The year was 1965. Jimmie Lee Jackson, an ordained deacon of the St. James Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama, had been trying to register to vote for four years. As an African American, he was not allowed to vote in the state of Alabama, but he had been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. On February 18th, he was part of a group of protesters who attempted to walk to the Perry County Courthouse to sing hymns. The streetlights went out and police began beating protesters. When Jimmie, unarmed, tried to protect his mother, Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler fired two shots into his abdomen at close range. Jimmie died a week later. He was 26.
The senseless death of Jimmie Lee Jackson was not unlike other deaths that had come before (or deaths that have come since). At the time, it was simply one death too many, and would inspire three attempts to march from Selma, Alabama to the Capitol in Montgomery in an effort to ask Governor George Wallace if he had ordered the beatings and to and ask for protection of black registrants. These marches were the culmination of the the Civil Rights movement and would change the United States forever.
The first took place on March 7th and was met with more police violence. Six hundred protesters were set upon by police after crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge on their way out of Selma. There had been an order that morning that all white males over 21 were to be deputized at the Dallas County Courthouse. The resulting police mob beat and gassed the marchers, with mounted police charging them on horseback. This time however, they were unable to censor the press, who televised and printed horrifying pictures of people bloody and beaten. The day would be named “Bloody Sunday”. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, some of them with critical injuries.
The second march happened two days later. Twenty five hundred people from all over the country marched as far as the Edmund Pettus bridge, where Dr. King prayed and spoke, then turned around in order to comply with a restraining order that prevented them from walking all the way to Montgomery.
After the restraining order had been struck down, almost 8,000 people began the long walk to Montgomery on March 21st. The Judge had required that the march be limited to 300 people whenever the road was only two lanes, so most of the marchers returned to Selma that evening, leaving 300 to camp and journey on for the next two days in the rain. Many people joined the march closer to Montgomery, where the highway was again four lanes.
On Thursday, March 25, twenty five thousand people marched to the steps of the State Capitol Building and Dr. King spoke. This is the famous How Long, Not Long speech which is featured in the clip below. The marchers then came forward with a petition for Governor Wallace and were told by State Troopers that the governor was not available. They then waited until a secretary appeared to take the petition. The world would never be the same.
How precious were each of those steps and how costly.
Video via Democracy Now on Youtube.