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MLK’s Crusade for Voting Rights & the Hopes of a Nation
How the Bloody Sunday attacks in Selma shocked, saddened and spurred sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement
By Courtney Suciu
In 1961, before a rally in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced in a press conference that the next goal after desegregating transportation in the South would be to “tackle the problem of Negro voting in Dixie,” according to The Chicago Defender1.
“Our big move will be to intensify voter registrations through stand-ins at places of registration and polling, and anything else we can do to emphasize the degree to which the Negro is denied his right of franchise,” King reportedly said.
Without the right to vote, Black people had no say in how they were governed – meaning they couldn’t elect officials who would ensure equal treatment and protect them from being victimized by crime because of the color of their skin. Meaning they couldn’t run for office to represent themselves and their communities or have a say in making the laws. Meaning they couldn’t serve on juries to decide how justice would be served.
Of course, technically, Blacks had the right to vote according to the U.S. Constitution, but Jim Crow laws all but made it impossible for them to register.
Voter discrimination in the South
Four years later, Dr. King and the civil rights group he presided over, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, zeroed in on voter registration in Selma, Alabama. Two months into the intense and at times violent campaign, the Chicago Tribune2 reported that according to the justice department 75% of Black applicants had their voting registrations denied.
“The study did not show why the Negroes failed,” the article explained. “A tough literacy test subsequently banned by a federal court order was used, however, for most of the two-month period as a means of determining qualifications.”
Tests like this were often only required of Black applicants, who, also because of Jim Crow laws, often didn’t have access to quality – or much of any – education. And without the right to vote, they didn’t have any avenue for changing the laws to improve opportunities for education. And without education, they couldn’t pass literacy tests (even when they weren’t intentionally impossible to pass), to be able to vote.
People had enough of this cycle.
Approximately 600 civil rights activists gathered on March 7, 1965 to march 50 miles from Selma to the state’s capital in Montgomery for the right to vote. But after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found state troopers waiting for them on the other side.
The Selma to Montgomery marches
According to Roy Reed of The New York Times3 “Alabama state troopers and volunteer officers tore through a column of Negro demonstrators with tear gas, nightsticks and whips.” The event became known as Bloody Sunday.
Nearly 60 people required hospitalization or emergency treatment resulting from the attack. “Victims had suffered fractures of ribs, heads, arms and legs in addition to cuts and bruising,” Reed noted.
Images of the brutal mayhem appeared in newspapers across the country and were broadcast on television, leaving many people shocked, saddened and increasingly sympathetic to the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s immediate announcement of plans for another march from Selma to Montgomery the following Tuesday galvanized supporters across the racial spectrum.
In all, there were three marches out of Selma. On March 27, 1965, Dr. King led “a footsore but not weary band of civil rights marchers” to the capital, according to New York Amsterdam News4.
“But King’s triumphant march into Montgomery is more than a personal triumph for King himself. It is indeed a victory for democracy in these United States,” the article proclaimed, adding:
There are those who would like to say that this march was much ado about nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The State of Alabama and Governor Wallace and his troopers were chipping away at the very cornerstone of our democratic way of life. Martin Luther King called attention of the world to what they were doing. President Johnson as the guardian of our way of life took firm and appropriate action.
President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.
Letters to Dr. King and the SCLC
It’s impossible not to be moved by the outpouring of support Dr. King and the SCLC received in the days after Bloody Sunday. Personal letters, many of them handwritten, provide an intimate glimpse of how the attack on marchers touched people across the nation. Their words reveal the devastation of witnessing such a dark side of humanity; but more than that, they express love and gratitude reflecting the light of hope that Dr. King provided them.
Here is a sample of correspondence from the SCLC organizational files5:
Dear Dr. King Jr.
Last night as I sat and watched the 10:00 news on TV and seen the terrible things that is happening to Americans in our so-called America, Land of the Free. I thought, what can I do. I feel guilty just writing this letter in the safety of my home while every day you risk your life for something you believe and that is truly important. There are probably times when you have put your head in your hands and felt or even said, “what’s the use? No one really cares.” But someone does care. The real Americans care. I mean real Americans, not people who claim they are and destroy everything America stands for… I know this isn’t much but I thought maybe if I could give you a word of praise and encouragement that you and everyone else marching in Selma, and throughout the United States, can go on with your fight for the American people.
— Mrs. Elizabeth Kremel
Dear Rev. Dr. King,
I am enclosing another dollar, as I said I would in my last letter. I will do so as often as I can… I wasn’t listening to the radio Sunday, but my 14-year-old daughter was. She was horrified at the treatment of the marchers by the troopers. She came running in to tell me what happened. I sat down and cried. How can people be so cruel to other people?
— Mrs. Donald Smith
Dear Dr. King,
With my small contribution goes my heartfelt prayer for success for us all. As a Jew, the memory of Nazi Germany was made vivid last Sunday. I am so proud of you and thank you for your leadership.
— Theresa Freedman
Dear Dr. King,
Enclosed is a cheque for fifty dollars to aid in the most important and noble enterprise of this generation. As a university professor, I can assure you that you are exerting a most necessary and beneficent influence upon the young people of this country. I hope that your extraordinary leadership will be continued until there is universal accord with your principles and practice.
— Louis E. Roberts
Mrs. Borst and I are always with you in your great work and leadership and wish herewith to express our admiration and gratitude. Please use the enclosed check in your work along with our best thoughts and wishes for you and yours.
— Charles Borst
For further research
Learn more and request complimentary library trials via the heading links below.
Luders, J. E. (1999). The Politics of Exclusion: The Political Economy of Civil Rights in the American *South, 1954–1965 (Order No. 9980036)
Mack, L. R. (2012). The Georgia Voter Identification Requirement: Is It a Form of Voter Disenfranchisement? (Order No. 3520484)
M. E. (2013). The Voter ID Laws: The New Black Codes (Order No. 1539177).
Valelly, R. M. (2004). The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement.
Wang, T. A. (2012). The Politics of Voter Suppression: Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote.
Brown, D. L., & Clemons, M. (2015). Voting Rights Under Fire: The Continuing Struggle for People of Color.
Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 1 (1895-1996)
Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records (includes FBI files on the Selma march)
Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 2 (1925-1996)
Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records, Supplement
NAACP Papers: Board of Directors, Annual Conferences, Major Speeches, and National Staff Files
NAACP Papers: The NAACP’s Major Campaigns— Scottsboro, Anti-Lynching, Criminal Justice, Peonage, Labor, and Segregation and Discrimination Complaints and Responses
NAACP Papers: Special Subjects
NAACP Papers: The NAACP’s Major Campaigns: Education, Voting, Housing, Employment, Armed Forces
NAACP Papers: Branch Department, Branch Files and Youth Department Files
NAACP Papers: The NAACP’s Major Campaigns—Legal Department Files
- VOTING RIGHTS NEXT: KING. (1961, Jun 17). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Vote Denied 75% of Negroes, U. S. Tells Court. (1965, Mar 16). Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Reed, Roy. (1965, Mar 08). ALABAMA POLICE USE GAS AND CLUBS TO ROUT NEGROES. The New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Dr. King's Return. (1965, Mar 27). New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 1: Records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954-1970, Part 1: Records of the President's Office. Folder: 001563 -010-0831. Available from History Vault.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu