By MURPHY BROWNE
Sunday, March 7, 1965 became known as “Bloody Sunday” because on that day a group of African-Americans (including children and the elderly) were viciously attacked by baton wielding White supremacist thugs, with the blessing of the Alabama state government.
Alabama state troopers, local police, the sheriff and sheriff’s deputies all descended like a pack of ravenous wolves on the group of unarmed marchers who were planning to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
The march to Montgomery was planned as part of the Selma Voting Rights Movement, which officially began on January 2, 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a mass meeting in Brown Chapel A.M.E. church. The meeting was considered illegal because on July 9, 1964, Judge James Hare issued an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people organized by civil rights organizations or leaders.
In an attempt to suppress public civil rights activity, after July 9, 1964, it was illegal to even talk to more than two people at a time about civil rights or voter registration in Selma. The injunction was made in reaction to a group of 50 African-Americans attempting to register to vote on July 6, 1964. They were all arrested instead of being allowed to register.
Even though African-Americans were in the majority in Selma, Alabama, they did not have political or economic power and were prevented from voting by Selma’s Whites. It was 100 years after the official end of chattel slavery in the U.S. yet African-Americans were routinely terrorized by their White compatriots and many African-Americans lived in a state of abject poverty.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, made segregation illegal, yet the local government in Selma continued to practice segregation and prevented African-Americans from exercising their right to vote as American citizens. African-Americans who attempted to integrate dining and entertainment venues in Selma by attending the movie theatre or attempting to eat at a hamburger stand were brutally beaten and arrested.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and encouraged by activists like Dr. King, African-Americans in Selma renewed their efforts to exercise their civil rights by making attempts to register to vote. But, as they did so, the White people of Selma made an even greater effort to prevent this from happening.
In January 1965, there were two incidents of brutality against African-American women in Selma that captured the attention of the nation. On January 19, the brutal mistreatment by Selma’s sheriff of Amelia Boynton, an African-American woman with some status in the community as a teacher, was caught on camera and broadcast nationally.
Similarly, on January 25, 1965, photographs of Annie Lee Cooper being viciously beaten by Selma’s sheriff, as three of his deputies held her handcuffed on the ground, was seen nationally, exposing the barbarism of Jim Crow in the southern states. Matters came to a head on February 18, 1965, when Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran, was shot at point blank range when he tried to protect his mother and her 83-year-old father from an enraged Alabama state trooper.
Jackson, his mother and grandfather had been pursued into a café from a demonstration at nearby Zion Chapel Methodist Church as they tried to evade state troopers who were viciously whipping and clubbing the peaceful, non-violent demonstrators. The unarmed Jackson was beaten by state troopers, shot twice in the stomach and then clubbed senseless.
In an interview published in the Anniston Star of March 6, 2005, the former Alabama state trooper who killed Jackson in 1965 confidently pronounced: “I don’t think legally I could get convicted for murder now no matter how much politics they got ’cause after 40 years they ain’t no telling how many people is dead.”
The murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson sparked the Selma to Montgomery March that led not only to Bloody Sunday but to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.
The Selma to Montgomery March began peacefully on Sunday, March 7, 1965 as the group of approximately 600 men, women and children left church and gathered at 4:00 p.m. to begin the historic march. Everyone knelt and bowed their heads as Andrew Young (later to become a U.S. Congressman, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Mayor of Atlanta) prayed. The group, led by then 25-year-old John Lewis (now a U.S. Congressman) lined up in pairs stretching back a few blocks. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge which led out of Selma, the marchers saw, according to Lewis in his Walking with the Wind; A Memoir of the Movement (published in 1998): “Facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood a sea of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them, dozens of battle ready lawmen stretched from one side of U.S. Highway 80 to the other. Behind them were several dozen more armed men – Sheriff Clark’s posse – some on horseback, all wearing khaki clothing, many carrying clubs the size of baseball bats. On one side of the road I could see a crowd of about one hundred Whites, laughing and hollering, waving Confederate flags”.
As the marchers trained in the non-violence tactics of the civil rights movement prepared to kneel and pray, they heard the order: “Troopers Advance!” Then eight-year-old Sheyann Webb (later, the author of Selma Lord Selma published 1980), who was marching with her teacher remembers: “I saw those horsemen coming towards me and they had those awful masks on; they rode right through the cloud of tear gas. Some of them had clubs, others had ropes, or whips, which they swung about them like they were driving cattle.”
Lewis, who was leading the march, remembers: “The troopers and posse men swept forward as one, like a human wave, a blur of blue shirts and Billy clubs and bullwhips. We had no chance to turn and retreat. There were six hundred people behind us, bridge railings to either side and the river below.
“I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us – the clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the White onlookers, the clip clop of horses hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ’em! Get the n _ _ _ _ rs!'”
The men, women and children trapped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were savagely attacked and terrorized by White “lawmen” who were determined to prevent the peaceful, non-violent group of people from leaving Selma.
This attack happened on a Sunday in a community of people who prided themselves on being civilized Christians and was carried out by a gang of degenerate, depraved creatures who used C-4, a particularly toxic form of tear gas, and barbed wire-wrapped rubber hoses to viciously beat defenseless people whose only “crime” was wanting to be treated as human beings.
On March 4, 2007, President Barack Hussein Obama, who was then one of the frontrunners for the presidential candidacy of the Democratic Party, addressed a group at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma, Alabama at the commemoration of Bloody Sunday.
Obama mentioned Jimmy Lee Jackson, whose murder sparked the March 7, 1965 action which led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. He recognized that whatever victory he achieved came from the sacrifices of many whose names are hardly mentioned and sometimes never mentioned in the history books.
During his inauguration ceremony in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2009, President Obama stopped to hug Congressman John Lewis and to whisper in his ear, most likely to say “Thank You!”