It’s January 25th, 1965 in the city of Selma, Alabama.
Outside the county courthouse, 54-year-old civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper stamps her feet on the sidewalk…
It’s cold today and Annie has been waiting outside for hours. She stands in a long line of her fellow African Americans. They’ve all come to the courthouse in downtown Selma to try to register to vote. But nobody is being allowed in.
As Annie waits… a local sheriff swaggers along the line, swinging his billy club. Annie tries to avert her eyes… but a commotion distracts them both. Annie stands on her tip-toes and just barely sees two of the local sheriff’s deputies grabbing a young black man and forcing him out of the line.
The crowd jeers and hisses about the unjust harassment, and Annie steps out of line for a better view. The Sheriff spots her and growls, “Get back in line!” But Annie doesn’t move fast enough for his liking.
So, the Sheriff jabs his club at her neck before shoving her back into line so hard that she almost falls to the ground. The crowd roars its disapproval, and Annie mutters a curse. She decides she’s had enough of this bully. She takes a step forward, balls her fist, and swings.
Momentarily dazed, the sheriff falls back allowing Annie to hit him again. The Sheriff stumbles to his knees and several deputies hurry over to try to tackle Annie. But they’re no match for this determined woman. With elbows flailing, she escapes their grasp, rushes forward… and hits the stunned sheriff for a third time. But before Annie can get in another blow, the deputies finally manage to wrestle her to the ground. When she is finally subdued, they cuff her on the grass by the sidewalk, and the sheriff, his eyes popping with rage, lumbers over, and raises his club.
In early 1965, Alabama is the front line in the fight for civil rights in America. Although Black citizens in the State technically have the right to vote, current laws and a determined bureaucracy prevent most of them from even registering.
At the beginning of 1965, out of Selma's 15,000 potential black voters, just 300 are registered. For weeks, activists like Annie Lee Cooper have been descending on the courthouse, defying threats of violence, to demand their constitutional rights. But their protests aren’t resulting in the type of change they are fighting for.
In the face of this systemic oppression, Civil Rights Leaders will seek new ways to highlight the injustices faced by the Black citizens of Alabama. In two months' time, their efforts will culminate in an iconic mass march to the capital of the state, from Selma all the way to Montgomery, on this day, March 21st, 1965.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 21st, 1965: The March from Selma.
Act One: The First March
It’s February 28th, 1965, three weeks before the Selma March, at the Zion United Methodist Church in the small city of Marion, Alabama.
The red-brick church is packed as James Bevel, a 28-year-old Baptist minister, steps forward to lead the service. The Reverend isn’t only a man of the cloth – he’s an experienced civil rights activist and director of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and a senior member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Emotions in the Methodist church are running high. Ten nights earlier, activists set out from here on a protest march. But when they stepped out of the door of the church, they found their route through the dark city was lined by state police. The troopers ordered the protestors to disperse. Then, suddenly, all the streetlights went out. In the cover of darkness, the state troopers attacked.
Panicked protestors fled through the streets, and one young man, a black church deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to help his mother and elderly grandfather to safety. The family retreated to a café but were followed there by police. When one trooper struck out at Jimmie’s mother, the young man lunged forward to protect her. A billy club to the head sent him crashing to the ground. Then a trooper hauled Jimmie to his feet while another stepped forward with a pistol and shot the young man in the stomach. Jimmie died in hospital eight days later.
Now, at the same church where the protest began that night, the local Black community has gathered once again to grieve the young man they’ve lost, to show their defiance to the authorities that killed him – and to decide what to do next.
Reverend Bevel delivers a powerful sermon. He tells the congregation that Jimmie has found release from the indignities of life as a Black man in Alabama. He cries out that Jimmie will “no longer be cowed and coerced and deprived of his rights as a man”. But now, the Reverend says, it’s time to take action for the sake of the living.
Revered Bevel urges the congregation not to be intimidated by the violence that greeted their last protest. Instead, he encourages them to join him on an even more ambitious march in one week’s time: walking the entire 54-mile distance to the capital of Alabama.
The congregation roars its approval for the reverend’s idea and soon the rafters of the small church shake to the pounding songs of freedom and justice.
A week later, on March 7th, 1965, twenty miles south of Marion in Selma, Reverend Bevel’s march is about to begin.
At a chapel in the city, Reverend Bevel and other local leaders flip a coin to see who will lead the march. The winner is Hosea Williams. And soon, the 39-year-old minister takes his place at the head of a column of protesters six hundred strong. They walk arm in arm through the streets, singing and praying. As the march gets going, Hosea thinks back over the last week and gives thanks to God that everything fell into place to make this protest possible.
Just days ago, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the young man murdered in Marion, was buried. At his funeral, there was a very special speaker: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And after the service, Dr. King joined other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to discuss Reverend Bevel’s idea of a march on Montgomery. At the meeting, Dr. King agreed to give the protest his formal backing.
The plan was for the protestors to walk from Brown Chapel in Selma fifty miles down Route 80 to the state capital. There, they would present Alabama Governor George Wallace with a petition objecting to the ongoing violations of their constitutional rights as American citizens.
Now the plan is in action, and Hosea leads the protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, south out of Selma toward the highway. But, just as in Marion the previous month, the Alabama authorities react to the march with violence. As Hosea crosses the bridge, he spots a thick line of policemen ahead blocking their path. The officers have clubs in their hands and gas masks at their belts. When the rest of the protestors see the police, the marchers’ songs fall silent. But Hosea and the others are determined to keep walking so they resume their march. On the other end of the bridge, the commanding officer shouts: “Troopers, advance!”, and then the policemen don their gas masks.
Swinging their clubs, the troopers cut through the crowd. Protestors are knocked to the ground as teargas canisters whiz through the air, exploding into clouds of choking smoke. The marchers flee back across the bridge the way they came. Then they are chased through the streets of Selma by policemen and by white locals on horseback who charge into the melee wielding whips and ropes and rubber tubes wrapped with barbed wire.
On “Bloody Sunday”, as this horrific event will come to be known, seventeen protestors end up in the hospital, with dozens more suffering less severe wounds. But the police brutality doesn’t break the resolve of the Black community in Alabama. Their leaders vow to return for a second attempt to reach Montgomery. And this time, a coin toss will not decide who will lead the march; all agree it will be Dr. Martin Luther King himself.
Act Two: The Second March
It’s the afternoon of March 9th, 1965, near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Dr. Martin Luther King marches at the head of a column of protestors a mile long. Toward the front are hundreds of religious leaders, churchmen, rabbis, and priests from across America who join together in song. As they approach the bridge, Dr. King looks up ahead.
Just as before, a line of grim-faced policemen waits for the protestors on the other side. But unlike the first march, this time, Dr. King has a plan to avoid bloodshed.
The violence of “Bloody Sunday” shocked Dr. King. Still, after conversing with his fellow civil rights leaders, he decided that they could not back down. So they planned a second march, set to take place just two days after the first.
Dr. King didn’t want a repeat of the violence, though. So, prior to the march today, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also applied for a federal court order against local officials who might want to prevent their crossing of the bridge. But instead of issuing an order against the authorities, the court imposed a temporary restraining order on the marchers. The judge banned any march to Montgomery until a full hearing on the issue could be heard.
Dr. King didn’t want to antagonize the judge by breaking the restraining order. But he also didn’t want to cancel the march and let down the scores of activists flooding into Selma from across the country. So Dr. King came up with a compromise solution, a way to make their voices heard but avoid a bloody confrontation. Dr. King decided to lead the marchers as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge and then turn back. By technically never leaving Selma, the marchers will not be in breach of the federal restraining order.
But the police don't know the plan. So as Dr. King leads the protestors onto the bridge, the Police Major in charge grabs his bullhorn and barks out an order for them to stop.
Dr. King heeds this command and brings the protest to a halt. He calls out to the Police Major and says they have a right to March. But then he turns around and invites the protestors to kneel with him. He holds a short prayer session right there on the bridge. And afterward, Dr. King rises and leads the marchers back the way they came.
But Dr. King’s compromise plan will not prevent further bloodshed. That same night, on a street in Selma, members of the Ku Klux Klan set upon a 38-year-old white minister from Boston, James Reeb. James traveled to Selma to join the protest. But the Klansmen beat him so badly that he dies in the hospital two days later. His tragic death is front-page news across America and grabs the attention of powerful people in Washington DC who decide they can no longer ignore the violence in Alabama.
Six days after Dr. King’s prayer session on the bridge in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress.
In a stirring, forty-minute-long speech, Johnson outlines a new Voting Rights Act which he wants the gathered politicians to approve. The proposed law will ban the racist practices that are rampant in Southern states preventing Black citizens from exercising their right to vote. And in his speech, Johnson directly addresses the recent violence in Alabama.
"JOHNSON: What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America…
It's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
To many civil rights activists, Johnson’s speech is a clear sign that the violence in Alabama has stirred the conscience of the nation. To many others though, it’s shameful that it took the death of a white man for the “powers that be” to sit up and take notice. Still, for most, the president's speech is a cause for hope, and a signal that perhaps, James Reeb's death and Jimmie Lee Jackson’s before him will not be in vain.
Two days after Johnson’s speech, just as the Voting Rights Act is introduced in the U.S. Senate, a federal judge in Alabama finally issues his ruling on the march out of Selma.
Despite opposition from the Alabama State government, the judge declares that the activists have a constitutional right to peacefully protest – even on a public highway. At last, after two false starts, the march from Selma to Montgomery will proceed. Only this time, the protest will cross the bridge to achieve its aims and change the course of history.
Act Three: The Final March
It’s March 21st, 1965 on Route 80, a highway just east of Selma, Alabama.
Annie Lee Cooper, the middle-aged woman who was arrested outside the courthouse in January, strides proudly down the road. She’s one of over three thousand protestors. Army helicopters hover overhead, monitoring the area for any threats to the march. And a crowd of reporters and photographers jostle on the roadside for the best view of Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders as they walk by. Finally, the eyes of the world are on Alabama.
Despite the federal court ruling that the march could go ahead, the State of Alabama still tried to stop it. Governor George Wallace railed against the protestors, calling them “Communist-trained anarchists”. Then, the State legislature passed a resolution calling on Dr. King to cancel the protest, claiming that Alabama couldn’t afford to protect the marchers. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the national guard.
Now, armed federal troops line the marchers’ route. Beyond them, Annie can see a scattering of white spectators. Many wave hateful signs and shout sinister threats. But Annie and the others march on toward Montgomery.
By the time the protest reaches the city four days later, the number of marchers in its ranks has swelled to 25,000. They gather at the State Capitol Building and, there, Annie watches as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mounts the steps outside to address the crowd:
"KING: We have walked through a desolate valley and across a trying hill. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways…
They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."
Annie Lee Cooper and the rest of the crowd cheer Dr. King’s words. The marchers are exhausted but pleased: their courageous efforts, and Dr. King’s powerful oration, are finally paying off.
Over the summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act works its way through Congress where it is passed by both Houses. The president then signs the bill into law on August 6th, 1965, with Dr. King standing at his side. The new law will ban unjust laws devised by southern states to rob Black citizens of the vote. It will become the most transformative civil rights legislation ever passed in America. And it may never have succeeded without the bravery of those who faced down the violence of the police, and the hatred of their fellow citizens, to finally begin their march from Selma to Montgomery on this day, March 21st, 1965.
Next on History Daily.March 22nd, 1895: In Paris, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière demonstrate motion picture technology in public for the first time.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.