On this day in history in 1965, more than 3,000 civil rights demonstrators led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began their march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
A week after Reeb’s death, Judge Johnson ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of blacks to march in protest and against the state of Alabama from blocking them:
The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . . These rights may . . . be exercised by marching, even along public highways.
The five-day, four-night march began on March 21, and covered a 54-mile route along U.S. Route 80 (in Alabama known as the “Jefferson Davis Highway”). Protected by 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals, the marchers averaged ten miles a day and arrived in Montgomery on the 24th, and the Alabama Capitol building on the 25th.
On March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel to commence the trek to Montgomery. Most of them were black, but also participating were a significant number of whites along with some Asians and Latinos. In 1965, the road to Montgomery was four lanes wide going east from Selma, then narrowed to two lanes through Lowndes County, and then widened to four lanes again at Montgomery county border. Under the terms of Judge Johnson’s order, the march was limited to no more than 300 participants for the two days they were on the two-lane portion of Highway-80, so at the end of the first day most of the marchers returned to Selma by bus and car, leaving 300 to camp overnight and take up the journey the next day.
On March 22 and 23rd, 300 protesters marched through chilling rain across Lowndes county, camping at three sites in muddy fields. At the time of the march, the population of Lowndes County was 81% Black and 19% white, but not a single black was registered to vote. At the same time there were 2240 whites registered to vote in Lowndes County, a figure that represented 118% of the adult white population (in many southern counties of that era it was common practice to retain white voters on the rolls after they died or moved away).
On the morning of 24th, the march crossed into Montgomery County and the highway widened again to four lanes. All day as the march approached the city, additional marchers were ferried by bus and car to join the line. By evening, several thousand marchers had reached the final campsite at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex, on the outskirts of Montgomery.
That night on a makeshift stage, a “Stars for Freedom” rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone all performing.
On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the steps of the State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech “How Long, Not Long.” “The end we seek,” King told the crowd, “is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
Later that night, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to support voting rights for blacks, was assassinated by Ku Klux Klan members while she was ferrying marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. Among the Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was FBI informant Gary Rowe.
Image Credit: webmacster87(flickr)