I will admit that until a decade ago, I really didn’t know much about the Civil Rights movement. That probably sounds weird because I grew up in Alabama, the state that played center stage in many of the pivotal events in the movement. But I was from the North and my parents were from the North, and we didn’t feel very connected to Alabama history when we arrived in Huntsville, AL in the mid 1970s. When I was in school, it seems like every year in history class, we’d run out of time near the end of the year and only gloss over events that happened after World War II. Korea? I vaguely knew about it. Vietnam? Ditto. So events like the Civil Rights movement became no more than a footnote in history classes, meriting not even a full class period to discuss. I don’t recall ever studying any key figures in the Civil Rights movement, nor learning about the Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Act, or anything else. By the time I got to school, civil rights was a done deal so evidently it was no longer worth mentioning. Even as a history student in college I don’t remember studying this period in history, maybe because my main interest then was the 1800s and ancient history.
Fast forward to 2008. I was a volunteer for a certain presidential primary candidate and I roamed around north Alabama with other volunteers trying to talk people into registering to vote and to head to the polls on primary day. One day I rode around with a black gentleman not a whole lot older than me–he was probably in his mid 50s. We talked about his job (an engineer at a nearby military base) and his life growing up in Alabama. He told me that he grew up in Selma and that his parents were very active in the Civil Rights movement. He told me about many of his memories of that period. Even though he was young in the 1960s, he remembered his house getting fire bombed more than once. He remembered his parents rushing him out the back door to escape the flames. He remembered his parents attending meetings and marches, and he remembered seeing indescribable violence. As I looked at him, this average looking man who spent his days working for the government, I realized that I simply could not believe that a man not too much older than me dealt with fire bombs and beatings to simply be treated as an equal citizen. I was shocked that I knew so little about the period in history that created some of our best leaders and changed the course of our country.
I started to watch some documentaries about the Civil Rights movement. I started out with Eyes on the Prize. I read a few books about Civil Rights leaders. I gained a better understanding of the struggles for equality and what the people involved in the movement really dealt with. More recently I watched the excellent PBS documentaries about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer and was moved almost to tears by the bravery and idealism of all of those people, many of them so very young.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Civil Rights march from Montgomery, AL to Selma, AL in 1965, which was initially a way to protest the shooting death of a young Selma man, Jimmy Lee Jackson. Jackson was shot during a protest on February 18 while protecting his mother from the police. The local community was enraged by Jackson’s death. Local protesters decided to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capitol, to demand the right to register to vote. The first attempt at the March ended with police brutally beating protesters:
On Sunday, March 7, some 600 black protesters, led by SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC’s John Lewis, undertook the march. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, they were blocked by a contingent of 65 troopers, 10 or more Dallas County sheriff’s deputies, and 15 mounted members of the sheriff’s deputized posse. Amidst billowing tear gas, the law enforcement personnel beat the marchers back across the bridge. Fifty-six black marchers were hospitalized, though only 18 of them were hurt seriously enough to be kept overnight. As a result of this event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,“ Martin Luther King issued a call for sympathetic Americans to join him in Selma to renew the march, and thousands flocked to the city, including many religious leaders.
The story certainly doesn’t end there. Over the next few weeks, Civil Rights leaders organized several more marches, and members of the movement were subjected to more violence–and several people died. The protestors eventually did march from Selma to Montgomery, and in the process, the entire country learned about what was happening in this small town tucked in the Heart of Dixie. During the turmoil surrounding the Selma march, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress and asked for legislation to end racial discrimination in the voting process. The Voting Rights Act was introduced amid all of the turmoil of Selma, and was signed into law in August of 1965.
Here’s the Eyes on the Prize episode about Selma. If this topic interests you, this documentary does a great job of outlining what was going on in Selma in the year before the march, the events that led up to the march, and the lasting legacy of this time in history.