Fifty years ago, in March 1965, the events at Selma, Alabama marked a turning point in the progress of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In this blogpost we will take a look at why the Selma Marches proved to be so significant and the background against which they took place.
A hundred years before the watershed events of 1965, the United States was coming to terms with the after effects of the American Civil War. The United States Constitution had been altered to abolish slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment, and this was passed and ratified before the close of 1865. However, there remained huge opposition to this measure in the Southern States where laws were introduced to severely restrict the civil rights of black people. The Jim Crow laws segregated the black population from white people and measures were also taken to prevent them from exercising their right to vote.
Racial segregation operated across all areas of public life. The image above shows an advertisement for an all black vaudeville company which was run by Pat Chappelle at the beginning of the 20th century. He became famous for the excellence of the entertainment he provided despite the problems of performing to segregated audiences.
The US Army also practiced segregation; however, when the USA joined WWII in 1941, there was a need to enlist as many black people as possible to increase the available manpower. Frank Capra was tasked with producing a documentary style propaganda film which would motivate young black men to join up and fight for a nation which subjected them to oppression. The resulting film, ‘The Negro Soldier’, was very well received (click on the image below to watch in full) and portrayed African Americans in a heroic way, which was successful in influencing public opinion. Racial segregation within the army finally ended in 1948.
The Civil Rights Movement started to gather momentum during the Fifties and Sixties when cultural changes, following the end of WWII, brought about a greater awareness of the rights of the individual.
In December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, after being ordered to do so by the bus driver. This incident, small in itself, catalysed the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Alabama) and started Martin Luther King‘s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Black people’s refusal to use the buses caused an economic crisis in the city, forcing the authorities to recognize them as a powerful force. Those involved in the boycott formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and they chose the 26 year old Martin Luther King to be their leader.
A couple of years later the Civil Rights Movement came to the attention of the world’s press through the conflict at Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas. The Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools in 1954, however the Southern States continued to resist this legal ruling. In September 1957 Little Rock was due to accept its first intake of 9 black students, but there was a huge amount of hostility to this and an angry mob gathered by the school to prevent the students entering.
Black people and newspaper reporters suffered verbal abuse and violence over several days and this threatened to become a constitutional issue. For a short while the Arkansas Police were forced to restrain the ferocious mob (a role they did not relish as many were sympathisers), before President Eisenhower eventually despatched paratroopers to uphold federal law. Click on the image above to watch a compilation of film clips taken during this period. Start watching at 1minute 34 seconds into this British Gaumont clip.
The famous March on Washington took place on 28th August 1963, the main aim of which was to help President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill through Congress. Over 200,000 black and white Americans took part in a peaceful demonstration. Click on the image above to see footage of the march and hear Bayard Rustin (one of the chief organisers) speak about what they hoped to achieve. The last speaker of the day was Martin Luther King, who delivered his now legendary “I have a dream” speech, which remains one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century.
A landmark achievement took place 10 months later when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act 1964. This made racial segregation and discrimination illegal, as well as any attempt to restrict voter registration rights.
Malcolm X, a muslim preacher, was another charismatic black leader who emerged at this time. Malcolm X held extreme views, believing that nothing short of separating blacks from whites (separatism) would allow black people to live fully independent lives. Click on the image above to hear him warn in July 1964 about the violence which might erupt as a result of the fast pace of social change in the USA. He moderated his more extreme views following a visit to Mecca, where he realised that Islam could be a force for racial toleration. He was assassinated 7 months later on 21st February 1965 and it is generally believed that Nation of Islam (a group to which he had previously belonged) carried out the killing.
In September 1964 Martin Luther King came to the UK to talk about his book ‘Why We Can’t Wait’. During an interview he was asked whether, as a moderate, he was worried about the effect extremist movements would have on his cause. Click on the image above to hear his response.
The basic thing about a man is not …..the texture of his hair or the colour of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth
Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for civil rights and social justice. On his way to Oslo to collect the prize he stayed in London, where he delivered a number of speeches on “Negro equality”. Click on the image above to see a clip from the speech he gave at City Temple Hall. This is followed by another piece of film taken on a different occasion (possibly a debate at the Oxford Union), of Malcolm X speaking of how ideas about race can no longer be seen from a European perspective.
Three months later, violent events in Selma (Alabama) would focus world attention on the continuing struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The proposed marches from Selma to Montgomery were intended as a peaceful protest against the continuing discrimination which existed to prevent black people from voting. The Governor of Alabama, George C.Wallace, was determined the marches should not happen. The first march ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (a short distance from the starting point) when State Troopers attacked unarmed marchers with tear gas and clubs. When pictures of beaten bodies were broadcast across the world, many felt this represented a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement.
The second march took place two days later and was supported by many white groups, including a band of clergymen who had been attending a conference. Martin Luther King led the march to the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but no further so as not to violate a court injunction put in place by Governor Wallace. The State Troopers again blocked the way ahead but the marchers stopped to pray and then turned around and returned. There was no violence at this point, but later in the evening three clergymen were beaten by white segregationists on leaving a non-segregated restaurant. By coincidence, one of these clergymen (James Reeb) had been interviewed by ITN earlier that day, however he died from his injuries hours later. Click on the image above to watch ITN coverage of the day’s events.
The Third Selma March began on 21st March and this time President Johnson did everything possible to protect the marchers, since Governor Wallace had refused to do so. The State troops were put under federal control and the US Army was brought in along with FBI agents and Federal Marshalls. Click on the image above to watch an ITN news report made during the march, which includes an interview with Martin Luther King.
The clip shows how segregationist propaganda was used along the way, in the form of billboards linking Martin Luther King to Communism and dropping leaflets calling on white employers to sack their black workforce. None of this could prevent the 54 mile march from being successfully completed and it is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
The resounding impact of this historic march provided the impetus for the passing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. This legislation protected all African Americans’ right to vote by banning literacy tests and minimising the fear of intimidation through federal supervision of the voting process. By removing this barrier to equality African Americans were able to participate in public and political life to a far greater extent and ensure their voices were much more widely heard.
- John F.Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: Overview of the Civil Rights Movement
- Civil Rights Digital Library: Fantastic library of resources ‘documenting America’s struggle for racial equality’
- Dr Andrew Dawson’s Jisc Mediahub Case Study ‘The Negro Soldier’
- History Learning Site : The Civil Rights Movement in America 1945 – 1968
- Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute of Self-Development
- BBC iWonder: Did Martin Luther King achieve his life’s dream?
- National Voting Right Museum & Institute (Selma)
- The National Civil Rights Museum (at the Lorraine Motel)
- Encyclopedia of Alabama: The Civil Rights Movement
- Eisenhower Archives: Civil Rights: The Little Rock School Integration Crisis: Primary sources documenting President Eisenhower’s intervention