The Civil Rights Movement
In 1954 King settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had accepted an appointment as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The following year he was able to put his theory of nonviolent resistance to the test. In December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle- aged, African American seamstress, was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. The next evening leaders of the African American community met in King’s church. Under his leadership they organized a boycott of the bus system that lasted more than a year. Before it ended, King’s home was firebombed, and he was jailed for the first of many times. Ultimately, however, the boycott was successful and King emerged as a national figure in the Civil Rights movement, which mobilized millions of people to break down the barriers to racial equality.
Shortly after the boycott, African American clergymen organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and made King its president. King used the SCLC to organize high-visibility, nonviolent campaigns against discriminatory practices, hoping that exposing the evils of racism would arouse national consciousness against its debilitating effects. One of the most famous of his campaigns was a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, in which his supporters faced powerful opposition while exercising their right to protest their grievances and express their determination to vote.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified in 1870 to prohibit states from denying male African American citizens their right to vote. For nearly a century, however, African Americans in the South who attempted to register to vote had encountered state election laws designed to disfranchise them. In 1958 King led a voter registration drive in the South in order to increase the numbers of African American voters for the 1960 presidential elections. Seeing the right to vote as the key to lasting change in race relations, King chastised African Americans for their political apathy. He warned that they would remain voiceless victims of the political system unless they exercised the fundamental right to express their political preferences at the ballot box.
The effect of King’s registration drive was minimal. The voting booth remained off-limits for most African Americans in the South, until March 7, 1965. On that day—which historians have dubbed “Bloody Sunday”—approximately seven hundred Selma African Americans, with King’s support, began a fifty-four mile trek to Montgomery to dramatize their challenge to Alabama’s discriminatory election laws. Shortly after starting out, they met state troopers who ordered them to return. Instead, with heads bowed in prayer, they continued. Television cameras captured images of state troopers attacking marchers with billy clubs, whips, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. The next day television audiences watched in horror as defenseless men and women fell to the ground covered with blood.
The response to “Bloody Sunday” was immediate and overwhelming. Thousands of Americans abruptly converged on Selma to support the marchers. Members of Congress from both political parties were deluged with mail and telephone calls condemning the violence, and demonstrators converged on the White House demanding that President Lyndon B. Johnson send federal troops to Selma. On Monday evening, March 15, the president made an impassioned appeal for civil rights legislation that would guarantee that no one would be denied the right to vote because of race. Two days later a federal district judge lifted an injunction against another planned march from Selma to Montgomery. Then the president, after nationalizing the Alabama National Guard, sent military police and other federal officials to Selma. The following Sunday, more than three thousand people resumed the march to Montgomery.
They arrived on March 24. The following day, King led what had swollen into a jubilant...
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