Friday, March 07, 2008

March 7

On this date 1965, hundreds of civil rights activists walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which would have led them out of Selma, Alabama, toward the state capital in Montgomery. The marchers were determined to press their governor -- the atrocious George W. Wallace -- to reign in the state’s police and troopers, who had been brutalizing justice advocates for years.

In early 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a voting rights campaign in Dallas County. Like many communities throughout the deep South, Dallas Country was dominated by the racist Sheriff Jim Clark who bragged that he had learned “never to his a nigger with your fist because his head is too hard.” In Dallas County, only 335 blacks -- out of a population of 15,000 -- were registered to vote, a percentage that was characteristic of Alabama as a whole.

The Selma protests quickly drew the official wrath of the state, which arrested thousands of civil rights activists during the first weeks of February. On February 18, a demonstration in nearby Marion had brought the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year old veteran and Baptist deacon whom a state trooper had shot at point-blank range during a police riot. Jackson -- who took a bullet to the abdomen while trying to protect his mother -- died from an infection on February 26. (His killer, James Bonard Fowler, was charged with murder a mere 42 years later.)

In response to Jackson’s death, the SCLC planned the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Sunday, March 7. After crossing the Pettus Bridge -- located on Jefferson Davis Highway (US 80) -- the marchers were greeted by a phalanx of Alabama Troopers. The subsequent assault was captured live by television crews and subsequently broadcast around the world. J.L. Chestnut, a young lawyer from Selma, recalled “Bloody Sunday” four decades later.
[W]hat I witnessed led me to believe America could not be saved and white people were not worth saving. One hundred fifty state troopers decked out in riot gear, tear gas, masks, and clubs the size of baseball bats, backed by fifty special deputy sheriffs mounted on nervous horses and armed with huge clubs, beat the young nonviolent people senseless in broad daylight . . .

People were left bloodied on the highway. [John] Lewis [of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] was on his knees, suffering from two concussions and bleeding like a stuck hog. Women and even children were unconscious, others semiconscious, lying, sitting, trying to run, but literally being run over by horses -- and hearing their ribs and limbs cracking. It was the worst day of my life.

Over the next two weeks, continuing violence in Alabama brought further attention to Selma and the broader question of black voting rights. On March 9, a white Unitarian minister from Boston named James Reeb was beaten by segregationist thugs in Selma; he died from head injuries two days later. After a federal court ruled on behalf of the SCLC, thousands of marchers left Selma on March 21. Among the marchers was a housewife and mother of five named Viola Liuzzo. Liuzzo had watched footage of the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation from her home in Detroit. Horrified by what she saw, Liuzzo traveled to Selma less than two weeks later and participated in the final march, which successfully arrived in Montgomery on March 24.

On March 25, Viola Liuzzo was shot to death in her car by four Klansmen. A little over four months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act; Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

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