01 March 2019

ON 7 MARCH 1965, US civil-rights activist Amelia Boynton is knocked down by Alabama state troopers. On a day remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” the troopers used tear gas, billy clubs and cattle prods to assault about six hundred non-violent protesters marching for voting rights in the city of Selma. The county sheriff, Jim Clark, who had the night before called for all white men over the age of 21 to join him in stopping the march, responded to calls for an ambulance by saying, “Let the buzzards eat them.” Eventually, over fifty people were hospitalised.

Although African-Americans comprised a majority of the voting-age population of Dallas county, of which Selma was part, legislation enacted in the early twentieth century disenfranchised almost all of them. During the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee made repeated attempts to register African-Americans in Selma to vote, but Clark and his men would intimidate, assault and arrest the SNCC activists. By 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined the agitation. The SNCC and SCLC held a number of demonstrations at the Selma courthouse. During the police crackdown on one such protest, on 18 February, Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally shot by a state trooper. The march to the state capital of Montgomery, on 7 March, was called in response to the killing.

Two days after Bloody Sunday, King led another march to the Edmund Pettus bridge, where the previous protest was halted. This time, around two thousand people, over half of whom were white, attended what came to be known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” On 21 March, a third protest was organised—a five-day march to Montgomery. Over twenty-five thousand people participated. Lyndon B Johnson, the US president, used the agitation to help push through the Voting Rights Act, which he signed into law on 6 August.