Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1965: At Last, Freedom to Vote: Forty Years Ago, Police Attacks on Civil Rights Protesters in Alabama Led to Passage of the Voting Rights Act

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1965: At Last, Freedom to Vote: Forty Years Ago, Police Attacks on Civil Rights Protesters in Alabama Led to Passage of the Voting Rights Act

Article excerpt

Using tear gas, nightsticks, and whips, Alabama state troopers tore into a crowd of hundreds of black marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. The marchers were seeking the right to vote.

The clash, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, galvanized the nation. Five months later--and 40 years ago this August--President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. In some ways, it was the most important civil rights legislation ever.

Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter, watched the brutal events in Selma from 100 yards away, detained by four troopers, until he could no longer see through a cloud of tear gas.


"Before the cloud finally hid it all, there were several seconds of unobstructed view," Reed wrote. "Fifteen or 20 nightsticks could be seen through the gas, flailing at the heads of the marchers."

Civil rights activists had decided to lead a march that day from Selma to Montgomery to call attention to the plight of blacks in Alabama. In Selma, white officials, including the sheriff, were preventing most of its black residents from registering to vote. A few months earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had exhorted from the pulpit of a Selma church: "We are not on our knees begging for the ballot, we are demanding the ballot."

Governor George Wallace had called in state troopers and they set upon the marchers after ordering them to disperse. Dozens were injured, some severely, including John Lewis, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization founded by college students in the South. A trooper fractured Lewis's skull. (Today, Lewis is a Congressman from Georgia.)

The events in Selma sparked outrage. President Johnson went on TV to say that all Americans should adopt the cause of Selma's blacks. "It's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice," he said. "And we shall overcome."

That sentiment had been widely shared among Northern liberals and the Johnson administration. But it was the horror that day in Selma that prompted Congress to act.

The year before, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation that outlawed race discrimination in housing and employment. But it had not addressed the most fundamental democratic right--the right to vote.

Of course, black people--or at least black men--had theoretically had the right to vote since shortly after the Civil War. The 15th Amendment, enacted in 1870, said so. (Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920.)

In the decades after the Civil War, blacks voted and were elected to office in the South. But that stopped around the turn of the 20th century, when white Southerners began efforts to disenfranchise blacks. (The last blacks were elected to the legislatures of Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina in 1891, 1895, and 1902. No blacks were elected to Congress from the South from 1901 to 1972.)


White officials used all kinds of devices to keep blacks from voting, including literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses (requiring proof that one's father and grandfather had been eligible to vote), intimidation, and outright violence.

By 1945, only about 3 percent of the 5 million blacks of voting age in the South were registered to vote.

In Selma, the voter registration office was open only two days a month, and officials moved at a snail's pace, registering about 150 black voters a year. Of the 15,000 eligible black voters in the surrounding county, 335 were registered to vote. (Of the 14,440 eligible whites, 9,543 were registered.)

The Voting Rights Act effectively ended the use of literacy tests and poll taxes, allowed federal officials to register voters, and required some Southern states to get permission from a federal court or the Attorney General before changing voting practices. …

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