Selma’s ‘tragic event’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 7, 2004

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, more than 600 protestors attempted to cross the bridge and march to Montgomery to bring attention to the cause for voting rights among black citizens in Selma and nationwide.

Led by Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they started six blocks from the Edmund Pettus. Crossing the apex of the bridge, they saw a phalanx of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies. About 75 feet from the Montgomery side of the bridge, they were ordered to disperse by Trooper Major John Cloud.

When they continued, troopers attempted to push them back with nightsticks.

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According to reports from March 8, 1965, in The Selma Times-Journal several marchers and troopers fell and &uot;violence erupted.&uot;

Marchers knew there might be trouble.

This week, one of the march’s leaders, the Rev. F.D. Reese spoke about that day on the bridge.

Troopers and what The Times-Journal described at the time as &uot;possemen&uot; beat and trampled the marchers with horses, some of whom were women and children.

At one point during the attack several protestors stopped to pray, while state and county authorities bombarded them with tear gas grenades.

They drove the protesters back across the bridge into Brown Chapel with what the STJ described as &uot;sporadic clubbing and jabbing.&uot;

The Times-Journal described a brief incident of retaliation:

Only after the streets were cleared did the Sheriff’s Office and the state troopers allow ambulances to transport the wounded to the hospital.

After the marchers were driven into George Washington Carver Homes, Public Safety Director Wilson Baker exchanged words with Sheriff Jim Clark. Baker told the sheriff the streets were quiet and he saw no need for a continued &uot;show&uot; of force.

Fifty-six marchers were sent to the Good Samaritan Hospital &045; Selma’s black hospital &045; with an assortment of injuries.

Doctors from all over the area

many of them white

gathered at the hospital to treat the wounded.

The emergency room logbook of the hospital describes these injuries and their source:

The beatings drew national attention.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to come to Selma after he heard about the march, calling it a &uot;tragic event.&uot; He said he had &uot;no alternative but to recommend … the Negro people of Alabama to continue in their determined effort to walk to Montgomery.&uot;

Two days after the march, dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday,’ King led a symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

President Lyndon Johnson forbade King and other protestors to march, citing an impediment to traffic.

The protestors took the case to court and U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson ruled in their favor, clearing the way for the successful trip.

Finally, on March 21, 1965, 3,200 marchers started out from Selma and marched to Montgomery. During the event, which lasted four days, a contingent of Alabama National Guardsmen federalized by President Lyndon Johnson served as protection.

By the time the group got to Montgomery, more than 25,000 people had joined them.

Reese was among those marchers.

Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a direct result of Bloody Sunday and subsequent marches. The act forbade literacy tests, poll taxes and other disenfranchising techniques, giving all citizens of the United States the right to vote.