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1965 Voting Rights March
African Americans have long struggled for full rights of citizenship. In the antebellum period, slaves sought, at the very least, the right of freedom, whereas free blacks petitioned for full citizenship. But, although restricted by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery expanded and the Supreme Court decided in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that no African American could claim citizenship rights.
After the South lost the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted citizenship and voting rights to all native-born Americans except American Indians. However, this act was not enforced. Thus, in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which extended citizenship and voting rights to African-Americans. The following year, 1869, the 15th Amendment was added, forbidding discrimination in voting based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Numerous African-Americans were then elected, during the brief econstruction period, to local, state, and federal offices as blacks exercised their right to vote.
When Reconstruction ended, almost all of the rights theretofore bestowed upon African-Americans were reversed. Alabama accomplished this reversal with its 1901 Constitution, effectively disfranchising almost all African-American voters in Alabama.
In 1960 in Alabama counties like Blount, Clay, DeKalb, Marshall, Morgan, and Tallapoosa, where few blacks lived, there were very few, if any, black voters. Even in the Black Belt counties of Lowndes and Wilcox, where African-Americans comprised 80% or more of the population, there were almost no black voters.
A struggle by Alabama blacks to regain their citizenship and voting rights began in earnest by 1936. African-American communities throughout the state established civic and voter leagues known as citizenship schools. These schools tutored prospective African-American voters on how to complete the literacy test and how to respond to potential questions asked by usually hostile registrars. The most important aspect of the citizenship schools, however, was to instill pride, perseverance, and persistence. Despite being constantly insulted and denied by recalcitrant registrars, these applicants would try again and again to register to vote. These persistent attempts were the heart and soul of the struggle, and they helped give rise to the 1965 voting rights movement.
In February 1965, after attending a voting rights rally in a church in the Black Belt community of Marion in Perry County, the parishioners were attacked by state troopers as they exited the church. Jimmie Lee Jackson, while attempting to protect his mother from the troopers' billy clubs, was shot point blank by two of the troopers. Seven days later, on February 25, Jackson died from his gunshot wounds.
Saddened by the killing of Jackson, African-Americans, especially in Perry County and in adjacent Dallas County, were determined more than ever to advance their voting rights struggle. Almost immediately after the funeral of Jackson plans began to be made to march from Selma to Montgomery to petition for a redress of wrongs by the State of Alabama.
After two attempts, the first known as "Bloody Sunday" as a result of the brutal beatings heaped upon marchers by state troopers and the local posse on horseback, the march, with protection from federalized National Guard troops, proceeded on March 21, 1965. Four days later, after walking 54 miles, the marchers arrived in Montgomery and camped out at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex that served the black community. That night, March 24, a tremendously motivating "Stars for Freedom" rally was held on the campus. Singers Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Tony Bennett; and comedian Sammy Davis Jr. entertained the weary marchers.
The following morning, March 25, the marchers completed the last leg of the trek to the State Capitol. There, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful speech, "How Long, Not Long," to over 10,000 people assembled on the Capitol steps and beyond. That evening one of the marchers, Mrs. Viola Luizzo, was shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Lowndes County.
The Selma-to-Montgomery March effected great change in Alabama and the nation. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, prohibiting most of the barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting. The act provided for federal registrars to go to Alabama and other states to ensure the enfranchisement of African-Americans. In 1960 there were 53,336 black voters in Alabama. In 1990 this number had risen to 537,285.
The voting rights movement was not for black Alabamians only. Other ethnic groups, especially Hispanics, also benefitted as a result of this arduous struggle. Pro-democracy movements the world-over looked to Alabama's African-American voting rights movement as a source of inspiration and courage. Germans sang "We Shall Overcome," the voting rights movement's anthem, as they tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989. The same year, Chinese students, in their movement for democratic reforms, sang "We Shall Overcome" as they faced down government tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The world, in 1994, joined the chorus with South Africans upon the dismantling of apartheid and the election of its first-ever black president, Nelson Mandela.
On November 12, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a law designating the march route as the "Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail." Prior to this historic designation, the Alabama Department of Transportation requested that the route be designated as a "National Scenic By-way and All-American Road." On August 4, 1995, Alabama governor Fob James officially signed the request, which was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in December 1995. The 54-mile Voting Rights Trail will be commemorated with interpretive centers, museums, parks, wayside panels, walking trails, and other historical markers.