On March 21, 1965, 3,200 civil rights demonstrators led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. began a “freedom march” from Selma to the State Capitol in Montgomery, AL, to submit a voting-rights petition to Governor George C. Wallace. It was the Alabama Freedom March’s third, and finally successful, attempt; the first two, earlier that month, were stopped by state troopers, sometimes with tear gas and clubs.

On the third march, protesters were protected by thousands of Army and National Guard troops, FBI agents, and federal marshalls sent by President Lyndon Johnson. The number of marchers had swollen to 25,000 by the time they reached the steps of the State Capitol Building on Thursday, March 25. King spoke to the crowd about “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” and said, famously, “I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” After delivering the speech, King and the marchers waited at the entrance to the capitol until one of Governor Wallace’s secretaries received their petition.

The images on TV and in newspapers of Alabama troopers beating the nonviolent demonstrators shifted public sentiment in favor of the Civil Rights Movement. Segregationists were no longer seen as a traditionalists attempting to preserve a longheld way of life, but rather, as state-sponsored terrorists violently propping up a form of apartheid. After witnessing TV coverage of the first march—also known as “Bloody Sunday”—President Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress. The watershed bill became law later that summer, with many Alabama Freedom Marchers in attendance.

In 1996, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was established by Congress, to commemorate the 54-mile Voting Rights March in Alabama.

 

The Editors