From Selma to Montgomery to the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

In March, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights, which led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act later that year. The anniversary provides a good opportunity to teach about voting rights then and now as well as the activism that led to important legislation.

After the enactment of the Civil Rights of Act of 1964, which largely addressed racial discrimination and segregation, obstacles to full voting rights for African-Americans remained, especially in the South. Civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attempted to register black voters but were met with resistance. Black people were supposed to be able to vote but were prevented from voting in a variety of ways, including having to take literacy tests (which illiterate whites were enabled to bypass using a “grandfather clause”); poll taxes, which required some people to pay a fixed rate in order to vote; and ongoing intimidation of voters by individuals and groups.

In the early 1960s, there was a great deal of organizing and protesting around voter rights. In February 1965, after the murder of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by state troopers while he was participating in a peaceful voting rights demonstration, activists organized a huge protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The purpose of the march was to push for voting rights legislation; it took three attempts to complete the march.

The first attempt on March 7 came to be known as Bloody Sunday because Alabama state troopers rushed the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers used whips, nightsticks and tear gas to beat the marchers back to Selma. The second attempt, two days later, came to be known as Turnaround Tuesday, because as the protesters crossed the bridge this time, they saw flashing lights, police cars and helmeted troopers carrying shotguns. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the group in prayer and then turned the marchers around. The third attempt on March 21 was successful. Nearly 8,000 people, representing all races and religions, set off from Selma protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces (ordered by President Lyndon Johnson). The marchers reached Montgomery on March 25 welcomed by more than 25,000 supporters who gathered to hear Dr. King and other speakers.

On Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.


1. Since 1965, how have voting rights changed for African-Americans and other members of minority groups?

2. Why are voting rights important?

3. In what ways is voting still an issue in 2015?

4. In what ways did organizing and activism play a role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965?