The irony of saving our visit to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery for last was not lost on us. By then, we had already visited the state capitol and Selma where we got educated on the historic Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the amazing story of Rosa Park’s simple act of defiance against injustice has been in America’s conscious for as long as I can remember, we learned at the Rosa Parks Museum that this single act set off a wave of events that eventually led to the Selma to Montgomery march and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Immediately following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, the president of The Women’s Political Council, a group of Black women working for civil rights began the call to boycott Montgomery’s city buses. The night of Park’s arrest, Robinson and others from the council printed out 35,000 flyers announcing a citywide bus boycott on December 5, 1955. Local black residents stopped riding the buses on that day.
About 50 miles west of Montgomery is Selma within Dallas County. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dallas County and adjacent Lowndes County were among the poorest and most repressive for black people in the country. Racially motivated terrorism and police intimidation was so rampant that Lowndes County was known as “Bloody Lowndes”.
By 1963, eyes had turned toward Dallas County and Selma as a hotbed of civil rights turmoil. John Lewis, founder and chairman of the Nashville-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made a scouting trip to Selma and came back to report “The blacks are too scared, and the whites are too mean”. Nevertheless, SNCC came to Selma and organized voting registration for its black community.
Sam Walker, historian and curator of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma told us that at the time, the pastor of Brown Chapel was resistant to making his church the meeting place for organizers given the recent bombing in Birmingham that killed four children on September 15, 1963. His wife thought otherwise, “It’s because of those four little girls that you need to do this”. So, he did. And as SNCC attempted to mobilize the community to apply to register to vote, voter application denials increased and so did the violence.
By 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined up with SNCC to make Selma the location to focus on the Black voter registration campaign. SNCC has been there for a couple years dealing with the violence and intimation of Jim Clark’s police state. But now, all eyes were on Selma with King, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in the lead.
By February 18, 1965, national media attention was drawn to Selma and the voting rights cause as King and other civil rights leaders organized several demonstrations. King has been arrested on February 1 and during the three days he sat in jail, he wrote “Letter from a Selma Jail” which was immediately published in the New York Times. On the night of February 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother were participating in a nighttime voting rights march in Marion, Alabama. Unarmed and trying to protect his mother, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by the state troopers that came in to break up the march.
Jackson’s death spurred SCLC and SNCC leaders to organize a Selma to Montgomery march in which Selma residents would march to the capital and present Governor Wallace with their grievances. The first march on March 7 did not go well.
On October 19, 2021, we parked the truck in downtown Selma and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the same direction as that of the marchers on March 7, 1965. As Vivian and I crested the top of the bridge and continued to the other side, we tried to envision what those marchers, or as Sam Walker calls them, ‘foot soldiers’ saw waiting for them on the other side of the bridge.
The attack caused outrage around the country, and March 7 became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Following Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr who had been in Atlanta on that day, returned to Selma and led another march on March 9. The march was ‘symbolic’ and upon reaching the bridge, the King and the protestors decided to turn back rather than risk another violent confrontation.
Civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third march from Selma to the state capitol. It was provided and President Johnson sent National Guards and troops in the protection of the protesters. Third time is a charm. On March 21, about 3200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking about 12-15 miles a day, sleeping in fields at night. By the time they reached the steps of the capitol on March 25, they were 25,000 strong.
But as they say, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”. Meanwhile, back in Lowndes County, violence against Blacks who attempted to register to vote increased. White land owners retaliated against tenant farmers who registered to vote or engaged in voting rights activities by kicking them off the land. SNCC leaders, including Stoky Carmichael organized and helped keep the dispossessed families together by building a tent city to serve as a temporary home, located on land donated by the Matthew Jackson family, along U.S. 80, currently where the Lowndes Interpretive Center is located.
I will end this blog with two photographs taken from inside the Alabama state capitol. Three years ago, we visited Eufaula, Alabama where we learned about Horace King. King, born a slave in 1807 became a successful engineer and architect, and then later a member of Alabama’s House of Representatives. It was our pleasure to learn that the beautiful cantilever stairs in the capitol were designed and built by Horace King.