History Timeline 1960's

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U.S. Timeline - The 1960s

Civil Rights and Turmoil

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  • 1965 - Detail

    March 25, 1965 - Martin Luther King speaks at a civil rights rally on the courthouse steps of the Alabama State Capitol, ending the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march for voting rights.

    Selma March 1965

    The speech may not be as well known and quoted as the 1963 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. known as "I Have a Dream," spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but its impact and words have much the same power. On the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, after Civil Rights and Voting Rights followers and supporters had walked fifty-four miles from Selma, King spoke to the time it would take to gain the voting rights and Civil Rights that were deserved of every man and woman. It has become known as the "How Long, Not Long," speech. And one not long aspect to the speech and its power to move legislatures was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law only five months later on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    There were twenty-five thousand people gathered to hear the words after a March precipitated by violence but enacted with peaceful purpose. What had started out with eight thousand now swelled, matching the oratory.

    The speech had power from its opening paragraph, "My dear and abiding friends, Ralph Abernathy, and to all of the distinguished Americans seated here on the rostrum, my friends and co-workers of the state of Alabama, and to all of the freedom-loving people who have assembled here this afternoon from all over our nation and from all over the world: Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. (Audience speaking) Our bodies are tired and our fee are somewhat sore."

    At the end of the speech, King echoed the words that the speech became called, "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It was followed by the words of the song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

    To read the full speech.

    Selma to Montgomery March

    While the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the culmination of a march, the march itself was the push that, in many ways, the Civil Rights movement needed to continue toward equality. This march was actually the third Selma march. The first, on March 7, led by John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams, had ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with peaceful marchers beaten by state troopers. The event, televised to the nation, began to rally regular citizens to the rights that the five to six hundred protesters were marching for. The second march, Turnaround Tuesday, to be held on March 9, was halted when a federal judge issued a restraining order to the marchers awaiting a further hearing. However, the march continued to the Pettus bridge with King in the lead of two thousand five hundred marchers for a prayer vigil, but turned around before continuing to Montgomery, thus obeying the order and arrangement made with representatives of President Johnson. Although there was no violence during this march, that evening, Reverend James Reeb, a white minister, was killed by KKK members while walking down a Selma street. He had been there for the march.

    On March 17, 1954, Judge Frank Minis Johnson lifted the restraining order on the march, "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . ... These rights may ... be exercised by marching, even along public highways."

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    Two days before the ruling, President Johnson sent his voting rights bill to Congress and addressed the nation on television in a special call to Congress. He called the first march to Selma a call for action akin to Appomattox in the Civil War.

    On March 20, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and told them to escort the marchers along the route from Selma to Montgomery. On Sunday, March 21, eight thousand marchers assembled at Brown Chapel, A.M.E. Church and began the march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and James Forman. After the first day, marchers obeyed the Judge's order to limit the march to three hundred until they reached Montgomery County. The marchers again swelled to thousands, reaching the Alabama State Capitol Building on March 25 with twenty-five thousand gathered to hear King's speech.

    Today you can visit the length of the march along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. This National Park Service unit has interpretive centers in Selma (opened in 2011 and next to the Edmund Pettus Bridge) and White Hall (Lowndes Interpretive Center which opened in 2006). An upcoming interpretive center is planned in Montgomery on the campus of Alabama State University and expected to open in 2020.

    Photo above: Exhibit at the Lowndes Interpretive Center along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Courtesy National Park Service. Photo below: President Johnson and Reverend Martin Luther King at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 1965, Yoichi Okamoto, Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Info source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford; National Park Service; U.S. Department of Justice; Wikipedia Commons.

    1965 Voting Rights Act

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