In late 1964 the height of the civil rights movement culminated in Dallas County, Selma, Alabama. At this point of the movement, Blacks had been given the right to vote, but in Dallas County there was only a few registered to do so. While over half of the population in Dallas County was Black, only one percent was registered. The registrarís office was only open two days out of the month, and during those days, they would open late, close early and take long lunches, which caused long lines that made it nearly impossible for the Blacks to register.
Around this same time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was accepting a Nobel Peace Prize and receiving high praise from the supporters of the Civil Rights movement and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But at the same time he was taking heavy criticism from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for his approach to the movement. SNCC wanted more of a broad base of leadership and participation in the movement, while SCLC relied more on Dr. King and his leadership. Although the two groups shared differences, they put them aside in order to reach a common goal of getting voters registered.
The first act to register voters came when local activists in SNCC and SCLC gathered and marched peacefully to the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse, the location of the registrarís office. The goal of this march was to peacefully wait on the steps until they were allowed to register or forced to leave. As the marchers reached the steps, the stereotypical racist southern sheriff, Jim Clark, greeted them. Little did he know then, but his harsh temper and brash actions would play right into the hands of the Civil Rights Movement. It would be the actions of his leadership that would attract the media attention that would eventually bring the support from the nation that the Civil Rights movement needed.
After the preliminary march was turned back by Sheriff Clark, a second march took place which was more successful in gaining support. It was during this march that a local teacher Amelia Boynter was arrested. During this point in time teachers were held in very high regard and the arrest of a teacher sparked the march of 105 local teachers. This gathering of teachers gained tremendous support from the community. The feeling was if the teachers felt this was important, then it must be.
Things also began heating up in neighboring counties. During a peaceful march in Marion, Alabama, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot at point plank range by an Alabama State trooper while attempting to protect his mother. The death of Jackson, who was a very highly regarded teen, sparked a lot of anger and frustration amongst the Black community. It caused the activists in the movement to question their peaceful tactics, but it was also this brutal murder that originated the idea of a march to Montgomery, the site of Governor Wallaceís mansion. The plan was to carry the body of Jimmie Lee Jackson to the doorstep of the mansion in order to show him what his people were doing. Once a couple days passed the marchers decided to lay Jackson to rest in a proper manner, but the march from Selma to Montgomery was still scheduled to take place.
On Sunday, March 6th, the first march was to take place. Many of the participants in the march wanted Dr. King to lead, but he had a prior obligation to speak in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Two members of SNCC, Josea Williams and John Lewis, led the march. Nearly 600 people gathered at the Brown Chapel AME church for the march. The only route out of Selma passed over the Edmund Pettus bridge. Sheriff Clark was advised by Governor Wallace to not allow any of the marchers to cross the bridge, and when the marchers arrived, Clark and his men were waiting, along with several news cameras. As the marchers made their way closer to crossing the bridge, television cameras captured the brutal beatings of hundreds of peaceful protestors. Later that evening, ABC interrupted their showing of the movie, "Judgement at Nuremberg," a film about Nazi war crime, with the clips of the dayís earlier events. This national media coverage brought the attention to the movement that it desperately needed. When word of the next march was released, support came from all over. This march summoned over 2,000 marchers, 450 of which were white, to Selma on March 9th.
This time Dr. King was available to lead the march, but Federal Judge Johnson wanted King to call off the march until protection for the marchers could be established. This time when the marchers crossed the bridge, Dr. King turned back in fear that the same beatings would occur. It was not until twelve days later that President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the now 3,200 marchers for the march to Montgomery. Although Governor Wallace opposed the march, it went on, and only a couple months later, President Johnson passed legislation to aid in voting rights for Blacks.Bo Maney