Jr gave the following speech:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?…How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”
On August 6th, 1965 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress and suspended the arbitrary literacy tests, directed the attorney general to challenge use of poll taxes for elections and worked to break down barriers to vote. In 1966, Congress created the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail recognizing the importance of peaceful protests and the hard fought battles in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Information taken from: https://www.britannica.com/event/Selma-March
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