Selma, Alabama is a tiny little town only 54 miles west of state capitol Montgomery. In the early 1960s, this town was the flash point for the civil rights movement that would ultimately change government policy, but more importantly shine a bright light on the inequities of Southern society (and society in general) during the decade.
The city is the county seat of Dallas County, and in the 1960s remained strictly segregated with “”whites only” restaurants, water fountains and schools. But, more strikingly, only 156 of the city’s 15,000 blacks (who represented almost 50% of the population) were registered to vote. Though protected constitutionally, the county had various rules that denied them their rights including trumped up literacy tests, poll taxes and overt economic and physical intimidation led by the city’s bigoted Sheriff Jim Clark, his deputies and his cronies at the Ku Klux Klan.
More and more blacks with the help of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) fought hard to register, with very little success. Many were met with physical attacks by Clark’s cronies, but almost all were turned away. But an injunction issued in the summer of 1964 that barred any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of the DCVL, 41 named civil rights leaders, or a number of other organizations led to the involvement of Rev. Martin Luther King.
On January 2, of the following year, King gave a speech at Brown Chapel to rally the troops to march on January 18 to march from the church to the courthouse. But the sheriff led them to the alley and didn’t let anyone register.
On Sunday, March 1, emboldened by the national support they had received. Six hundred marchers tried to walk from Selma to Montgomery. As they were walking over the wide vertical expanse of the Edmund Pettus Bridge state troopers blocked US 80, with little warning the troopers began hitting the marchers with their night sticks and kicking them when they were down. The day was dubbed Bloody Sunday and the photographs taken of the beatings led to national outrage. On Tuesday, March 9 they attempted another march, but were again unsuccessful and met by violence.
On March 15th, President Johnson called on Congress to pass a voting rights bill and on the next day local judges raised the injunction against the march. The marchers attempted again but were once again brutally beaten.
On March 21, 4,000 marchers set out again this time with Federal protection provided by federalized Alabama National Guard. As they walked the 54 miles to Montgomery, the march swelled to over 25,000 participants, white and black. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law which outlawed the discrimination these marchers had faced.
Unfortunately, the town, like many southern towns along the Civil Rights marching lines, has seen much of its industry leave town in the past three decades and leave behind it devastating unemployment (as high as 21% in 2009) and a crippled economy. Businesses with boarded up windows and homes in such disrepair as to be left uninhabitable line the thoroughfare, and we were told that unenforced segregations still exists. There are black neighborhoods, and except for election day, the races stay to themselves. It seems unfortunate for such a historic town.