August 6, 2023, marks the 58th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This legislation outlawed the discriminatory tactics that denied Black citizens access to the vote. It ended literacy tests, granted the attorney general the power to send observers to witness elections, and gave the federal government the authority to preapprove changes to voting and elections in places with a history of discrimination. And in 1965, it was Alabama organizers, activists, and concerned citizens who applied the necessary pressure with the Selma to Montgomery March that moved President Johnson to sign the VRA.
The Power of Alabama Organizers
The first Selma to Montgomery March was March 7, 1965, and was the result of decades of organizing by the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL). The DCVL was initially founded in the 1920s by Charles J. Adams, and later revived in the 1950s by an eight-member steering committee. Known as the “Courageous Eight,” the committee included Amelia Boynton, Ulysses S. Blackmon, James E. Gildersleeve, F.D. Reese, Rev. John D. Hunter, Rev. Henry Shannon, Earnest Doyle, and Marie Foster. Together, they tried to register Black citizens during the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, they were denied access by state and county officials, the White Citizens’ Council, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Shortly after F.D. Reese was elected president of DCVL in 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent Benard and Colia Lafayette to Selma to campaign for voting rights. SNCC leaders were so impressed by the DCVL they decided to fully fund the organization. Beginning in 1963, SNCC and the DCVL initiated several mobilization efforts including “Freedom Day” where 300 Black citizens lined up at the county courthouse to register to vote.
In 1965 the DCVL, SNCC, and Southern Christan Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Following the murder of military veteran and Perry County, Alabama civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 26, 1965, SCLC member James Bevel initiated the Selma to Montgomery march. Over the next week, several members of the three organizations planned the first Selma to Montgomery March attempted on March 7, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery March
Known as Bloody Sunday, marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, were attacked by Sheriff’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers. Courageous Eight member Amelia Boynton was beaten and left unconscious in the street. The picture of her unconscious body was widely publicized, fueling outrage at the treatment of the marchers.
The second march, “Turn Around Tuesday,” took place two days later. Yet, due to a federal court issuing a temporary injunction against it. Dr. King stopped the March. That night, civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston was murdered by a White supremacist group.
The violence of “Bloody Sunday” and Reeb’s murder garnered national and international outrage and news media attention. Protesters began demanding a new federal voting rights law be created. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson seized the opportunity and held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress. He urged lawmakers to pass what is now known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The third Selma to Montgomery March, started on March 21, 1965. Protesters were escorted by the Alabama National Guard, the FBI and federal marshals. Thousands of marchers walked 10 miles daily along U.S. Route 80, reaching Montgomery on March 24. The following day, 25,000 people demonstrated on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. Five months later, the Voting Rights Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law.
From Then to Now
For several decades, the VRA offered much needed protections. However, the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby, Alabama V. Holder changed that. Yet, on June 8, 2023, there was renewed hope for the VRA with the Allen v Milligan Supreme Court ruling. The Milligan case was filed by Black Alabama voters who charged the new Congressional map violated the VRA and diluted Black voting power. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Alabama plaintiffs, strengthening the VRA and shifting voting rights in states across the country.
Like the foot soldiers who paved the way in the 1960s, our current political system requires that everyday citizens demand the rights guaranteed to all Americans. We no longer have the luxury of only commemorating the achievements of the past. History requires that we use our individual and collective strength to uphold democracy against all odds.