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Five hundred and twenty-five people started a planned march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on Sunday, March 7, 1965. It began as a peaceful demonstration. Suddenly, things changed. When state troopers met the demonstrators at the edge of the city, that day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The 1960s was a time of great unrest in our country, especially in the southern United States. The civil rights era mobilized many to be a voice for justice and equality for all people, no matter what their skin color was.
Many African Americans faced barriers which either prevented or made it difficult for them to register to vote. In Selma, African Americans made up almost half the population, but only two percent were registered voters. The demonstrators marched to demand fairness in voter registration.
John Lewis was a key organizer of the march. The 25-year-old son of a sharecropper was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This group was dedicated to ending segregation and registering black voters.
Civil rights groups such as Lewis’s practiced nonviolence. Lewis and other leaders asked the demonstrators to not fight back against anyone who committed violence against them during the peaceful protest.
What did the marchers do when the heavily armed state troopers confronted them? They paused for a moment and then kept walking. The sheriff warned the people they had two minutes to break up the march. The deputies did not wait. They attacked sooner.
The marchers were tear-gassed, spat on, and clubbed. They were whipped, trampled by horses, and jeered by others for demanding the right to register to vote. Television and newspapers carried pictures of the event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The images sickened and outraged people throughout the country. Within 48 hours, demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in 80 cities. Many of the nation’s religious leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., flew to Selma. King helped finish what Lewis had begun. He led a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery.
Congress responded to these events by enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act states that no person shall be denied the right to vote because of race or color.
John Lewis went on to serve as Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), a program which added nearly four million voters to the voter rolls. He was also a U.S. Congressman representing Georgia for 33 years until his death in 2020.