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On March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, a 600-person civil rights demonstration ends in violence when marchers are attacked and beaten by white state troopers and sheriff’s deputies. The day's events became known as "Bloody Sunday."
The demonstrators—led by civil rights activists John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—were commemorating the recent fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon, by state trooper James Bonard Fowler. The group planned to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. Just as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, they were ordered to disperse. Moments later, police assaulted them with tear gas, bullwhips and billy clubs. Lewis, then 25, was one of 17 marchers hospitalized; dozens more were treated for injuries.
The violence was broadcast on TV and recounted in newspapers, spurring demonstrations in 80 cities across the nation within days. On March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr. led more than 2,000 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke on the need for voting reform, something activists in Selma had long been fighting for: “There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. We have already waited 100 years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”
King completed the march to Montgomery, along with 25,000 demonstrators, on March 25, under the protection of the U.S. military and the FBI. The route is now a U.S. National Historic Trail. Prodded by what Johnson called “the outrage of Selma,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law five months later, with the purpose to “right that wrong.” Lewis became a U.S. congressman from Georgia in 1986; he died in 2020.
READ MORE: How Selma's 'Bloody Sunday' Became a Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement
Bloody Sunday Protest March, Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965
Between 1961 and 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had led a voting registration campaign in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, a small town with a record of consistent resistance to black voting. When SNCC’s efforts were frustrated by stiff resistance from the county law enforcement officials, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were persuaded by local activists to make Selma’s intransigence to black voting a national concern. SCLC also hoped to use the momentum of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to win federal protection for a voting rights statute.
During January and February 1965, King and SCLC led a series of demonstrations to the Dallas County Courthouse. On February 18, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper and died eight days later. In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7.
Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma on Sunday, March 7, and led by John Lewis and other SNCC and SCLC activists, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.
“Bloody Sunday” was televised around the world. Martin Luther King called for civil rights supporters to come to Selma for a second march. When members of Congress pressured him to restrain the march until a court could rule on whether the protesters deserved federal protection, King found himself torn between their requests for patience and demands of the movement activists pouring into Selma. King, still conflicted, led the second protest on March 9 but turned it around at the same bridge. King’s actions exacerbated the tension between SCLC and the more militant SNCC, who were pushing for more radical tactics that would move from nonviolent protest to win reforms to active opposition to racist institutions.
On March 21, the final successful march began with federal protection, and on August 6, 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act was passed, completing the process that King had hoped for. Yet Bloody Sunday was about more than winning a federal act it highlighted the political pressures King was negotiating at the time, between movement radicalism and federal calls for restraint, as well as the tensions between SCLC and SNCC.
History: Selma marchers beaten on 'Bloody Sunday'
In this March 7, 1965 file photo, state troopers use clubs against participants of a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. At foreground right, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is beaten by a state trooper. The day, which became known as "Bloody Sunday," is widely credited for galvanizing the nation's leaders and ultimately yielded passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (AP Photo/File) (Photo: AP File photo, AP)
March 7, 1871: Not long after a county supervisor and three other African Americans were shot down in cold blood in Meridian, Mississippi, three African Americans were arrested for making “incendiary” speeches. Gunfire broke out at their court hearing, killing the judge and two defendants. This led to rioting and nearly 30 African Americans were killed, including “all the leading” African-American men in town “with one or two exceptions,” according to Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction.
March 7, 1930: At the request of African Americans, The New York Times announces the word “Negro” will be capitalized from now on in the newspaper.
March 7, 1960: In the wake of sit-in demonstrations in Houston, Texas, by students from Texas Southern University, white men abducted Felton Turner at gunpoint. They beat the African-American man and carved the initials “KKK” on his chest before hanging him upside down in a tree. No one was ever prosecuted. By 1963, nearly all of the downtown stores were desegregated.
March 7, 1965: In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” nearly 600 civil rights advocates began a 54-mile Alabama march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery, promoting voting rights for African Americans. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, law enforcement officers attacked marchers with tear gas, nightsticks and bullwhips. Many marchers were injured, and John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, suffered a fractured skull. Deputies confronted a diminutive teen named Jimmy Webb, whose love contrasted with the hate of the deputy, who said, “I don’t have to love anybody. … I don’t believe in equal nothing.” The march became a catalyst for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
March 8, 1964: Malcolm X announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam and starting two new organizations: the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After this, he traveled to Mecca and rejected racism.
March 8, 1971: In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of African-American employees who challenged the use of standardized tests by an employee with a past history of discrimination.
March 9, 1841: The U.S. Supreme Court freed the Africans aboard the Amistad (“Friendship”). The Spanish slave ship, which landed on Long Island, New York, had been seized by the 54 Africans, who had been carried as cargo on board. At the time, the transportation of those enslaved to the U.S. was illegal so the ship owners lied and said the Africans had been born in Cuba. The Supreme Court ruled that the Africans had been illegally transported and held as slaves. In 1997, Steven Spielberg directed a movie about the event.
March 9, 1931: Walter F. White became executive director of the national NAACP. His organization’s work on desegregation of armed forces and a litany of court cases helped lead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
March 9, 1965: Two days after “Bloody Sunday,” Martin Luther King Jr. led 2,500 outraged people back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama Confronted by state troopers, King knelt in prayer, then led his followers back, avoiding further violence and also avoiding the violation of a federal judge’s temporary restraining order. The event, known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” is depicted in the 2014 movie, “Selma.” In 2016, the foot soldiers involved in the protest received the Congressional Gold Medal.
March 10, 1969: James Earl Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Ray went on to repudiate that plea, insisting on his innocence. In 1998, he died of liver failure in prison.
March 11, 1911: Edward R. Dudley, the first African American to hold the rank of Ambassador to the United States, was born in Virginia. He served as Ambassador to Liberia from 1949-1953. As a member of the NAACP legal team, he wrote briefs and prepared cases seeking the admission of African-American students to Southern colleges, equal pay for African-American teachers and an end to discrimination in public transportation.
March 11, 1959: Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman, debuted at the Barrymore Theater. Lorraine Hansberry’s drama starred Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeal. It was also the first Broadway play of the modern era with an African-American director, Lloyd Richards. The play went on to win the New York Drama Critics Award.
March 11, 1965: White men beat James Reeb to death as he walked down a street in Selma, Alabama. The Unitarian minister from Boston had been among many white clergymen, including Clark Olsen, who joined the Selma marchers after the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four white men were arrested and indicted for his murder, but the all-white jury voted them “not guilty.” He is among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
March 12, 1956: Nineteen senators and 77 representatives signed the “Southern Manifesto,” denouncing the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, as an “abuse of judicial power” and called for resistance to integration by “any lawful means.”
March 13, 1945: Thousands of African-American volunteers joined their fellow U.S. soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge, where German forces launched a massive offensive. Their service helped clear the way for armed forces to be desegregated three years later.
March 13, 1965: Dr. Marion Myles accepted a position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. After much controversy among board members, she was officially appointed a faculty position in June of 1965, becoming the institution’s first African-American faculty member.
Bloody Sunday: How images of John Lewis being beaten went viral in an era before social media
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers beat and gassed John Lewis and hundreds of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. TV reporters and photographers were there, cameras ready, and the violence captured during “Bloody Sunday” would go on to define the legacy of Lewis, who died on July 17.
I am a media historian who has written about television and the civil rights movement. One of the remarkable features of the era’s media environment, dominated by the relatively new medium of television news, is how quickly certain events could roil the conscience of the nation.
Confrontations between police and protesters happened frequently during the 1960s. But a particular set of circumstances ensured that the images coming out of Selma galvanized politicians and citizens with remarkable speed and intensity.
A prime-time event
Most Americans did not see the footage on the 6:30 nightly news. Instead, they saw it later Sunday night, which, like today, drew the biggest audiences of the week. That evening, ABC was premiering the first TV airing of “Judgment at Nuremberg.” An estimated 48 million people tuned in to watch the Academy Award-winning film, which dealt with the moral culpability of those who had participated in the Holocaust.
News programs never got those kinds of ratings. But shortly after the movie started, ABC’s news division decided to interrupt the movie with a special report from Selma.
Viewers may have been peripherally aware of the marches that had been going on in the small city 50 miles from Alabama’s capital, Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. had kicked off a voting rights campaign there in January, and the media had been regularly reporting on the standoffs between Blacks who wanted to register to vote and Selma’s racist, volatile sheriff, Jim Clark.
Two years earlier, footage and photographs of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor loosing police dogs and high-powered fire hoses on nonviolent marchers so alarmed the Kennedy administration that the president felt compelled to finally put forth a robust civil rights bill to dismantle Jim Crow segregation in the South.
But until Bloody Sunday, nothing had emerged out of Selma that gripped the nation’s attention. Even the Birmingham images didn’t have quite the immediate impact of those from Selma. That is largely because the special report interrupted a prime-time broadcast. But there was also the fact that the footage from Selma thematically complemented “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
In the days after the news film aired, a dozen legislators spoke on the floor of Congress linking Alabama Governor George Wallace to Hitler and its state troopers to Nazi storm troopers. Ordinary citizens made the same connections.
“I have just witnessed on television the new sequel to Adolf Hitler’s brown shirts,” one anguished young Alabamian from Auburn wrote to The Birmingham News. “They were George Wallace’s blue shirts. The scene in Alabama looked like scenes on old newsreels of Germany in the 1930s.”
In the ensuing days, hundreds of Americans jumped into planes, buses and automobiles to get to Selma and stand with the brutalized marchers. The landmark Voting Rights Act passed with remarkable speed, just five months after Bloody Sunday.
The spotlight finally shines on Lewis
John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was at the head of the line of 600 protesters. Their plan was to march 50 miles, from Selma to Montgomery, to protest the recent police killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson and to press Gov. Wallace for Black voting rights. Next to him, representing King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was Hosea Williams. King was back in Atlanta that day.
Lewis, in particular, is quite visible in the news footage, with the camera zooming in on his tan coat and backpack as the troopers advance and then plow over him and the marchers behind him.
However, when CBS ran its story about the march Monday morning, Lewis wasn’t mentioned at all. In fact, Charles Kuralt of CBS framed the story as a clash between “two determined men” who weren’t there: Wallace and King. “Their determination,” Kuralt continued, “turned the streets of Alabama into a battleground as Wallace’s state troopers broke up a march ordered by King.”
Other national news outlets also tended to focus on King, who was often the only Black voice given a platform to speak on civil rights matters. The marchers, including Lewis, were little more than stand-ins for the important political players. In recent decades, that has changed. John Lewis has come to occupy a privileged place in the media once reserved for King.
But even the recent focus on Lewis – while much deserved – has the tendency to neglect the foot soldiers and activists who made the Selma campaign a success. Lewis’ organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, valued and cultivated grassroots movements and the empowering of ordinary people rather than organizing campaigns around a charismatic leader, which was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference model.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which also eschews the “great leader” approach, is very much in the spirit of John Lewis and his civil rights group.
The current waves of protests against police brutality and systemic racism have garnered massive media coverage and widespread public support, similar to what happened in the wake of Bloody Sunday. As Lewis once said, “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes.”
He uttered those words in 1963 during the March on Washington. But they apply just as much to protesters today.
“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.”
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
– John Lewis, July 2020
Little Known Black History Fact: 55th Anniversary Of ‘Bloody Sunday’
The events of the first of the three Selma-To-Montgomery marches in Alabama shocked the nation and the world. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the racially motivated and brutal attack by police on the peaceful protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge took place 55 years ago this coming Saturday.
Organized by James Bevel, Amelia Boynton Robinson and others for the SCLC’s Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign, over 600 marchers bravely took to the bridge that crossed into Montgomery where the state capitol grounds were. State troopers and racist white citizens armed with hand-held weapons viciously beat back the crowd despite their non-violent tactics.
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Boynton Robinson was severely injured and bloodied during the clash, and the photo of her crumpled body spread around national newspapers and global outlets. The sight of Boynton Robinson lying in a heap caused serious outrage and debate among civil rights activists and their detractors. Later that night, an angry white mob beat white activist and minister James Reeb to death.
The news of Bloody Sunday shook Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the second of the marches on March 9 with around 1,500 participants. Although Gov. George Wallace still had his troops on the bridge to head off the march, they stepped aside. But instead of continuing to Montgomery, King marched the group back to a church.
The violence of Bloody Sunday became a situation that President Lyndon B. Johnson could not ignore. On March 15, President Johnson held a televised joint session of Congress as an introduction of the Voting Rights Act and to call for its speedy passage. The last of the marches was on March 21, with President Johnson offered federal protection to the protesters.
Deploying 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers and 1,900 members of the state’s National Guard along with the FBI, the marchers walked about 10 miles per day along U.S. Route 80. The group made it to Montgomery on March 24, then gathered at the Alabama State Capitol the following day. Approximately 25,000 people of all races and backgrounds came to Montgomery to support of equal voting rights
The Voting Rights Act, which will also see its 55th year, was signed into law on August 6, 1965.
On This Day: Police Attacked Civil Rights Marchers on ‘Bloody Sunday’
Racial hatred was horribly on display in Selma, Alabama, when police attacked a peaceful march of African American demonstrators on 7 March 1965. The violent encounter injured dozens of protesters, 17 seriously enough to require hospitalization, earning the infamous day the nickname “Bloody Sunday.”
Photo: Alabama State troopers attack civil rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, 7 March 1965. Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation Wikimedia Commons.
The marchers were protesting both the police slaying of civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18, as well as the hostile conditions in Selma and the surrounding area that intimidated African Americans to prevent them from voting.
Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 8 March 1965, page 1
Here is a transcription of this article:
Troopers Break Up Negro Attempt at 50-Mile March
SELMA, Ala. (AP) – An attempted 50-mile march to the Alabama Capitol at Montgomery by Negroes pleading for civil rights erupted into bloody racial violence in a clash with state police Sunday.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says he will lead another attempted march Tuesday.
King decided to remain in Atlanta and did not, as planned, lead Sunday’s march attempt by about 450 Negroes, which was broken up by blue-helmeted troopers wielding night sticks, shotguns, tear-gas grenades and wearing gas masks. About 40 Negroes were injured in the violent confrontation about a mile after the march began.
“If it has to be a path of blood, it is going to be established that Negroes have the right to walk on the highways of Alabama,” said the Rev. James Bevel, a lieutenant in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was expected in Selma Monday evening.
The highway was cluttered with packs, bed rolls and other camping equipment when the melee ended. They had been left behind by Negroes fleeing the tear gas and the club-swinging state troopers.
The troopers later were joined by about 60 members of Sheriff James G. Clark’s Dallas County Posse, some of them on horseback, who prodded and beat the Negroes back to the church from where the march started. The possemen shouted “Get the Niggers off the streets!” as they charged.
The Justice Department announced in Washington that FBI agents in Selma have been ordered to make a complete investigation to determine “whether unnecessary force was used by law officers and others” in halting the march. Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach said he was in touch with the situation.
Gov. George Wallace refused to comment.
King said a motion would be filed in federal court at Montgomery Monday seeking an injunction to prevent Wallace and state troopers from halting Tuesday’s march to emphasize the Negroes’ plea for the right to vote in this stronghold of Southern tradition.
Bevel, addressing a mass Negro rally that followed the abortive march, criticized President Johnson for “not fulfilling his promises.”
“Johnson knows that Negroes cannot vote here,” he said.
King, speaking from his home in Atlanta, said: “In the light of Sunday’s tragic event, I have no alternative but to recommend to my close associates and the Negro people of Alabama to continue in their determined attempt to walk to Montgomery to protest the injustices and indignities that surround their lives.”
King said he did not make his planned trip to Selma to lead the Sunday march because “it was suggested that I remain in Atlanta for my Sunday church responsibilities and to mobilize national support for a larger thrust forward.”
Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman criticized King for not coming to lead the march he had organized. “It should be very evident to the Negro people by now that King and the other leaders who ask them to break laws are always absent as he was today,” he said.
The march was led by Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis, a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lewis suffered a possible skull fracture but Williams was not injured in the showdown with state troopers.
About 100 troopers stopped the march under direct orders from Wallace. Maj. John Cloud, speaking over a loudspeaker, told the marchers to disperse and return to the church.
When they did not obey him, the troopers stormed in, their night sticks flying.
This failed to force the marchers back across the Alabama River bridge over which they had just walked, so the troopers began throwing tear-gas grenades.
“Those troopers came after us with blood in their eyes,” said Williams. “They just couldn’t wait to get us. They really wanted us. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared.”
Meanwhile, three white men, including a militant segregationist who recently attacked King, were arrested late Sunday on charges of assaulting an FBI agent.
Jimmy George Robinson, 26, a member of the National States Rights party previously convicted of striking King with his fist, also was charged by city police with a separate case of assault and battery against the FBI agent. Another also was accused of taking the agent’s camera.
The agent, Daniel Doyle of Little Rock, said he was attacked and his camera taken while he and other FBI men observed the attempted march. Whether the men knew Doyle was a federal officer or whether they mistook him for a photographer was not established.
The others arrested were identified by special agent Earl Dallness of the Mobile FBI office as Thomas Randall Kendrick, 21, and Noel D. Cooper, also 21.
As the troopers moved in on the marchers the first time, a crowd of several hundred white persons which had gathered about 100 yards away broke into cheers.
The cheering grew louder and the crowd shouted encouragement as the troopers heaved the grenades.
Although the crowd was loud and hostile, it made no attempt to break through heavy police lines to attack the marchers.
As the grenades exploded, the Negroes, who had regrouped after the first charge, knelt by the side of the road to pray. But finally the gas routed them and they began running back across the long bridge that leads into downtown Selma.
Some stumbled over fellow marchers as they ran in panic and state troopers hit them with clubs. The group had marched about a mile from the Browns Chapel A.M.E. Church and they were chased by the posse all the way back to the church.
One downtown street was lined with cars in which Negroes sat watching events.
Members of the posse beat on the hoods of the automobiles with their nightsticks and pointed their clubs at the drivers, shouting, “Get the hell out of town! Go on. I mean it! We want all the Niggers off the streets!”
The Negroes all left without protest. Thirty minutes after the marchers’ encounter with the troopers a Negro could not be seen walking the streets.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s
A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi
The waters beside Biloxi, Mississippi, were tranquil on April 24, 1960. But Bishop James Black’s account of how the harrowing hours later dubbed “Bloody Sunday” unfolded for African-American residents sounds eerily like preparations taken for a menacing, fast-approaching storm. “I remember so well being told to shut our home lights off,” said Black, a teenager at the time. “Get down on the floor, get away from the windows.”
It wasn’t a rainstorm that residents battened down for, but mob reprisals. Hours earlier Black and 125 other African-Americans had congregated at the beach, playing games and soaking sunrays near the circuit of advancing and retreating tides. This signified no simple act of beach leisure, but group dissent. At the time, the city’s entire 26-mile-long shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico was segregated. Led by physician Gilbert Mason, the black community sought to rectify restricted access by enacting a series of “wade-in” protests. Chaos and violence, though, quickly marred this particular demonstration.
To comprehend how a beautiful beachfront became a laboratory for social unrest, consider Dr. Mason’s Biloxi arrival in 1955. A Jackson, Mississippi native, the general practitioner moved with his family after completing medical studies at Howard University and an internship in St. Louis. Many of Biloxi’s white doctors respected Mason, who died in 2006. “Some would ask him to scrub in for surgeries,” said his son, Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. Still, gaining full privileges at Biloxi Hospital took 15 years. In northern cities, he’d dined at lunch counters and attended cinemas alongside whites. Here, change lagged. “Dad was not a traveled citizen, but he was a citizen of the world,” his son noted. “Things that he barely tolerated as a youth, he certainly wasn’t going to tolerate as an adult.”
Chief among those was the coastline’s inequity of access. In the early 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fortified the beach to stem seawall erosion. Though the project employed taxpayer funds, blacks were relegated to mere swatches of sand and surf, such as those beside a VA Hospital. Homeowners claimed the beaches as private property—a view Mason vigorously disputed. “Dad was very logical,” said Mason Jr. “He approached it systematically.”
This approach represented the doctor’s modus operandi, according to NAACP Biloxi Branch President James Crowell III, who was mentored by Mason. “The thing that amazed me about Dr. Mason was his mind,” said Crowell. “His ability to think things through and be so wise: not only as a physician, but as a community leader.”
While making a mark in medicine, Mason engaged in political discourse with patients, proposing ways they might support the still-nascent civil rights struggle. A scoutmaster position brought him in contact with adolescents looking to lend their labor. These younger participants included Black and Clemon Jimerson, who had yet to turn 15 years old. Still, the injustice Jimerson endured dismayed him. “I always wanted to go on the beach, and didn’t know why I couldn’t,” he said. “Whenever we took the city bus, we had to enter through the front door and pay. Then we had to get off again, and go to the back door. We couldn’t just walk down the aisle. That worried and bothered me.”
For Jimerson, the protest was a family affair: his mother, stepfather, uncle and sister took part, too. Jimerson was so ebullient about participating, he purchased an ensemble for the occasion: beach shoes, bright shirt and an Elgin watch.
Low attendance at the initial protest on May 14, 1959, wade-in hardly suggested a coming groundswell. Still, Mason Jr. noted: “Every wade-in revealed something. The first protest was to see what exactly would be the true police response.” The response was forcible removal of all nine participants, including both Masons. Mason Sr. himself was the lone attendee at the second Biloxi protest—on Easter 1960, a week before Bloody Sunday, and in concert with a cross-town protest led by Dr. Felix Dunn in neighboring Gulfport. Mason’s Easter arrest roused the community into a more robust response.
Before the third wade-in, Mason directed protesters to relinquish items that could be construed as weapons, even a pocketbook nail file. Protesters split into groups, stationed near prominent downtown locales: the cemetery, lighthouse and hospital. Mason shuttled between stations, monitoring proceedings in his vehicle.
Some attendees, like Jimerson, started swimming. The band of beachgoers held nothing but food, footballs, and umbrellas to shield them from the sun’s glint. Wilmer B. McDaniel, operator of a funeral home, carried softball equipment. Black and Jimerson anticipated whites swooping in—both had braced for epithets, not an arsenal. “They came with all kinds of weapons: chains, tire irons,” said Black, now a pastor in Biloxi. “No one expected the violence that erupted. We weren’t prepared for it. We were overwhelmed by their numbers. They came like flies over the area.”
Dr. Gilbert Mason, shown here being escorted by police to a Biloxi, Mississippi courthouse, led the black community in a series of "wade-in" protests to desegregate Biloxi's twenty-six-mile-long shoreline. (AP Images)
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In Montgomery, U.S. District Court judge Frank Johnson Jr. issued a restraining order barring the march from proceeding while he reviewed the case. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, saying, “There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. . We have already waited 100 years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”
On March 9, King led an integrated group of protesters to the Pettus Bridge. That night, white vigilantes murdered a Northern minister.
On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, saying, “There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. We have already waited 100 years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”
On March 17, Judge Johnson ruled in favor of the demonstrators. “The law is clear,” the judge wrote, “that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”
On March 21, protected by federalized National Guard troops, about 3,200 voting rights advocates left Selma and set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. They stood 25,000 strong on March 25 at the state Capitol in Montgomery. (The route along U.S. Highway 80 is now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, and is designated as a U.S. National Historic Trail.)
These events proved to be the key to congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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Weekend Read: 55 years after ‘Bloody Sunday,’ voting rights are still under attack
When they looked over the steel-arched crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the voting rights activists knew there would be trouble.
There, at the foot of the bridge in Selma, Alabama, stood a line of state troopers in riot gear, ready to meet a peaceful protest with brutal violence.
Days earlier in nearby Marion, troopers had fatally beaten and shot Jimmie Lee Jackson when he tried to protect his mother at a voting rights demonstration.
Inspired by Jackson’s sacrifice, the activists marched in a thin column down the sidewalk of the bridge to the line of troopers, who warned them to turn back or face the consequences.
As the marchers stood firm, troopers advanced on them, knocked them to the ground and beat them with clubs, whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Though they were forced back and bloodied, the activists did not fight back.
Television footage of the attack sparked national outrage, galvanized public opinion in favor of Black suffrage, and mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in voting.
Fifty-five years after “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, this pivotal moment in the battle for voting rights in this country is being remembered. This weekend, a delegation including members of Congress, veterans of the civil rights movement, clergy and others will commemorate the historic voting rights march by walking across the Selma bridge during the voting rights jubilee that runs through Sunday.
Next weekend, the delegation will travel to Montgomery for more commemorative events, including a performance of Ruby: The Story of Ruby Bridges, a play about the first Black girl to integrate an all-white elementary school in the South. The delegation also plans to visit the Equal Justice Initiative and meet its director, Bryan Stevenson.
The fight for voting rights
These events, however, shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the fight for voting rights is over. The fight continues and – just as it did in 1965 – Alabama remains at the epicenter.
“Although many people marched, bled, cried, suffered and died for the right to vote, Jim Crow is still alive and well, and continues to cast a long shadow on elections across the country,” said Nancy Abudu, SPLC deputy legal director for voting rights. “Elections continue to be confusing and filled with barriers to historically disenfranchised communities. We are deeply engaged in the fight to ensure that everyone can cast a ballot.”
The SPLC’s voting rights team is fighting the battle of the ballot on multiple fronts, in the courts and state legislatures. It recently investigated the many ways voter suppression is alive and well in Alabama.
Our team’s report outlines how voter suppression in Alabama takes many forms, including strict voter ID laws, the closure of polling places in predominantly Black counties, the purging of thousands of people from the voter rolls, and limited access to the ballot due to the lack of early voting, same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting.
It also occurs in not-so-obvious ways: The state’s convoluted felony voter re-enfranchisement process keeps the ballot out of reach for many people. Also, Alabama’s opaque election administration spreads responsibilities among many state and local governments, making it difficult to ensure accountability.
Of course, this isn’t just an Alabama issue.
Many of the voter suppression tactics found across the country can be traced to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which originated in Alabama, weakened the Voting Rights Act. The ruling gutted a key provision that required places with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval for any changes they make to voting rules.
In the years since that decision, lawmakers in numerous states have enacted laws that make it harder for citizens to vote. Since the ruling, about 1,600 polling places have been closed, and states have purged voter lists.
Several Southern states have also implemented voter ID laws that require voters to show a state-approved form of photo identification to vote – a law that discriminates against minority voters who are less likely to have such identification. And, of course, congressional and legislative districts have long been heavily gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of communities of color.
‘March on ballot boxes’
Despite the attack on voting rights across the country, there have been victories that are placing the ballot within reach of people who would otherwise be disenfranchised.
In Florida, the SPLC recently won a decisive federal appeals court ruling that found Floridians’ right to vote can’t be denied on the basis of wealth. The ruling came after Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis effectively instituted a modern-day poll tax following the overwhelming passage of a ballot initiative to restore the vote to 1.4 million of their fellow residents with previous felony convictions – the largest single expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act.
The new law meant that hundreds of thousands of newly enfranchised people still couldn’t vote because of the legal debt they owed – such as fines, fees and court costs – but couldn’t afford to pay. But, due to the court’s ruling, the SPLC’s clients will be able to cast ballots in Florida’s March 17 primary elections. And in April, the SPLC is going to trial in an attempt to have the law declared unconstitutional and re-enfranchise hundreds of thousands more.
In Louisiana last year, thousands of returning citizens became eligible to vote for the first time under a law the SPLC helped pass in the state Legislature. The law restored the right to vote to people who have been out of prison for at least five years but who remain on probation and parole.
In Mississippi, the SPLC is fighting in court to end that state’s lifetime voting ban for people with disqualifying offenses. And, over the next several months leading up to the November election, the SPLC will conduct grassroots initiatives to encourage people to register, restore their right to vote, and cast their ballots.
“The right to vote should not be the fight to vote, but states across America are doing just that – making it hard for people to cast a ballot,” Abudu said. “As Martin Luther King Jr. said at the end of the successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, ‘let us march on ballot boxes’ until everyone can vote.”