The ‘Dreamer’ Leads March to Montgomery

50 YEARS AGO – After several failed attempts, American civil rights activist and preacher Martin Luther King Jr began a successful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, United States, on March 21, 1965. The protesters could not reach Montgomery until March 25 because the authorities had prevented them at a time America was being consumed by racism. Despite the Civil rights Act enacted in 1964, which prohibited discrimination in voting on the basis of race, black voters were not allowed to register and vote at elections in southern states such as Alabama.

King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was the “dreamer” who led the march: “I have a dream” was a recurring phrase in his famous March-on-Washington address of August 28, 1963. By March 1965, he had become an international figure. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made efforts to register black voters in Selma, but Alabama governor George was a notorious opponent of desegregation, and the local county sheriff in Dallas County had led a steadfast opposition to black voter registration drives. Consequently, only 300 out of 15,000 of Selma’s eligible black voters (2%) had managed to register.

On February 18, 1965, white segregationists attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators in the nearby town of Marion. In the ensuing chaos, an Alabama state trooper fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American demonstrator. In response to Jackson’s death, King and the SCLC planned a massive protest march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery.

A group of 600 people set out on Sunday, March 7, but didn’t get far before Alabama state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas rushed the group at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and beat them back to Selma. The brutal scene was captured on television, enraging many Americans and drawing civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest. The world watched.

King himself led another attempt on March 9, but turned the marchers around when state troopers again blocked the road. That night, a group of segregationists beat another protester, the young white minister James Reeb, to death. Alabama state officials (led by Wallace) tried to prevent the march from going forward, but a U.S. district court judge ordered them to permit it. President Lyndon Johnson also backed the marchers, going on national television to pledge his support and lobby for passage of new voting rights legislation he was introducing in Congress.

On March 17, 1965, even as the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers fought for the right to carry out their protest, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for federal voting rights legislation to protect African Americans from barriers that prevented them from voting.

Some 2,000 people set out from Selma on March 21, protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces that Johnson had ordered under federal control. After walking some 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields along the way, they reached Montgomery, 54 miles from Selma, on March 25.

Nearly 50,000 supporters – black and white – met the marchers in Montgomery, where they gathered in front of the state capitol to hear King and other speakers including Ralph Bunche (winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize) address the crowd. “No tide of racism can stop us,” King proclaimed from the building’s steps, as viewers from around the world watched the historic moment on television.

The march on Montgomery had lasting impact. In August 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed the right to vote (first awarded by the 15th Amendment) to all African Americans. Specifically, the act banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used, and gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes for state and local elections.

Along with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. Its effects greatly reduced the disparity between black and white voters in the U.S. and allowed a greater number of African Americans to enter political life at the local, state and national level.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but his dream of a non-racial America materialised later on. The ultimate desegregation of the United States was the election of Barack Obama as president in November 2008. Obama, born of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white American mother, has remained America’s president since January 20, 1989.


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