50th Anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery Marches


Courtesy of Jim Gavenus

Public figures gather at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma March

This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the famous Civil Rights Marches from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL.

In 1963, after the Alabama State Legislature passed a new law constitution that required a poll tax upon voting and a literacy test for comprehension of the constitution, many African-Americans and poor whites found themselves effectively unable to vote.

This triggered the beginning of the civil rights movement in Alabama in which thousands of people participated to give equal rights to disenfranchised black citizens.

Altercations began to grow more and more frequent between protestors and police, leading to numerous deaths that caused national outrage.

And then a plan was concocted. Civil rights supporters would march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, in protest of the unfair voting laws.

The first march ended on March 7, 1965, or what is known infamously throughout American history as “Bloody Sunday.”

As protestors crossed into Dallas County, where Montgomery is located, they faced a wall of state troopers. Earlier in the day, the sheriff of the county issued a proclamation ordering all males over the age of 21 to report to the county courthouse. When there, they were all deputized.

Words were exchanged between a leader of the march and the commanding officer of the posse. The protestors were told to “turn around immediately.” When they did not comply, officers began shoving and pushing the marchers, eventually beating them with nightsticks.

Tear gas was fired, troopers on horseback charged the crowd. Absolute anarchy reigned supreme.

After the smoke had settled, 17 marchers were taken to the hospital and 50 were treated for lesser injuries.

But the protestors did not give up. The second march was organized for March 9.

Rev. Martin Luther King led 2,500 people into Dallas County before turning around in respect of a court-order which prevented them from doing the full march.

After Lyndon B. Johnson promised King to protect the protestors with troopers and guardsmen and a federal judge came to the conclusion that the protestors were exercising their first amendment rights, thereby overruling any court-order, the protestors went back to it.

The third march began on March 21.

Led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous spiritual leaders, the march commenced with close to 8,000 people ready to take up the trek.

When the nearly 25,000 civil rights supporters arrived in Montgomery on March 24, they took a day to organize on the outskirts of town. Finally, on March 25, they stepped foot on the Alabama State Capital Building. It was there that King delivered one of his most famous speeches.

Known now as “How long, not long,” the words still echo forth to today.

“Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary.” King spoke. “And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”

This protest march is important to this very day. Though it may be overshadowed by the movement itself, it stands as seminal act that defines the turbulence of the time period.

As Dr. Diane Wenger of Wilkes University explains it, “The cultural significance is enormous–finally the country and the world were waking up to the lack of justice and freedom in the U.S. South. Black citizens had stood up for themselves–in the face of grave danger–and peacefully demonstrated for their rights, equality, and justice.”

On March 7, 2015, the 50 year anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Obama and numerous political activists came together to reenact the historical event.

In a speech, President Obama noted the importance of the march.

“[Selma] is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: ‘We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.’ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ Obama spoke.

He continued, “These are not just words, they’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.”

Jim Gavenus, a Kingston resident and professional photographer, was at the scene of the reenactment. Gavenus attends the anniversary celebrations regularly and has gotten to know quite a few of the original protestors, many of whom provided some insight into their actions.

“They were looking to change the world, not for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren – for everyone.” Gavenus explains.

And so it goes, the Selma to Montgomery marches and their effects would forever resonate through the channels of American history.


Note: Jim Gavenus will be speaking at the Bigler Journalism Conference at Wilkes University on April 10.