The 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965 culminated a journey of a hundred years by African Americans to gain one of the most fundamental of American freedoms: the right to vote. The peaceful march was possible because in the preceding days courageous citizens, local leaders, and civil rights groups had, at the cost of harassment, bloodshed, and innocent lives, come together to demand that right. The final march was a celebration of their achievement, a processional for fallen comrades, and the climactic event of the modern civil rights movement.
How did the old cotton port city of Selma, Ala., the seat of Dallas County, become the national focus of the voting rights movement? At mid-20th century African Americans made up roughly half of the county's voting age population, but since 1901 the county and state had systematically denied them the vote through literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation. In 1961 only 156 of the county's 15,000 voting age African Americans were regstered to vote.
The county's dismal record led the Justice Department to request records from county registrars, but it was thwarted by an unsympathetic judge. The Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) added a few voters to the rolls in the early 1960s through voter registration classes. In 1965 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an advocate of grassroots efforts like those of DCVL, sent representatives to Selma to help with the voting clinics. When African Americans assembled at the county courthouse to register, county sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies harassed people waiting in line and attacked SNCC workers. In December 1964 DCVL asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to help. SCLC knew that Clark's violent ways would help draw national attention to the voting rights drive.
The voting rights movement drew on the wellsprings of religion, nonviolence, and music for guidance and for the moral and physical courage the struggle demanded. Many southern communities, fearing organization by African Americans, forbade them to gather in large groupsexcept in their churches. African American leaders were vulnerable to economic reprisalexcept preachers, who were beholden only to their congregations. Because clergymen enjoyed moral authority in their communities and could speak persuasively before large groups, they emerged as the movement's natural leaders. The most famous of these preachers, Dr. King, believed deeply in the principle of "non-violent direct action" as the most effective and morally justified strategy for social change.
Inspired by earlier nonviolent reform movements, especially the one for Indian independence led by Mohandas Gandhi, SCLC and SNCC helped organize sit-ins, rallies, and marches to protest racial discrimination. Since jail and often physical harm were the result, nonviolent protest required profound bravery by participants. They took to song for solidarity, to endure long vigils, and to build courage for impending confrontation. Sam Cooke's soaring, gospel-tinged A Change is Gonna Come, a hit in early 1965, was background music to the struggle in Selma.
A GATHERING OF FORCES
The push for voter registration in Selma picked up momentum as SCLC joined forces with SNCC and DCVL. On January 2, in defiance of an injunction against large gatherings, King addressed a mass rally at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. On the 18th some 400 people joined the first voter registration march from Brown Chapel to the county courthouse. Sheriff Clark directed the marchers to an alley, then allowed no one to register. The next day, when the marchers refused to stand in the alley and DCVL's Amelia Boynton responded too slowly to Clark's order to move, he grabbed her by the collar and shoved her roughly towards a patrol car, then arrested 67 other marchers. With the appearance in major newspapers of the photo of Boynton's treatment, the media turned its eye on Selma.
When 105 teachers led by DCVL president Rev. Frederick D. Reese marched to the courthouse, Clark and his deputies twice pushed them from the steps, jabbing with nightsticks. This courageous act by people vulnerable to reprisal inspired their students and others who had been fearful of getting involved. As more marches and more arrests ensued, Sheriff Clark's intemperate responses upset Selma's mayor and public safety director, who were concerned about the city's image as it attempted to attract industries to the area.
THE CONFLICT TURNS DEADLY
In a tactical move by SCLC and SNCC to force the arrest of Dr. King and dramatize the campaign, King and 250 marchers violated a parade ordinance as they inarched to the courthouse on February 1. When 500 students marched later that day, Clark and his men arrested them with liberal use of nightsticks and at times cattle prods. By the 5th more than 3,000 marchers had been arrested, many held in prison camps outside town.
The mass arrests and harsh conditions under which the marchers were held caused growing concern in Washington. On the pay of Dr. King's release on the 5th, his "Letter from a Selma Jail" depicting the obstacles to voting appeared in the New York Times. King, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Congress pressed President Lyndon Johnson and the Justice Department to finish drafting promised voting rights legislation. Then on the 18th participants in a dangerous nighttime march in Marion, Ala., seat of Perry County, were attacked by state troopers. A young demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was fatally shot while trying to defend his grandfather. A call to carry Jackson's body to Montgomery evolved into a memorial march from Selma to Montgomerya march Gov. George Wallace vowed to stop.
MARCH 7, 1965
On a bright Sunday afternoon 600 marchers, in ranks of two, moved slowly up the Edmund Pettus Bridge rising over the Alabama River. Leading were John Lewis and SCLC's Hosea Williams. The marchers had left brown Chapel singing Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round; now they walked quietly. They could see only the calm river and the bare trees on the far bank.
Reaching the apex of the bridge, they saw below what Lewis described as a "sea of blue"a phalanx of Alabama state troopers blocking U.S. 80. Behind the troopers Sheriff Clark's posse waited on horses. They stopped a few yards short of the troopers, asking to speak to their leader. In response they were given two minutes to return to their "homes or church." When the marchers did not move, the troopers advanced, hitting marchers with their nightsticks, kicking those that went down. The posse rode directly into the panicking marchers. Donning gas masks, the troopers released clouds of suffocating tear gas; newsfilm captured the troopers flailing at the blinded and gagging marchers. They began running back towards the bridge, stumbling over each other and trying to ward off the blows. The troopers and posse continued to use nightsticks, whips, and rubber tubes as they drove the marchers through the streets of Selma.
MARCH 9, 1965
As state troopers continued to beat marchers after they reached the Brown Chapel area, enraged onlookers called for retaliation. It was a pivotal moment in the voting rights campaign: the principle of nonviolence was being tested in the heat of attack. The leaders were able to convince those ready to fight that this could only undermine the movement. They had to keep the sympathy they had earned, and with the image of troopers beating unresisting marchers televised nationally the spotlight was on Selma. Dr. King called on the nation's clergy to come to Selma for another attempt to march. But Federal District Court judge Frank Johnson issued an injunction against another march until a hearing could take place. King, reluctant to defy the court, agreed to march no further than the other side of the bridge.
On Tuesday March 9, as the first of some 2,000 marchers approached the state troopers at the site of Sunday's violence, the leaders kneeled to pray, then turned around. It was an unpopular decision with the marchers, but one noted that otherwise they would have been "beaten up with the court's approval." That night a clergyman who had marched, Rev. James Reeb, was attacked on a Selma street and later died. In his eulogy Dr. King said, "Again we must ask the question: Why must good men die for doing good?"
MARCH 21-25, 1965
WITNESSES FOR FREEDOM
A week later the long-sought goal finally appeared on the horizon. On the 15th President Johnson called on Congress to pass a voting rights bill; on the next day Judge Johnson lifted the injunction against the march. Jubilation replaced fear, but local resistance remained fierce. That same day marchers in Montgomery were brutally beaten, causing Dr. King to respond angrily, "the cup of endurance has run over."
Governor Wallace refused President Johnson's request for state protection of the marchers, so Johnson nationalized 1,900 Alabama national guardsmen and dispatched 2,000 soldiers and dozens of FBI agents and federal marshals. On March 21 some 4,000 marchers set out from Selma; where U.S. 80 (ironically also called Jefferson Davis Highway) became two lanes the number was restricted to 100. Most of this core group marched all 54 miles, stopping at four overnight campsites. In Montgomery their numbers swelled again to an exultant throng of 25,000 as they approached the Alabama State Capitol. The hard-won fight and the march honoring it had given meaning to the promise made a century earlier in the 15th Amendment: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
IN THE WAKE OF THE MARCH
The triumphal march provoked another death that night. Viola Liuzzo had come from Detroit to help. After she had carried marchers back to Selma, Klansmen sped alongside her car and shot her. Resistance to change would die hard.
SNCC continued to work with African Americans in Lowndes County organizing the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. This evolved into a political party, the first to adopt the black panther symbol. On August 6th President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which suspended literacy tests, called for the appointment of federal election monitors, and directed the U.S. Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes by states.
But laws cannot end bigotry. That month Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian helping desegregation efforts in Hayneville, Ala., was shot and killed. Lowndes County landowners evicted tenants who registered. In December SNCC and Lowndes County leaders helped several dispossessed families set up a "tent city" off U.S. 80, then helped them find jobs, permanent housing, and new lives. In the end the hard work bore fruit: By 1966 the number of registered African Americans in Alabama was four times greater than in 1960.
Following the Trail
Courage, hate, triumph, fear, hopepowerful emotions are evoked by the sites related to the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. For those who had a role in the events, memories haunt these places. For others the experience is indirect but also deeply felt.
Because photographs and film of the events played so crucial a role in the struggle, these images and today's historic sites enrich each other: The streets and buildings, many virtually unchanged, help us engage more deeply with recorded scenes from four decades ago. At the same time the old images make the sites resonate with the passions of a stormy era. Standing before them is like watching an old newsreel, our imagination calling up the cries and confusion from that terrible, noble time.
Some of the sites inspire, as they summon again the idealism and purpose that drove the voting rights movement. Others make us uncomfortablecommemorating the death of an innocent, marking a place where people suffered bigotry and brutalitybut this is why they are so important. These places will not let us forget.
Selma: Echoes of the Struggle
Selma remains a small, quiet town. In a day you can walk to the major sites connected with the voting rights drive. We suggest you start with the Park Contact Station at 816 Selma Ave. Park interpreters can answer questions and provide historical context for the story. You'll also find more literature there.
"Bloody Sunday" Confrontation Site Here Alabama state troopers and the county sheriff's posse halted, then attacked, marchers on March 7, 1965.
Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church This was the site of early mass meetings in the 1960s voting rights campaign. It was also the staging point for registration marches to the county courthouse and for the final march to Montgomery.
Cecil C. Jackson Public Safety Building This building served as the Selma City Hall and as the jail for both Selma and Dallas County in 1965. When Martin Luther King, Jr., and a number of marchers were arrested in February, many were incarcerated here.
Dallas County Court House This was the destination for most voting rights marches in Selma. Those trying to register here were confronted with bureaucratic obstacles or roughly removed from the premises.
Edmund Pettus Bridge This bridge over the Alabama River became symbolic of the first attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7"Bloody Sunday"marchers crossed the bridge as they left Selma; on the other side they were beaten back by state troopers blocking U.S. 80.
First Baptist Church This church took the early lead in the voting rights struggle in Selma and Dallas County. Members allowed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to use the church as its first organizational base and rallying point when it arrived in Selma in 1963.
George Washington Carver Homes Many participants in the Selma marches lived in this large housing complex. Marchers and civil rights workers from out of town were lodged here.
Sullivan Building The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference directed their local voting rights activities from this building.
To make the most of your time: If you have half a day: Take the Martin Luther King, Jr. Street Historic Walking Tour (Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, First Baptist Church, Carver Homes) and see the Dallas County Court House and the Bloody Sunday confrontation site.
If you have two hours: Take the Martin Luther King, Jr. Street Historic Walking Tour and see the Bloody Sunday confrontation site.
Clark Elementary School Teachers from this school marched to the county courthouse and attempted to register, inspiring others who had been reluctant to join the campaign.
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute Documents, artifacts, and videos trace the voting rights struggle and commemorate those who took part.
Site of Good Samaritan Hospital The primary hospital for African Americans during segregation and where most injured marchers were taken.
Tabernacle Baptist Church Site of the first mass meeting on voting rights in Selma, 1964.
On the first attempt and on the final march, marchers took the same route from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The final route was along U.S. 80. The second attempt followed a slightly different route.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marion In February 1965 state troopers attacked marchers as they left the courthouse at night. When Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family fled to a restaurant, troopers followed them and struck his grandfather. As Jackson moved to defend him, a trooper shot Jackson at close range. He died a few days later. Jackson's memorial is at Zion's Chapel Methodist Church.
Campsites The marchers spent five days and four nights on the road, camping on farms owned by people friendly to the movement. Organizers had to provide tents, enough hot food to feed 300 people three meals a day, and sanitary facilities. Doctors tended blisters and sprained ankles. Despite the logistical challenges, the marchers' spirits remained high as they eased their journey with song.
At the Lowndes County Line U.S. 80 narrowed from four lanes to two. The court order allowing the march stipulated that only 300 marchers could walk this part of the road, both to keep one lane open for traffic and because the narrow, rural road through the county would be the most dangerous part of the march. Three hundred people would be much easier to guard than 4,000.
On the road to Montgomery after carrying marchers back to Selma, Viola Liuzzo was shot and killed by Klansmen. Her memorial, near the place where she was shot overlooks the route of the march.
Tent City White landowners in Lowndes County, retaliating against tenant farmers who registered, voted, or engaged in any voting rights activities, threw them off their land. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Lowndes County leaders worked to help families stay together and remain in the county. They bought tents, cots, heaters, food, and water and helped several families build a temporary "tent city." Despite harassmentincluding shots regularly fired into the encampmentresidents persevered for nearly two years as organizers helped them find new jobs and look for permanent housing.
Hayneville In August 1965 seminarian Jonathan Daniels was jailed for joining boycotts of segregated facilities. Soon after his release he was shot and killed in a confrontation with a storeowner.
City of Saint Jude, a Catholic institution with a hospital, school, and church, was the last campsite for the marchers and the site of a musical rally the night before the final leg of the march into Montgomery.
The last leg of the march, from City of Saint Jude to the Alabama State Capitol, is almost five miles long on busy city streets. If you wish to follow the marchers' route in Montgomery, we recommend that you drive it.
Montgomery: Resistance and Change
Alabama State Capitol In the emotional aftermath of the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper, some suggested protesting to Gov. George Wallace by carrying Jackson's body to the steps of the capitol building. Organizers decided instead to stage a memorial march from Selma to Montgomery. When the marchers reached the capitol, state troopers barred them from the steps, so SCLC's Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., SNCC's John Lewis, and other speakers stood on a flatbed truck in front of the capitol to address the crowd. Governor Wallace refused to receive a voting rights petition from a delegation led by Dr. King.
City of Saint Jude In the 1930s the Catholic Church established in Montgomery a nondiscriminatory religious, health, and educational complex that was far ahead of its time in the segregated South. It offered 36 acres for the last encampment of the march. The "Stars for Freedom" rally, organized by Harry Belafonte, included Sammy Davis, Jr.; Sidney Poitier; Joan Baez; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and many others.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church This church, known then as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was a block from the Alabama State Capitol and the staging area for the rally in Montgomery at the end of the march from Selma. It was already a civil rights landmark: In 1955, when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the new pastor of the church, local activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. They asked Dr. King to head the group, and his church became the headquarters for the successful 1955-56 boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
Alabama Department of Archives and History A photographic exhibit of the march from Selma to Montgomery is given a prominent place among the artifacts and documents of Alabama history.
Civil Rights Memorial (at the Southern Poverty Law Center) is a moving tribute in water and stone to those slain in the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968.
Rosa Parks Library and Museum The courageous act of civil disobedience by Rosa Parks that led to the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott is powerfully documented.
H. Councill Trenholm State Technical College The library's collections include documents, images, and oral histories of the march and the voting rights movement.
About Your Visit
For Your Safety
Source: NPS Brochure (2008)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Case Study: Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, Alabama (The PEW Charitable Trusts, 2017)
Cultural Landscape Report: Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail 85% Draft Submittal (WLA Studio, June 2021)
From Selma to Montgomery: Remembering Alabama's Civil Right's Movement Through Museums (©Holly Jansen, Fall 2012)
Master Plan for Selma to Montgomery Scenic Byway/All-American Road National Historic Trail (Haworth, Meyer & Boleyn, Inc., September 1999)
Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail Study (April 1993)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 20-Apr-2022