Early in 1965 Lyndon Johnson believed Southern states needed time to absorb the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with its comprehensive ban on segregation, before any further action could be taken. King, however, believed a second bill was necessary to secure voting rights for African Americans. Toward this end he decided to launch a major SCLC voter-registration drive. SCLC member Jim Bevel suggested the drive take place in Selma, Alabama, where an unsuccessful SNCC voter-registration drive had been going on for months.
Selma was the county seat of Dallas County in the heart of Alabama's black belt. It provided everything that made a media event: a segregationist mayor, a Klan- affiliated police chief, and a very low percentage of blacks registered to vote. Of 30,000 people, slightly more than half were black, but only 350 blacks were registered. And blacks who had tried recently to register had been deflected by slow service, odd courthouse hours, excessively difficult literacy tests, and, of course, the threat of violence.
King first visited Selma with other SCLC members in January 1965, shortly after he returned from Oslo, Norway. Early protests were small in number, and resulted in arrests, both in Selma and in nearby towns. On 1 February King and Ralph Abernathy led a march of about 250 people to the Selma Courthouse to protest slow voter-registration. Both King and Abernathy were arrested and spent five days in jail. During that time Malcolm X visited Selma. Although he did not meet with King, he wished his best to King through King's wife before departing to engagements elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated, and this visit, more supportive of King than earlier encounters, reflected the two leaders' partial reconciliation at the end of Malcolm X's life.
The Selma campaign became bloody on the evening of 18 February when a protest march headed for the jail of the town of Marion was attacked by a mob of whites. The streetlights shut off and violence commenced in the dark. A young black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was shot, and died eight days later.
On 5 March King flew to Washington to encourage Johnson to introduce a Voting Rights Bill. Johnson declined, and King immediately announced plans for a massive march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, which was 54 miles away. Governor George Wallace issued an order prohibiting the march, but the SCLC proceeded, though King did not lead the march himself.
On 7 March, over 500 people began walking up the four-lane highway toward Montgomery. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which crossed the Alabama River, they encountered 60 State troopers, some cavalry, and the sheriff of the town. Civilian whites also stood by. The authorities ordered the crowd to disperse, but it refused. Moments later, the troopers began attacking the protestors with teargas, clubs, whips, and electric cattle prods, while the white spectators yelled encouragement. By the time the scuffle had ended, sixteen people had to be hospitalized, and at least fifty others were injured. As in Birmingham, reporters captured images that were subsequently broadcast nationally. These images inspired protests in Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, and other cities, and caught the attention of the White House.
King announced plans for a second march, which he would lead himself. This time Wallace obtained a federal injunction against it, but, despite this, and despite the admonition of the Attorney General, King stuck to his word. About 1500 people participated in the second march, more than half of them white. Clergypersons from around the country had rallied in support, and clergypersons constituted almost a third of the crowd. When the march reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it again confronted State police. This time King ordered the protestors to disperse, a decision that would draw criticism from many fellow civil rights activists.
That night, back in Selma, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, James Reeb, who had marched that day, was murdered by Klansmen when he emerged from a black- run restaurant. This tragedy produced just the right amount–and just the right kind–of publicity to push the Selma campaign to a level of critical influence. In Washington, thousands of religious leaders picketed the White House. On 15 May, in a televised address to a joint session of Congress, Johnson compared events in Selma to events in Lexington and Concord during the Revolutionary War, and at Appomattox during the Civil War. He then proceeded to unveil his Voting Rights Bill to legislators and the nation.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, the federal injunction was lifted, and Johnson sent four thousand troops to accompany a third–this time successful–march to Montgomery. On 24 March, the protest reached Montgomery, and culminated in a rally on the capitol steps, from which King addressed a crowd of 25,000. The crowd included Rosa Parks, as well as celebrities Harry Belafonte, Leonard Bernstein, Billy Eckstine, Nina Simone, and Sammy Davis, Jr. But the joy of the day did not go untempered: that night a white woman, who was driving protestors back to Selma, was shot dead.
As Birmingham had led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Johnson signed into law in August. The legislation prohibited the kind of tactics that had been used in Selma to hinder black voter registration (deliberately slow service, odd courthouse hours, excessively difficult literacy tests, etc.) and gave the federal government more power to police local instances of abuse. Insofar as federal legislation was concerned, Selma marked the final stage of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the last major gain obtained by non-violent direct action. After the Selma victory, King changed his focus.