Martin Luther King, Jr.

Selma

Summary Selma

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.

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