Thousands of people in Alabama crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma into Montgomery on Sunday to recreate a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement on its 52nd anniversary.
On March 7, 1965, images of police beating and throwing tear gas at 600 marchers flashed across television screens nationwide, capturing what is now known as “Bloody Sunday.”
One hundred years earlier, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution granted equal rights to all citizens, yet Jim Crow laws maintained segregation and disenfranchised black Americans.
In honor of the march’s 52nd anniversary, here are five lesser-known facts about Selma.
Push for Voting Rights Sparked Selma Protests
Before the march, civil rights groups had been pushing for equal voting rights in the city since 1963. A 1961 Civil Rights Commission report revealed that less than 1 percent of the voting-age black population was registered in Montgomery County. “Freedom Summer” was a campaign in Mississippi aimed at registering more black Americans to vote.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) began “Freedom Days” in 1963 and focused on canvassing door-to-door to persuade black Americans to register to vote.
The Ku Klux Klan and local police enforcement often fought against efforts to register black voters in Selma and other states. According to The New York Times, Selma Sheriff Jim Clark sent a photographer to take pictures of activists who participated in a 1963 Freedom Day and threatened to show the photos to their employers.
In a letter written to The New York Times in February 1965, Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.”
A little over a month later, the march from Selma to Montgomery took place.
Jimmie Lee Jackson: The Inspiration for the March
One of the first images that comes to mind when Selma is mentioned is likely Dr. Martin Luther King marching hand in hand with dozens of civil rights advocates throughout the streets. Less well-known is Jimmie Lee Jackson — the man whose death set the demonstrations in motion.
Jackson was a 26-year-old African-American who was fatally shot on February 18, 1965, by an Alabama state trooper while he was in Marion protesting the arrest of Southern Christian Leadership Conference field secretary James Orange. Jackson was reportedly attempting to stop his grandfather and mother from being beaten when the trooper shot him. Jackson died eight days later and a memorial was held after.
Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Jackson’s funeral. In the summer of 1965, King gave a speech in Syracuse where he mentioned Jackson’s death.
“Before the victory’s won, some like a Medgar Evers, like a Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, like a Rev. James Reeb, like a Jimmie Lee Jackson, may have to face physical death …. (if) the physical death is a price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive,” King said during a speech in Syracuse, according to a transcript.
The state trooper, then 77-year-old James Bonard Fowler, was charged with murder in 2007, 40 years after Jackson’s death, The Associated Press reported. Fowler pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter in the case and was freed early from a six-month jail sentence.
The Bridge Marchers Crossed Was Named After a KKK Grand Dragon
Built in 1940, the Edmund Pettus bridge connected Selma to Montgomery. As protesters marched from one county to the other, they crossed a bridge named after Civil War Confederate general Edmund Pettus, who later became Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
Pettus, whose family once owned slaves, was regarded as a hero in Alabama during and after Reconstruction, according to the Smithsonian.
In 2015, there was a movement to rename the bridge, which would have require approval from the State of Alabama. A petition gathered 189,000 signatures and an Alabama Senate bill aimed at renaming the bridge to the Journey to Freedom bridge passed, but died later in the House, according to AL.com.
In a letter written in 2015, Reps. John Lewis and Teri Sewell defended keeping the name of the bridge, saying that erasing the name would not erase America’s history of racism.
“Renaming the Bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it — the good and the bad,” the letter reads.
SOURCE: AVALON ZOPPO