By the time Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the third – and, this time, successful – Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, the press knew this was a big story. The first march, on 7 March 1965, was stopped by police violence: the Alabama state and local police beat up the 600 peaceful marchers in Selma, injuring dozens and sending 17 to the hospital.
The horrific pictures and news stories of this “Bloody Sunday” police rampage shocked the nation, and especially grabbed the attention of President Lyndon Johnson. Eight days later, on March 15, he made an important speech to Congress introducing voting rights legislation, and on 6 August 1965 he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The three Selma-to-Montgomery marches vividly publicized the lack of African American voting rights in Alabama, and roused the nation, Congress and the president to act. Two days after the “Bloody Sunday” initial march, Dr. King (who had missed that march) led a second attempt – but ended it after symbolically crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the earlier police violence had occurred, deciding to wait for a court order to make the march fully legal.
On 21 March 1965, supported by that court order, the third march began.
The following three newspaper articles, all provided by the Associated Press, present details of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The first article reports on the march itself, the next two show some of the resistance and hateful opposition confronting the marchers and their campaign for voting rights.
Here is a transcription of this article:
King Leads Thousands On Voting Rights Trek
Army Troops Protect Pilgrimage Marchers
Throng Halts After 8-Mile Walk To Camp Ground;
Buses Haul Most Back To Selma For Night’s Rest
SELMA, Ala. (AP) – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands Sunday in a massive highway pilgrimage heavily guarded by Army troops and told his tired followers at the end of the eight-mile walk they were part of “an unstoppable movement.”
King walked at the head of his civil rights legions on the first leg of a 50-mile, five-day march to the Alabama capital to protest denial of Negro voting rights.
When they reached their first overnight camp ground – a cow pasture dotted by four large tents – King said the march “would give people all over the country a sense of inspiration.”
King said he was physically tired but that this was offset by “the inner rewarding element” he felt.
At dusk, trucks and chartered buses carried all but 300 of the marchers to a special train to be returned to Selma for the night. Most will rejoin the march when it resumes Monday.
The people of this area, King said, “apparently have resigned themselves that the Negro movement is an unstoppable movement and that they cannot stand on the beach and hold the tide back.”
The parade had a tide of marchers.
King’s aide, the Rev. James Bevel, said a close count showed 8,000 in the ranks. King himself had estimated that 10,000 were massed at a church where the march began. Other observers numbered the marchers at more than 5,000.
The first step was taken at 12:48 p.m. (CST).
It was the fulfillment of a long-held hope of King who compared the march to the famous march to the sea by India’s Mohandas K. Gandhi.
In the eight-abreast columns spread out for nearly one mile along U.S. 80 were scores of political figures, clergymen, students and also union leaders and entertainment figures.
“This is America’s cause,” King said before leading the throngs from old Brown’s Chapel A.M.E. Church in a Negro housing project. “We are standing together to make it clear that we are determined to make brotherhood a reality for all men.”
King, who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, was joined by another Nobel Prize winner, Ralph Bunche of the United Nations staff. Scores of political figures, movie stars, union leaders and clergymen marched.
At Montgomery – target of the massive march – about 50 cars occupied by Ku Klux Klansmen drove through the city in a motorcade protesting the march. Federal troops and FBI agents watched the Klansmen.
The highway pilgrimage began under heavy guard by federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and regular Army troops called up Saturday by President Johnson.
The President kept in close touch with the developments from his Texas ranch.
“We are tired of waiting,” King said before leading the march from the church. “We have waited 345 years for freedom and the day is at hand.” He said later that referred to the date when the first Negro slaves came to America.
The marching columns moved from the old church, through a white residential area and downtown Selma. Then they crossed Pettus Bridge and onto the highway.
At Craig Air Force Base, a crowd of white spectators yelled, “why don’t you go home?”
A car driven by a white man moved by. On its side were painted the words: “Go home, scum. We love Selma.”
White youths in a car emblazoned with “I hate niggers” were stopped by Guardsmen and told to leave the area. The tough-looking Guardsmen cleared out spectators along the way after the marchers passed.
Jeeps Patrol Road
Army jeeps patrolled the highway. Two state patrol cars moved ahead of the marching columns to block traffic.
Carbine-armed soldiers stood guard around the campsite, eight miles from Selma. Four giant tents were put up off a small side road.
Traffic piled up for miles when the marchers swung from the left lanes and crossed the two other lanes to set up camp for the night.
When the marchers stopped about five miles from Selma, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, King’s close associate, said they were making excellent progress.
“It seems like we just got started,” he said.
Dr. Bunche looked weary from the long hike. He smiled wryly and said: “I feel better than my legs do. I think I’m holding up well. I don’t know how long I will stay with the march.”
King told newsmen he would fly to Cleveland, Ohio, Tuesday for a day in his honor and would return that night. Abernathy said he would leave Tuesday also for a trip to Louisville, Ky.
King wore a black overcoat as he began the march. He was hatless as usual but a Hawaiian lei was draped around his neck.
Thousands massed in the street before the procession started.
National Guardsmen in olive battle fatigues cleared a way through the throngs milling in the street.
Two Army helicopters hovered overhead, poised on emptiness like giant hummingbirds.
American and United Nations flags sprang up in the ranks of marchers. The columns moved eight abreast, arm-in-arm, in ranks three feet apart.
They were of many types and descriptions – white-collared clergymen, beatniks with beards, college students in denims and sweaters, and old men and women, teenagers and babies.
There were no white spectators in the area where the march began.
Israelites’ Flight Recalled
A mile away, however, across the Alabama River Bridge at the outskirts of the business district, hundreds of white persons grouped beside the highway.
Cars with signs opposing the march appeared there. They included such legends as “Martin Luther King’s County” and “I Hate Niggers.”
Sheriff James G. Clark, the symbol of white resistance to the civil rights drive here, told newsmen as the march began: “They have gotten everything they wanted from the federal government.”
The next two articles were published by the Plain Dealer, reporting on events that occurred the day before the march began.
Here is a transcription of this article:
Bishop Calls March ‘Disservice’
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – The resident Methodist Bishop of Alabama, the Rev. W. Kenneth Goodson of Birmingham, said yesterday he views the proposed civil rights march to Montgomery “as doing a great disservice to the cause of human freedom…”
Goodson said in a statement that the Selma-to-Montgomery march would delay “still further the struggle for reconciliation which surely awaits all of us who call Alabama home.”
The bishop said his feeling “is so strong against this proposed march that I counsel all Methodist[s] against participation…”
He said he strongly advises any outside Methodists – ministers, bishops or laymen – “to return to their homes, where I am sure there is ample responsibility and opportunity for Christian witness and service.”
Here is a transcription of this article:
200 Whites Protest ’Bama Rights March
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – About 200 white persons marched to the Federal Building here yesterday under the leadership of a segregationist group to protest the Selma-to-Montgomery march by civil rights advocates.
The group, headed by leaders of the Organization for Better Government, carried placards saying “Outside Clergy, Go Home,” “Pious Phonies, Go Home,” “LBJ and MLK, Get Off Our Backs.”
One of the leaders, the Rev. Russell Pate, an Evangelist, denounced what he called a mockery of religion professed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ministers from other states who have demonstrated in Selma and Montgomery.
Pate said: “I do not believe in integration and I believe I have the Bible to back me up.”
He blamed the downfall of the Roman Empire on intermarriage and predicted the same thing could happen to America.
Pate closed by saying: “I beg President Johnson to let us alone and leave us in peace.”
Another speaker introduced as a Montgomery businessman, D. H. Hammonds, said that the purpose of yesterday’s demonstration was to stop the Selma march and get the agitators and beatniks out of Alabama.