Every year, I head back to the birthplace of a new America — Selma, Alabama — where a determined struggle for voting rights transformed our democracy 50 years ago.
On March 7, 1965, Hosea Williams and I led a band of silent witnesses, 600 nonviolent crusaders, intending to march 50 miles to Montgomery — Alabama’s capital — to demonstrate the need for voting rights in America.
At the foot of the bridge, we were met by Alabama state troopers who trampled peaceful protestors with horses and shot tear gas into the crowd. I was hit on the head with a nightstick and suffered a concussion on the bridge.
I thought that was going to be my last demonstration. I thought I might die that day.
John Lewis and other peaceful protestors clash with state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965.
We knew the dangers that lay ahead, but we marched anyway hoping to usher in a more fair society — a place where every American would be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to vote, and each of us would have an equal voice in the democratic process.
We knew that standing up for our rights could be a death warrant. But we felt it would be better to die than to live with injustice.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, it was a great day. The Act made the ballot box immediately more accessible to millions of Americans of every race, gender, region, economic status, and national origin. It has been called the most effective legislation of the last 50 years.
But just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck a blow at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, nullifying a key provision that had curbed discriminatory voting rules and statutes from becoming law. As soon as the Court’s decision was announced, states began implementing restrictive voting laws.
While some states are changing laws to increase the number of Americans who are able to participate in our democracy, by increasing early voting days and making it easier for people to cast a ballot, far too many states are passing new laws that make it harder and more difficult to vote.
Early voting and voter registration drives have been restricted. Same-day voting has been eliminated in some cases. Strict photo identification laws have been adopted, and improper purges of the voting rolls are negating access to thousands, perhaps millions, who have voted for decades.
That’s why people are still marching for this cause today. Even as we speak, the NAACP is leading a 40-day, 40-night march from Selma to Washington, D.C. in support of a number of issues, including the issue of voting rights.
As citizens, it is our duty to make sure that our political process remains open to every eligible voter, and that every citizen can freely participate in the democratic process.
And when it comes time to get out and vote — we have to do so. The right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent, transformative tool we have in a democracy, and the least we can do is take full advantage of the opportunity to make our voices heard.
Despite the challenges, I am still hopeful — but we must remain determined. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each and every one of us, each generation, must do our part to help create a more perfect union.
Keep marching on.
Member of Congress
1623 – The first alcohol temperance law in the colonies was enacted in Virginia.
1624 – In the American colony of Virginia, the upper class was exempted from whipping by legislation.
1750 – “King Richard III” was performed in New York City. It was the first Shakespearean play to be presented in America.
1766 – The first Spanish governor of Louisiana, Antonio de Ulloa, arrived in New Orleans.
1770 – “The Boston Massacre” took place when British troops fired on a crowd in Boston killing five people. Two British troops were later convicted of manslaughter.
1793 – Austrian troops defeated the French and recaptured Liege.
1836 – Samuel Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing of Paterson, New Jersey, was chartered by the New Jersey legislature.
1842 – A Mexican force of over 500 men under Rafael Vasquez invaded Texas for the first time since the revolution. They briefly occupied San Antonio, but soon headed back to the Rio Grande.
1864 – For the first time, Oxford met Cambridge in track and field competition in England.
1867 – An abortive Fenian uprising against English rule took place in Ireland.
1868 – The U.S. Senate was organized into a court of impeachment to decide charges against President Andrew Johnson.
1872 – George Westinghouse patented the air brake.
1900 – Two U.S. battleships left for Nicaragua to halt revolutionary disturbances.
1901 – Germany and Britain began negotiations with hopes of creating an alliance.
1902 – In France, the National Congress of Miners decided to call for a general strike for an 8-hour day.
1907 – In St. Petersburg, Russia, the new Duma opened. 40,000 demonstrators were dispersed by troops.
1910 – In Philadelphia, PA, 60,000 people left their jobs to show support for striking transit workers.
1910 – The Moroccan envoy signed the 1909 agreement with France.
1912 – The Italians became the first to use dirigibles for military purposes. They used them for reconnaissance flights behind Turkish lines west of Tripoli.
1918 – The Soviets moved the capital of Russia from Petrograd to Moscow.
1922 – “Annie Oakley” (Phoebe Ann Moses) broke all existing records for women’s trap shooting. She hit 98 out of 100 targets.
1924 – Frank Caruana of Buffalo, NY, became the first bowler to roll two perfect games in a row.
1933 – U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a four-day bank holiday in order to stop large amounts of money from being withdrawn from banks.
1933 – The Nazi Party won 44 percent of the vote in German parliamentary elections.
1934 – In Amarillo, TX, the first Mother’s-In-Law Day was celebrated.
1943 – Germany called fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds for military service due to war losses.
1946 – Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain Speech”.
1946 – The U.S. sent protests to the U.S.S.R. on incursions into Manchuria and Iran.
1953 – Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died. He had been in power for 29 years.
1956 – The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ban on segregation in public schools.
1969 – Gustav Heinemann was elected West German President.
1970 – A nuclear non-proliferation treaty went into effect after 43 nations ratified it.
1976 – The British pound fell below the equivalent of $2 for the first time in history.
1977 – U.S. President Jimmy Carter appeared on CBS News with Walter Cronkite for the first “Dial-a-President” radio talk show.
1984 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities had the right to display the Nativity scene as part of their Christmas display.
1984 – The U.S. accused Iraq of using poison gas.
1985 – Mike Bossy (New York Islanders) became the first National Hockey League player to score 50 goals in eight consecutive seasons.
1993 – Cuban President Fidel Castro said that Hillary Clinton was “a beautiful woman.”
1993 – Sprinter Ben Johnson was banned from racing for life by the Amateur Athletic Association after testing positive for banned performance-enhancing substances for a second time.
1997 – North Korea and South Korea met for first time in 25 years for peace talks.
1997 – Chuck Niles received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
1998 – NASA announced that an orbiting craft had found enough water on the moon to support a human colony and rocket fueling station.
1998 – It was announced that Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins would lead crew of Columbia on a mission to launch a large X-ray telescope. She was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.
First March from Selma
When You Pray, Move Your Feet.
— African Proverb.
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,
Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. — http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/civilrights/al4.htm
“We Shall Overcome”: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement — http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/index.htm
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 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…”
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 — http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/94505571/
Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 21-25, 1965.
Prints & Photographs Division — http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/
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.”
•American Treasures is an exhibition of special items in the Library of Congress collections. The exhibition is divided into four sections: Top Treasures, Memory, Imagination, and Reason. The latter includes images taken about 1963 by Danny Lyon, staff photographer for SNCC, a key organizing body during the Civil Rights Movement.
•Search on the term Selma, Alabama in the black and white photos of the Farm Services Administration collection, FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945 to see images of the city taken during the 1930s by the photographer Walker Evans. Search on Alabama to see images taken by the FSA photographers Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Carl Mydans.
•The Great Migration made northerners more aware of disenfranchisement in the Deep South and newspapers like The Gazette and The Advocate fostered awareness within the black community. Search on the term vote in African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920 to view about 100 items that address the issue. See, for example, the 1887 article “Negro Voting Power” and the 1888 article “First Colored Voter.” The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar mentions Alabama disenfranchisement in his article “Paul Dunbar’s Protest.”
•Music drawn from a tradition of Southern spirituals helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Search on the term spiritual in the John Lomax and Ruby Terrel Lomax collection Southern Mosaic to hear some of the tunes which comprise that tradition. Listen, for example, to versions of “This Little Light of Mine,” “Long Way to Travel,” and “Great Day” as they were rendered in the South back in 1939.
•Images of 20th Century African American Activists: A Select List presents frequently requested images from the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library. Except where otherwise noted in the “Reproduction Number” line, images are considered to be in the public domain. The selection includes images of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Ralph Abernathy.
•Search the Today in History Archive on the term states rights to learn more about an issue which lay at the heart of the American system. Ironically, on March 7, 1850, (exactly 115 years before “Bloody Sunday”) Daniel Webster gave his famous “Seventh of March speech” in favor of the Compromise of 1850, which, while it postponed the Civil War, strengthened states’ rights at the cost of African-American freedom. Search on the term Alabama to learn more about events in the state, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks.
•With the exception of Concord Bridge, where the American Revolution began, no bridge in America marks an event as historically momentous as that marked by the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Nevertheless, search across the Photos and Prints section of American Memory on the term bridge to see a wide array of other bridges. See, for example, Burnside’s Bridge (fought over during the Battle of Antietam), a Covered Bridge in Vermont, and the Locust St. Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa. Also search the Today in History Archive on the term bridge to read features on the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, and Golden Gate Bridge.
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
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.
produced by Mathew Brady’s studio, circa 1850-1852.
America’s First Look into the Camera: Daguerrotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864
Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863.
Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer.
•Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years , an online display of approximately ninety representative documents preserved by the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, includes features on John C. Calhoun’s speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850 and Henry Clay’s appointment as secretary of state on March 7, 1825.
•Read the Documentary History of Slavery in the United States by John Larkin Dorsey. A contemporary of Webster and Clay, Dorsey reviews slavery in the U.S. from 1774 and the Continental Congress to 1850 with special attention to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the probable dissolution of the Union. Search African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 on slavery to access this document and many more.
•For more information about the movement to abolish slavery, visit the Abolition section of African American Odyssey, and the Abolition section of The African-American Mosaic as well. Also, read the Today in History features on Abolition in the District of Columbia , and on the abolitionists Lucretia Coffin Mott, and Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
•Browse The Frederick Douglass Papers. Many remarkable items are included in the papers of this nineteenth-century African-American abolitionist who escaped from slavery and then risked his own freedom by becoming an outspoken antislavery lecturer, writer, and publisher. The papers are divided into a series of nine sets. Set nine, for example, contains a booklet entitled Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass (on West Indian Emancipation and the Dred Scott Decision).
•A search on Daniel Webster in American Memory collections yields more than 2,000 items—including correspondence, speeches, images of statues, and even sheet music.
* 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.
Black History Month