March to Equality (#2)

Daniel Koroma

Blog Assignment #2

9 December 2015

 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights figures. In time for the anniversary, the historical film Selma directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was released. I first viewed the film earlier this year along with my classmates as a part of our school’s Multicultural Student Union. I personally had not heard much about the actual protests, but had read positive reviews about the movie. As a result of a mostly quiet marketing campaign, I had assumed that this film would be mediocre and poorly depict the Civil Rights movement. Much to my surprise, the film was impressive, with a strong and convincing lead role that portrays MLK as human, with doubts and fears; the supporting cast is strong as well, the movie is well shot, and the story is inspiring.

 

The protest was in response of fierce resistance in Southern states who did not want to grant African-Americans with the right to vote, a right granted by the federal government with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the Civil Rights act made it illegal to discriminate in voting against American citizens on the basis of race, states such as Alabama would establish their own voting requirements to prohibit blacks from voting. Southern states would use a variety of tactics to do so; literary tests, poll taxes, intimidation, threats, and violence were all used, limiting the percentage of African-Americans that could actually vote. In Mississippi, by the end of the 1950s, around 45% of the population was black, but of that percentage, only 5% could actually vote. (Mississippi was also the nation’s leader in beatings, lynchings, and disappearances of black Americans) Despite the dire situation in the South, prior to Dr. King’s involvement with the Selma march, voting rights for black people went largely unnoticed. Civil Rights groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) campaigned for voting rights for years demanding for true voting equality. Dr. Martin Luther King joined the SCLC, who in turn joined with SNCC, led by Bob Moses, John Lewis, and James Forman. The civil rights activists targeted Selma, Alabama specifically because of how severe the voting situation was. Despite repeated efforts by black citizens to register for voting, a mere two percent were on voting rolls. In addition to this, the SCLC strategically chose Selma in an effort to incite the notoriously brutal local police force and attract nationwide attention in order to pressure President Johnson and Congress to enforce stricter voting rights legislation.

 

For the first month of campaigning in Selma, King and other activists were faced with little violence, but arrests were made. In February 1965, however, this changed with the death of 26 year old Jimmie Lee Johnson who was shot and killed attempting to defend his mother from a nightstick assault by a state trooper during an evening march gone wrong. Alabama state troopers joined forces with local police in Marion to break up the march, and used brutal force to do so. On March 7th, activists in Selma united in response to Jackson’s death by marching from Selma to the state’s capitol. Led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, (representing SCLC and SNCC respectively) activists marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were met by a blockade comprised of state troopers and local law enforcement who ordered the crowd to disperse. When they continued to advance, the troopers used excessive force, attacking the marchers with gas and clubs, while mounted police pursued fleeing protestors to continue to assault them. While it came a cost, the SCLC had what they wanted; the nation witnessed the true nature of the south and what the event that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” spurred conversation regarding the continual unjust treatment of blacks after the Civil Rights act.

 

Following Bloody Sunday, King and the other civil rights activists planned to attempt the march once more two days later. President Johnson asked that King postpone the march until the federal court could grant the protestors with protection. On March 9th, the marchers, along with King, marched to the bridge once more, kneeled in prayer on the bridge, and turned back to Selma in order to obey the court order placed by Federal District Court Judge Johnson prohibiting them from advancing to Montgomery. On March 21st a third march to Montgomery was made, this time with strong support from white northerners moved by the televised beatings. Guarded by FBI agents, the five day march to Montgomery concluded with a proclamation by King on the declaring ‘‘[t]he end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.’’ (King, ‘‘Address,’’ 130) Five months later, on August 6th, President Johnson officially signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination against American citizens who wished to participate in elections.

 

The actions of King and the other civil rights activists during the campaign for equal voting rights for citizens of color is arguably one of the most significant moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Many Americans highly value the right to vote, as it instills a sense of importance to each citizen, as they have the power with their vote to help change and shape their nation, assisting in deciding what is beneficial to the nation, such as the economy, the school system, and law enforcement. By restraining this vital right to people of color, it is hindering the advancement of people of color, and stripping away what it means to be an American.

 

Relating the Selma march and film to the course material as discussed by Professor Pittman, the voting rights campaign is incredibly influential to the narrative of American history.

The journey to Montgomery took place in the heart of what was known as the second reconstruction era. This period largely encapsulated the Civil Rights movement and the Supreme Court cases that took place during this time that fueled the movement; such as the Dred Scott case, which took away the right for blacks to become citizens of the United States, and the Plessy v Ferguson decision, which upheld racial segregation based on the “separate but equal” doctrine. As a result of unjust treatment by a government that was designed with the intention of defending and assisting its people, activists stood to change the system through protest, whether it be as simple as saying “no” or as extreme as adopting guerilla tactics when it appeared that non-violence failed. Despite great obstacles and discrimination by individuals who despised citizens of color and tried their best to put an end to the rise of a people who they had oppressed and brutalized for years, leaders such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, and groups such as the SCLC, SNCC, and more defied expectations and fought back for freedom.

 

Sources:

 

Roy Reed, ‘‘Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes,’’ New York Times, 8 March 1965. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

 

“Voting Rights.”The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

 

“History Of Federal Voting Rights Laws.” History Of Federal Voting Rights Laws. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

 

“Voting Rights Act (1965).” Our Documents -N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

 

Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). Second Reconstruction. [PowerPoint slides]

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