By MIKE VINSON
DATE: March 7, 1963
LOCATION: Edmund Pettus Bridge – Selma, Alabama
Below, the Alabama River purred along at a slow rate, a mere ebb gently rising up here and there. However, there was great turbulence above!
A detachment of Alabama State Troopers, some afoot, some on horseback, were filled with keen anticipation regarding what was about to go down in the next few minutes. With patrol vehicles strategically positioned here-and-there, they had set up a blockade on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which had to be crossed when traveling from Selma to Montgomery (a 50-mile trip), with Montgomery being the Capital of Alabama. Also, the troopers were reinforced by a large number of local law enforcement.
Camera crews from various media outlets anxiously attempted to outmaneuver each other in order to secure the best positions to get the best shots and footage.
Alabama Governor George Wallace—“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”—was closely monitoring the situation from his governor’s office in Montgomery.
Suddenly, the white troopers reflexively tensed up! Approaching the bridge were approximately 600 black people, with John Lewis (now a U.S. Representative from Georgia) and Reverend Hosea Williams, a close ally of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., leading the front line.
As the blacks approached the bridge, commanding officer John Cloud ordered the black marchers to disband and turn back. Hosea Williams attempted to reason with Cloud, but Cloud was deaf to anything Williams had to say.
When the black marchers refused to retreat, the state troopers, armed with pistols, shotguns, billy clubs, tear gas, and hard helmets, began shoving the black marchers backwards. From there, it escalated: Troopers fired tear gas into the crowd of black marchers! Troopers on horseback charged the marchers! Many marchers were knocked to the ground and savagely beaten! As one old-timer, who was present that day, told me: “They were bustin’ heads left-and-right . . . scary!”
Indeed, it was headline news, as TV stations and newspapers all across America displayed to the public disturbing images of black marchers being attacked and left bleeding on the ground. That March 7, 1965 day, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Expectedly, all this was of grave concern to United States President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The true issue behind “Bloody Sunday” was voting rights for blacks in Alabama.
First, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black man and a voting rights activist, had been shot to death by a white Alabama State Trooper on February 18, 1965, after a voting rights march on the courthouse in Perry County, Alabama (City of Marion the county seat) had turned into a melee. So great was the outcry over Jackson’s death, many black leaders from Reverend Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference/SCLC felt a march would help calm down things, thus the first march on March 7, 1965.
Though the population in Dallas County, Alabama (City of Selma the county seat) was approximately 56% black, “of the 15,000 blacks old enough to vote, only 130 were registered (less than 1%).” Further, when blacks did attempt to vote, they were confronted—often attacked—at the voting precincts by KKK types, and haters in general.
March 9, 1965, Martin Luther King/MLK led approximately 2,000 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, held a short prayer session, and turned the marchers around. That day would become known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”
March 17, 1963, Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson ruled in favor of the voting rights protestors, saying their First Amendment right “could not be abridged by the state of Alabama.”
March 22, 1965, approximately 25,000 marchers, led by MLK and other black civil rights activists, left Selma, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and reached the state Capitol steps in Montgomery on March 25, 1965.
His hand somewhat forced, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, and . . . well . . . the rest is history.
And by the way, a movie titled Selma is set to come out in the very near future.