02/18/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

The Riot That Sparked the Selma March


President Lyndon Johnson called “Bloody Sunday” a turning point in American history, comparing it to Lexington and Concord and Appomattox. This was not Texas hyperbole. The brutal attack on voting rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago this March 7 shocked the nation and forced LBJ to put a voting rights bill at the top of his legislative agenda. On March 15, he addressed the nation, telling the American people bluntly that “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote … [T]here must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise … It’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then he paused, and slowly and distinctly, Johnson uttered the words never before spoken by an American president: “And-we-shall-overcome.” Two days later, the bill was delivered to the House. In early August, it passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins and, on August 6, the president signed it into law. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans in the South were free to vote like all Americans. Among those commemorating Bloody Sunday on March 7 will be President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

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