From Selma to Montgomery: The Selma Voting Rights Movement

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls on January 18, the anniversary of a march that Dr. King helped lead from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the Selma Courthouse for the purpose of voter registration. The marchers were not allowed to register, but this was just one skirmish in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) ultimately successful Selma Voting Rights Movement, which began on January 2, 1965 in Selma, Alabama.

Still images from Universal Newsreel, Volume 38, Release 22 (March 15, 1965)

Throughout January and February of 1965, Dr. King and members of both the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a campaign of marches and civil disobedience with a goal of achieving voter registration for African-American citizens. On February 18, during a march to the courthouse in Marion, Ala., a state trooper shot protester Jimmie Lee Jackson as he attempted to protect his mother from police. Jackson died eight days later.

In response to Jackson’s death, James Bevel, SCLC’s director of the Selma Voting Rights Movement, called for a march from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The first attempt was on March 7. In what is now known as “Bloody Sunday,” police brutally attacked the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The images of the attack contributed to growing support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and President Lyndon Johnson announced his intention to send a voting rights bill to Congress.

On March 9, Dr. King led a second march that also halted at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This time King led the marchers in prayer before they returned to Selma. That evening, James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist pastor from Boston was attacked and beaten by four white men. Reeb died two days later, leading to national displays of mourning and marches in solidarity with the Selma Movement. On March 15, President Johnson outlined a voting rights bill in an address to a joint session of Congress.

The events surrounding the two aborted marches from Selma to Montgomery and President Johnson’s address to Congress are summarized in this Universal Newsreel, released on March 15, 1965:

On March 21, SCLC and SNCC began a third march from Selma to Montgomery. Under the protection of the federalized Alabama National Guard, the marchers made their way along a 54-mile route. They arrived at the Capitol on March 25 and Dr. King delivered a speech now known as “How Long, Not Long”.

The following aerial photographs, created by the Department of Defense, show the planned march route through Montgomery, and the marchers themselves. The locations of military police are indicated by yellow arrows, civil police by green arrows, and television and radio vans by blue arrows.

  • Photograph of Alabama State Capitol Grounds
  • Photograph of Alabama State Capitol Grounds
  • Aerial Photograph of the Proposed March Route from the City of St. Jude's Grounds to the Alabama State Capitol Building
  • Aerial Photograph of Marchers Turning Right onto West Jeff Davis Avenue
  • Aerial Photograph of the March Reaching the Capitol Building

You can see high-resolution image files for the entire photo series in the National Archives Catalog.

Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 4. President Johnson signed it on August 6, 1965, with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders present. In seven months, the Selma Voting Rights Movement helped bring desperately needed change to the entire country.