Bloody Sunday and the Fight for Voting Rights in Selma

The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, in which police brutalized civil rights activists in 1965.
On Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965), police attacked civil rights activists crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge.

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On March 7, 1965—the day now known as Bloody Sunday—a group of civil rights activists were brutally attacked by members of law enforcement during a peaceful march across Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The activists were attempting to walk 50 miles from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest voter suppression of African Americans. During the march, local police officers and state troopers beat them with billy clubs and threw tear gas into the crowd. The attack against these peaceful demonstrators—a group that included men, women, and children—sparked outrage and mass protests throughout the United States.

Fast Facts: Bloody Sunday

  • What Happened: Civil rights activists were beaten and tear-gassed by law enforcement during a peaceful voting rights march.
  • Date: March 7, 1965
  • Location: Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

How Voter Suppression Led Activists to March

During Jim Crow, African Americans in Southern states faced severe voter suppression. In order to exercise their right to vote, a black person may have been required to pay a poll tax or take a literacy test; white voters didn’t face these barriers. In Selma, Alabama, the disenfranchisement of African Americans was a consistent problem. Activists involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were trying to register the city's black residents to vote, but they kept running into roadblocks. When they protested the situation, they were arrested—by the thousands.

Making no headway with smaller demonstrations, the activists decided to step up their efforts. In February 1965, they began a voting rights march. However, Alabama Governor George Wallace attempted to suppress the movement by prohibiting nighttime marches in Selma and elsewhere.

Wallace was a politician known for being hostile to the Civil Rights Movement, but the demonstrators didn’t call off their collected action in light of his ban on nighttime marches. On February 18, 1965, a demonstration turned deadly when State Trooper James Bonard Fowler fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and church deacon. Jackson was killed for intervening when police hit his mother. Losing Jackson was devastating, but his death didn’t stop the movement. Spurred by his killing, activists met and decided to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. Their intention to reach the capitol building was a symbolic gesture, since it was where Gov. Wallace’s office was located.

Jimmie Lee Jackson is remembered an event commemorating Bloody Sunday.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper during a voting rights march that inspired the demonstration that took place on Bloody Sunday.  Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Selma to Montgomery March

On March 7, 1965, 600 marchers began making their way from Selma to Montgomery. John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the demonstrators during this action. They called for voting rights for African Americans, but both local policemen and state troopers attacked them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The authorities used billy clubs to beat the marchers and threw tear gas into the crowd. The aggression caused the marchers to retreat. But footage of the confrontation sparked outrage across the country. Many Americans did not understand why peaceful protesters were met with such hostility from law enforcement.

Two days after Bloody Sunday, mass protests unfolded across the nation in solidarity with the marchers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers on a symbolic walk across Edmund Pettus Bridge. But the violence wasn’t over. After Pastor James Reeb arrived in Selma to accompany the marchers, a mob of white men beat him so badly that he sustained life-threatening injuries. He died two days later.

Other demonstrations followed the violence that occurred on Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on March 7, 1965.
Two days after the events of Bloody Sunday, other demonstrators set out to make the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama. Bettmann/Getty Images

Following Reeb’s death, the U.S. Justice Department requested an order to stop the state of Alabama from retaliating against civil rights activists for participating in demonstrations. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. upheld the rights of the marchers “to petition one's government for the redress of grievances.” He explained that the law is clear that citizens have the right to protest, even in large groups.

With federal troops standing guard, a group of 3,200 marchers began their walk from Selma to Montgomery on March 21. Four days later, they arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery where supporters had expanded the size of demonstrators to 25,000.

The Impact of Bloody Sunday

Footage of police attacking peaceful protesters shocked the country. But one of the protesters, John Lewis, went on to become a U.S. Congressman. Lewis is now considered a national hero. Lewis has discussed his role in the march and the attack on the protesters. His high-profile has kept the memory of that day alive. The march has also been reenacted several times.

On the 50th anniversary of the incident that took place on March 7, 1965, President Barack Obama delivered an address on the Edmund Pettus Bridge about the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the courage of those brutalized:

“We just need to open our eyes and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character—requires admitting as much."
President Barack Obama remembering Bloody Sunday in Selma.
President Barack Obama commemorates the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Obama also urged Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, which first passed in 1965 in the wake of the national outrage about Bloody Sunday. But a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County vs. Holder, removed a major provision from the act. States with a history of racial discrimination related to voting no longer have to inform the federal government about changes they make to voting processes before enacting them. The 2016 election stood out as the first in 50 years without checks and balances in place to prevent discriminatory voting practices. A number of states have passed strict voter ID laws and other measures that disproportionately affect historically disenfranchised groups, like African Americans. And voter suppression has been cited for costing Stacey Abrams the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018. Abrams would have been the first black woman governor of a U.S. state.

Decades after Bloody Sunday occurred, voting rights remains a key issue in the United States.

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