Not Just Black and White: A Timeline of Selma to Montgomery, 1965

Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of pieces examining the Jewish community's involvement in the civil rights battles of...

Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of pieces examining the Jewish community's involvement in the civil rights battles of the 1960s. A companion piece, about Jewish activists who came to Selma in 1965, is here. In April we will have a piece on what was happening in the Jewish community of Selma in 1965.


The civil rights battle in Selma is seen as the battle for voting rights and the right to demonstrate.

In 1964, Selma businesses generally refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was in January 1965, six months later, that the city’s restaurants relented and started serving black customers.

Earlier in 1964, Selma had elected Joe Smitherman as mayor, who was seen as a relative moderate, and Smitherman had appointed Wilson Baker, a moderate, as director of public safety.

In Dallas County, a voter registration drive had started in 1963, but by the end of 1964 there were only 335 registered black voters in the county — 2 percent of those eligible, compared to 64 percent of eligible white voters who were registered.

On Jan. 2, 1965, the Dallas County Voter’s League, which had become part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held a direct action campaign. The campaign was to defy an injunction from the previous summer that was still in place which barred blacks from having three or more people at a meeting to discuss civil rights or voter registration.

County Sheriff Jim Clark, a noted segregationist, was scheduled to be at the Orange Bowl that day, and Baker favored the non-confrontational approach used in Albany, Ga., in 1962. When over 700 flooded Brown Chapel AME Church, Baker’s force did not enforce the injunction.

The next day that the voter registration office at the courthouse would be open was Jan. 18, so “Freedom Day” was planned. Rev. Martin Luther King and John Lewis led 300 from the church in a march to the courthouse, but Baker stopped them as they did not have a parade permit. He would, however, let them proceed in smaller groups.

As the courthouse was county property, Clark had jurisdiction, and he barred the main entrance, herding the demonstrators to an alley where they waited all day, mostly in vain, to apply to vote.

Meanwhile, “compliance teams” tested area businesses to see if they were indeed serving all, black and white, and all were.
Though the voting office was closed the next day, many returned and insisted on using the front door, leading Clark to start mass arrests.

On Jan. 22, almost every black teacher in Selma marched to the courthouse, daring Clark to arrest them — figuring he would not risk having all of the students unsupervised and flooding the streets the next week.

With daily demonstrations all week, only 40 had been able to fill out voter applications and none had passed scrutiny.

On Feb. 1, King and Abernathy engineered a way to be arrested by Baker for marching without a permit, being placed in the relatively friendlier city jail. There, King wrote “Letter from a Selma Jail.” He was released on Feb. 5.

As daily demonstrations continued in Selma, a similar effort was made in Montgomery — but only 100 showed up, and they were quickly allowed into the courthouse and given voter applications without incident.

On Feb. 10, a group of students demonstrated in Selma. Clark and his deputies started marching them toward the jail but then forced them to run, beating them with clubs and cattle prods. That re-energized the movement, swelling crowds the next day.

Baker granted a parade permit to the demonstrators, so 1,500 marched to the courthouse on Feb. 15 to try and register.

In Perry County, SCLC project director James Orange was arrested on Feb. 18. That evening, 400 marchers in Marion protested the arrest, but a mob that included Clark and his team attacked the group, injuring an NBC reporter. Rev. James Dobynes was beaten, and died a year later from those injuries.

Some marchers tried to take refuge in black-owned Mack’s CafĂ©, where troopers shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old veteran who had tried to register five times.

Until his death on Feb. 26, daily vigils for Jackson were held in Selma, with the backdrop of Malcolm X’s assassination on Feb. 21 in Harlem. There was a call for a complete boycott of white-owned stores in Selma.

On March 1, James Bevel proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and call for voting rights. King endorsed the march, but the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee felt it was a grandstanding move that wouldn’t benefit the blacks of Selma.

Wallace then issued a declaration that the march, planned for March 7, “cannot and will not be tolerated” and ordered state troopers to do whatever they needed to prevent it.

The SCLC leaders asked for medical volunteers from the Medical Committee for Human Rights, just in case, and figuring they would not be allowed to march to Montgomery, planned to kneel and pray when ordered to turn around, filling the jails and pressuring the government.

A group of about 70 Concerned White Citizens of Alabama went to Selma on March 6 to demonstrate in favor of black voting rights. Baker managed to extricate them from furious segregationists and lead them away.

After morning services at Brown Chapel on March 7, about 600 marchers lined up behind SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC President John Lewis to head to the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, for the trek along U.S. 80 to Montgomery.

Baker was so concerned about what Clark’s men and the state troopers might do that he urged Smitherman to let him arrest the demonstrators before they left the city limits at the bridge, but Smitherman refused. Baker submitted his resignation.

On the county side of the bridge the demonstrators were ordered to turn around, so they knelt as planned. The troopers surged forward, swinging their clubs and firing tear gas and a free-for-all ensued as the troopers chased the demonstrators back through downtown Selma. Roughly 100 of the 600 marchers were injured, and it took Baker’s men half an hour to restore order on the streets of Selma. The events of “Bloody Sunday” were immediately broadcast worldwide. On ABC, footage from Selma interrupted the airing of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”

In response, King went to Selma to start a March 9 march and issued a national call for people to join. But a hearing was planned in Federal court on whether Alabama could legally prevent the demonstration, and an injunction barring a march was issued until a ruling could be made. President Lyndon Johnson also asked King to cancel the march, with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenback calling King every hour.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch of Washington joined 40 area clergy, and Rabbi Israel Dresner, a Freedom Rides veteran who had also been jailed in Albany, headed to Selma.

Rather than disappoint the 2,000 who assembled, King led them to the bridge and went to the point where the March 7 attack took place. About 500 troopers were waiting on the other side. In what became known as “Turn-around Tuesday” King then led everyone back to the church so as not to be drawn into a trap of violating the injunction.

That night, three white ministers who came to the demonstration were attacked by whites who saw them dining at a black restaurant. One of them, Rev. James Reeb of Boston, was severely injured and died two days later in Birmingham.

As daily vigils and demonstrations continued, on March 15 Johnson went on national television to present a draft of the Voting Rights Act.

On March 17, Judge Frank Johnson authorized the Selma to Montgomery march and ordered the state to protect the marchers. An unlimited number of marchers was permitted, until a section of Lowndes County where the road narrowed to two lanes with no shoulders. For that stretch, no more than 300 marchers were permitted. At the Montgomery County, where the road widened, there once again was no limit on the marchers.

When the march took place on March 21, there were 8,000 demonstrators, protected by 2,000 troops. The Alabama National Guard was placed under Federal control. With an Army escort they made their way seven miles to the first campsite, with thousands heading back to Selma because of the restriction in Lowndes County. They would be shuttled back on March 24 when the march crossed into Montgomery County.

The night of March 24, Harry Belafonte organized a major “Stars for Freedom” concert for the marchers.

After covering 54 miles, the march arrived in Montgomery on March 25 where King addressed a crowd of 25,000 on the capitol steps.
That night, a white woman from Detroit who had participated in the march, Viola Liuzzo, was killed by Klansmen after a chase along U.S. 80 between Selma and Montgomery as she was driving demonstrators back to Selma.

On April 18, a Federal court ruled Clark was guilty of interfering with the rights of blacks and prohibited restrictions on voting registration and use of public accommodations. Clark’s “posse” was also found to be illegal, and the judges ordered him to disband it. Another ruling struck down laws against civil rights demonstrations.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965. In 1966, Baker ran against Clark for county sheriff, and won.

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Southern Jewish Life: Not Just Black and White: A Timeline of Selma to Montgomery, 1965
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