By 1965 a century had passed since the end of the Civil War, but in some parts of the South, blacks still lacked the right to vote. Literacy tests, registration requirements, and other barriers hindered them on Election Day. Hoping to draw attention to the problem, civil rights workers planned to march more than fifty miles from Selma, Alabama, a town where blacks had suffered much violence and discrimination, to Montgomery, the state capital.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 protesters began their march. They had barely started when they met a line of state troopers and policemen, some on horseback, who ordered the crowd to turn back. When the marchers held their ground, the police attacked with tear gas, bullwhips, and billy clubs, driving the activists back into Selma.
The nation was shocked by televised images of “Bloody Sunday,” as the brutal assault came to be known. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. immediately called on civil rights activists to converge on Selma for another march.
On March 21, after even more bloodshed, some 3,200 marchers left Selma again, this time under the protection of the National Guard. With King leading the way, they walked along Highway 80 through rain and chilly weather, camping out at night and singing hymns of freedom. By the time they reached the capital on March 24, thousands more had joined them. “In a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested,” King told a swelling crowd the next day. “I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama.”
He was right. The Selma-to-Montgomery march opened many eyes to the need for change. Later that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which helped ensure voting rights for all citizens.