Today in History

Today in History: March 7

First March from Selma

When You Pray,
Move Your Feet.
-- African Proverb.

Semla, Alabama, March 7, 1965
"When You Pray, Move Your Feet,"
Charles White(?), photographer, Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965.
photo courtesy of Representative John Lewis

John Lewis (on right in trench coat) and Hosea Williams (on the left) lead marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

On Sunday March 7, 1965, about six hundred people began a fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. They were demonstrating for African American voting rights and to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by an state trooper while trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration. On the outskirts of Selma, after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers, in plain sight of photographers and journalists, were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.

One hundred years after the Civil War, in many parts of the nation, the 15th Amendment had been nullified by discriminatory laws, ordinances, intimidation, violence, and fear which kept a majority of African Americans from the polls. The situation was particularly egregious in the city of Selma, in Dallas County, Alabama, where African Americans made up more than half the population yet comprised only about 2 percent of the registered voters. As far back as 1896, when the U.S. House of Representatives adjudicated the contested results of a congressional election held in Dallas County, it was stated on the floor of Congress:

…I need only appeal to the memory of members who have served in this House for years and who have witnessed the contests that time and time again have come up from the black belt of Alabama—since 1880 there has not been an honest election in the county of Dallas…

Hon. W. H. Moody, of Massachusetts
Contested Election Case, Aldrich vs. Robbins, Fourth District, Alabama: Speeches of Hon. W.H. Moody, of Massachusetts [et al.] in the House of Representatives, 3 (2239),
March 12 and 13, 1896.
From Slavery to Freedom, 1824-1909

However, by March 1965, the Dallas County Voters League, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were all working for voting rights in Alabama. John Lewis headed SNCC's voter registration effort and, on March 7, he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led the group of silent marchers from the Brown Chapel AME Church to the foot of the Pettus bridge and into the event soon known as "Bloody Sunday."

Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers
Alabama Police Attack Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers
,
Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph
Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965.
"We Shall Overcome": Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement

When ABC television interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary, Judgement in Nuremberg, to show footage of violence in Selma a powerful metaphor was presented to the nation. Within forty-eight hours, demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in eighty cities and thousands of religious and lay leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, flew to Selma. On March 9, Dr. King led a group again to the Pettus Bridge where they knelt, prayed, and, to the consternation of some, returned to Brown Chapel. That night a Northern minister, who was in Selma to march, was killed by white vigilantes.

Outraged citizens continued to inundate the White House and the Congress with letters and phone calls. On March 9, for example, Jackie Robinson, the baseball hero, sent a telegram (external link) to the President:

"IMPORTANT YOU TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION IN ALABAMA ONE MORE DAY OF SAVAGE TREATMENT BY LEGALIZED HATCHET MEN COULD LEAD TO OPEN WARFARE BY AROUSED NEGROES AMERICA CANNOT AFFORD THIS IN 1965"

In Montgomery, Federal Judge Frank Johnson, Jr. temporarily restrained all parties in order to review the case. And, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the American people before a televised 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 a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone…"

Martin Luther King leads marchers to Selma (P&P)
Rev. Ralph Abernathy walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as They Lead Civil Rights Marchers out of Camp to Resume Their March
United Press International
Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 21-25, 1965.
New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection,
Prints & Photographs Division

Allowing CBS footage of "Bloody Sunday" as evidence in court, Judge Johnson ruled on March 17, that the demonstrators be permitted to march. Under protection of a federalized National Guard, voting rights advocates left Selma on March 21 and stood 25,000 strong on March 25 before the state capitol in Montgomery. As a direct consequence of these events, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing every American twenty-one and over the right to register to vote. During the next four years the number of U.S. blacks eligible to vote rose from 23 to 61 percent.

John Lewis went on to serve as Director of the Voter Education Project, a program that eventually added nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. To mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," on March 7, 2000, Lewis, a U.S. Congressman from Atlanta's 5th District, and Hosea Williams crossed the Pettus Bridge accompanied by President William Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and others. Asked to contrast this experience with that of 1965 the Congressman responded, "This time when I looked there were women's faces and there were black faces among the troopers. And this time when we faced them, they saluted."

Daniel Webster

I wish to speak today; not as a Mass[achusetts] man – nor a Northern man – but as an American, & a member of the Senate of the U[nited] S[tate]s.

Daniel Webster's notes for his speech to the United States Senate favoring the Compromise of 1850, March 7, 1850.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Daniel Webster, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front
Daniel Webster
produced by Mathew Brady's studio, circa 1851-1860.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerrotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

The acquisition of territory following the U.S. victory in the Mexican War revived concerns about the balance of free and slave states in the Union. On March 7, 1850, Senator Daniel Webster delivered his famous "Seventh of March" speech urging sectional compromise on the issue of slavery. Advising abolition-minded Northerners to forgo antislavery measures, he simultaneously cautioned Southerners that disunion inevitably would lead to war.

Following the lead of senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, Webster endorsed Clay's plan to assure sectional equilibrium in Congress. Passed after eight months of congressional wrangling, the legislation admitted California to the Union as a free state, permitted the question of slavery in Utah and New Mexico territories to be decided by popular sovereignty, settled Texas border disputes, and abolished slave trading in the District of Columbia while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act.

The legislative package known as the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War by a decade. However, like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 failed to resolve the question of slavery in a meaningful way. Over the course of the 1850s, the inadequacies of both measures were made painfully clear. "Popular sovereignty" undermined the Missouri compromise by suggesting the earlier division of the country along the thirty-sixth parallel into free states and slave states no longer applied. Indeed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 permitted slavery. The resulting bloodshed in Kansas, like later incidents at Harper's Ferry, presaged the violent conflict of the Civil War.

Henry Clay, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front
Henry Clay
produced by Mathew Brady's studio, circa 1850-1852.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerrotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

Gettysburg
Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan, photographer.
Selected Civil War Photographs

* Developed by the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Transportation, The Federal Highway Administration, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.