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A New Era in Race Relations

"Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaninless work in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agena. Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God's children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor."

-From the speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on March 25, 1965 at the Alabama State Capitol.

The second half of the twentieth century was a time of immense change and adaptation on the Black Belt. Tumultuous, stirring, and dramatic, the mid-century civil rights movement with deep roots in Black Belt culture and society gave birth to a new era in race relations both within the region and the nation.

The 54 mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965 culminated a journey of a hundred years by African Americans to gain one of the most fundamental of American freedoms- the right to vote. The peaceful march was possible because courageous citizens, local leaders, and civil rights groups had, at the cost of harassment, bloodshed, and innocent lives, come together to demand that right. The final march was a celebration of their achievement, a precessional for fall comrades, and the climatic event of the modern civil rights movement.

How did the old cotton part city of Selma, Alabama, the seat of Dalla County, become the national focus of the voting rights movement? In the mid-twentieth century, African Americans made up roughly half of Dallas County's voting age population, but since 1901 the conty and state had systematically denied them to vote through literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidations. In 1961 only 156 of the county's 15,000 voting-age African Americans were registered to vote.

The voting rights movement drew on the wellsprings of religion, nonviolence, and music for guidance and for the moral and physical courage the struggle demanded. African American leaders were vulnerable to economic reprisal, except preachers, who were beholden only to their congregations. Because clergymen enjoyed moral authority to their communities and could speak persuasively before large groups, they emerged as the movement's natural leaders.

The most famous of these preachers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed deeply in the principle of non-violent direct action as the most effective and morally justified strategy for social change. Inspried by earlier nonviolent reform movements, especially the one for Indian independence led by Mohanda Gandhi, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped organize sit-ins, rallies, and marches to protest racial discrimination.

Since jail and physical harm were often the result, nonviolent protest required profound bravery by participants. In the winter of 1965, SNCC leader John Lewis and Dr. King led increasingly larger courthouse marches attempting to register African American voters. Selma's black citizens were not alone in their protests. Across Alabama's Black Belt, mass meetings and marches erupted.

In a tactical move by SCLC and SNCC, Dr. King and 250 marchers were arrested; on the day of Dr. King's release on February 5th, his "Letter from a Selma Jail" appeared in the New York Times, articulating the obstacles to voting. This was followed on February 18th by the tragic death of a young demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was fatally shot during a demonstration in Marion. A call to carry Jackson's body to Montgomery evolved into a memorial march from Selma to Montgomery, a march Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed to stop.

On a bright Sunday afternoon 600 marchers, in ranks of two, mobved slowly up the Edmund Pettus Bridge rising over the Alabama River in Selma. They were met by Alabama State troopers that blocked their way to Montgomery, and a violent attack erupted that became known across the nation as "Bloody Sunday." This was a pivotal moment in the voting rights campaign: the principle of nonviolence was being tested in the heat of attack.

Across the country and in Canada, demonstrations sprang up. Carloads of supporters, mostly white, converged on the area. Dr. King's call to the nation's clergy pruduced a similar outpouring. The movement, now bolstered by nationwide support, had reached an emotional peak. In Washington, many politicans denounced the bloody assult and demanded federal action.

On March 15th, President Johnson called on Congress to pass a voting rights bill. The next day, Judge Johnson lifted the injunction against the march. On March 21st, some 4,000 marchers set out from Selma. Where U.S. 80 (ironically also called Jefferson Davis Highway) became two lanes the number was restricted to 300. Most of this core group marched all 54 miles, stopping at four overnight campsites. In Montgomery their numbers swelled again to an exultant throng of 25,000, some from as far away as Canada and Europe. King addressed the crowd saying, "We are to engage in the greatest march that had ever been made on a state capitol in the South."

The hard-won fight and the march honoring it had given meaning to the promise made a century earlier on the 15th Amendment: "The right of citizens to the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

In the end, the hard work bore fruit: But 1966 the numbr of registered African Americans in Alabama was four times greater than in 1960, and public transportation, public accommodations, and public education were legally accessible to all Americans. Today, these sites inspire residents and visitors alike, as they summon again the idealism and purpose that drove the voting rights movement. These are places that will not let people forget.