THE BLOG
05/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Bloody Sunday: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

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At a time when right-wingers gabble loosely about secession and revolution, it's worth remembering that our nation experienced a second - necessary and successful - American revolution 45 years ago.

On March 7, 1965, the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution - "Bloody Sunday" - took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The African-Americans who marched onto the bridge were protesting the death, nine days before, of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Unarmed and trying to shield his mother and 82-year-old grandfather from Alabama State Troopers who were beating them with clubs, he was shot by a trooper at point-blank range.

The marchers intended to walk the 54 miles from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery and, in the words of our Constitution, "petition the Government for a redress of grievances." They sought, in the language of our Declaration of Independence, "to alter or to abolish" a "Form of Government" that denied them their "unalienable Rights." Their goal was to bring about a revolution - without arms but patterned after the upheaval that gave birth to the nation - to overturn state governments that denied them the most basic right of an American citizen: the right to vote.

Leading the 600 marchers were Hosea Williams, an Army veteran of World War II and prominent member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and John Lewis, the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They walked at the head of a long and orderly file, scrupulously keeping to the steep and narrow sidewalk. When they crossed the crest of the bridge, they saw arrayed before them dozens of state troopers in riot gear - steel helmets, nightsticks, gas masks on or loose about their necks.

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The troopers attacked with their nightsticks and fired nausea-inducing tear gas to incapacitate those beyond their immediate reach. Selma's Sheriff Jim Clark and his recently-deputized mob rode on horseback, charging into the crowd with clubs and whips.

John Lewis, now a Democratic member of Congress from Georgia, recalls: "They stampeded us with whips, nightsticks and horses. They tear-gassed us. They turned our nonviolent protest into blood." The troopers pushed Lewis and many others to the ground, then beat them without mercy.

That night, ABC News interrupted the network's Sunday night movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, with a 15-minute newscast that stunned millions of Americans, who witnessed for themselves the frenzied brutality of a police riot. The next day, the first of several thousand volunteers descended on Selma - some wearing the distinctive clothing of nuns, priests, ministers and rabbis, their faces mostly white.

One of them, a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb, arrived in Selma on Tuesday with several colleagues. That night, shortly after leaving a restaurant, thugs attacked them on the street. Reeb suffered massive head injuries and died that Thursday.

Four days later, appearing before a joint session of Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced legislation to extend federal protection to voting rights, an area traditionally controlled by state and local government. In what proved to be his finest speech, Johnson said:

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed...

Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes...

Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. ...

This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections - Federal, State, and local - which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.

This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.

It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them.

It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote.

Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.

Two weeks after "Bloody Sunday," civil rights marchers again approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, this time they crossed it without incident. Army and National Guard troops patrolled the entire the route. Four days later, the march reached Montgomery. Within sight of the state capitol, some 25,000 heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote, it was dignity without strength. Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man.

After the speech, the crowd dispersed. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit, who responded to "Bloody Sunday" by driving to Selma and volunteering to help, was one of many who drove their own cars to return marchers from Montgomery to their homes in Selma.

Four members of the Ku Klux Klan had been cruising U.S. 80, the principal highway linking Selma and Montgomery, hoping they would have an opportunity to shoot Dr. King. They never saw him, but they did see Liuzzo driving her Oldsmobile with Michigan plates. She had just dropped off passengers in Selma and was returning to Montgomery to pick up another group. The Klansmen followed and, 20 miles later, opened fire. Liuzzo was killed instantly.
The FBI arrested the four the next day; three were indicted for murder the following month. The fourth man, a paid FBI informant named Gary Thomas Rowe, agreed to testify against the others. Though Alabama juries voted to acquit the three, they were ultimately found guilty in federal court of violating Liuzzo's civil rights and received 10-year sentences.

The murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo within a four-week span gave impetus to Johnson's push for federal voting rights legislation. Congress passed the bill in August.

In his speech in Montgomery, Dr. King predicted that "segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and [Gov. George C.] Wallace will make the funeral."

In signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pres. Johnson signed segregation's death certificate. The civil rights revolution, like the American Revolution on which it was modeled, succeeded in overthrowing corrupt state governments that systematically denied African-Americans the right to vote. The ballot box gave them a voice in determining who would hold office as well as political power in rough proportion to their numbers. Across the Deep South, voters began turning unrepentant racists out of office, and once ardent segregationists - Gov. Wallace among them - began courting the votes of African-Americans they had once prevented, often with brutal force, from registering to vote.

"It may be true that the law cannot change the heart," Dr. King once observed, "but it can restrain the heartless." To that end, the Voting Rights Act has been a signal success.