Fifty years ago, Alabama’s shame was broadcast around the world.
On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 civil rights marchers walked east out of Selma. They made it six blocks before reaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On that bridge, state troopers and local lawmen — including 21 white males deputized that morning by the Dallas County sheriff — attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back. Seventeen of the marchers were hospitalized.
In the most literal sense, the march was a failure. The group’s destination was 54 miles beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
In a far more important sense, of course, it was a profound success. A photograph of the unconscious body of Amelia Boynton, beaten and lying at the side of the road, was broadcast around the world. The United States was forced to confront the ugliness that dwelled in Alabama.
Eight days after the protesters were attacked, President Lyndon B. Johnson — a Texas native — convened a joint session of Congress to outline legislation that later became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the marchers’ third attempt to reach Montgomery, the federal government did what then-Gov. George Wallace refused to do. A federal judge ordered protection for the marchers. President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 army troops to escort the marchers from Selma. The marchers made it to the steps of the state capitol building on March 25, 1965.
“Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the marchers and the world. “If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”
Alabama and the nation desperately want Bloody Sunday to be a relic of history, not one step in a continuing battle for racial equality. The U.S. Supreme Court said as much in 2013, when it struck the portion of the Voting Rights Act that required Alabama and other states to obtain federal approval before changing election laws. The disparate treatment of states with a history of discriminatory voting laws, the court said, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
Sadly, Alabama is proving the Supreme Court wrong. The Legislature’s redistricting efforts successfully minimized the representation of black citizens in the Statehouse. Laws advertised as necessary to eliminate imaginary voter fraud have the real effect of keeping blacks from the polls. For every dollar that white households in Alabama make, black households make 59 cents. The unemployment rate for blacks seeking jobs is double that of whites. Because of the dramatic income disparity, the state’s regressive tax structure penalizes blacks more than whites.
Alabama lawmakers continue to embrace intolerance, justifying it with cries of “state rights.” The Legislature continues to pass laws that shift tax dollars from public to private schools, a tactic used with success in the 1960s to circumvent court-ordered desegregation.
Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Alabama senator, also was the Grand Dragon of the state’s Ku Klux Klan chapter.
Pettus is dead and buried, but Alabama remains in his shadow.
The battle continues. For how long? The answer is no clearer than it was in 1965.
“How long?” King intoned to Alabama and the world from outside a hostile Statehouse. “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”