Tear gas, billy clubs, chaos.
Those were the words that Washingtonians awoke to on March 8, 1965 when they picked up their copy of the Washington Post. A peaceful march in far-away Selma, Ala. — where black civil rights organizers were battling white local officials for the right to register to vote — had ended in violence. Police officers descended on the marchers, deploying tear gas and beating men, women and children.
According the wire reports carried by the paper, more than 600 marchers had been walking across the bridge. Some were singing songs. Others were praying. Then officers on horseback descended on them. Almost 100 people were hospitalized with serious injuries.
On page A3, the articles continued, and included a photo of a young civil rights leader named John Lewis being beaten by an Alabama State Trooper. (Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, recently reminisced about Selma.)
The following day, the story pressed on. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had called for clergy to join the marches — prompting ministers from around the nation, many of them white, to travel to Alabama. Meanwhile, protests began here in D.C.
According to a March 9, 1965 piece by Post staffer Richard L. Lyons, 175 people picketed at the Department of Justice. Three of them attempted to enter the Attorney General’s office, and one had to be physically dragged away. Later in the day, another 25 people staged a sit-in at AG Nicholas Katzenbach’s office, and several Democratic members of Congress issued statements of outrage. Rep. James O’Hara, a Democrat from Michigan, declared that the beatings of the marchers were a “storm trooper action taken a the direction of a ruthless demagogue,” referring to Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
By now, hundreds more demonstrators had begun arriving in Selma at King’s request. A second march was planned. State officials instructed King and the others not to go on with the march. Federal officials declined to directly intervene.
But as the civil rights leaders joined with their newfound allies for a second march, things did not quite go as planned. Once the group of marchers made it partially across the bridge, MLK decided against continuing toward the police officers. It didn’t feel right.
By the next day, plans for yet another march had begun. But officials in Selma were no more happy about this one then they had been about the others. Meanwhile, congressional leaders began scrambling with drafts of a new voting rights bill.
Plans for a third Selma march took weeks. In the meantime, thousands gathered in Washington. The push to undo Jim Crow laws preventing minority voting was gaining real momentum.
As D.C. continued to debate voting rights legislation, a federal judge in Alabama ruled that MLK and his marchers had the right to protest. The third Selma to Montgomery march could not be stopped by local police.
And so, on March 21, the civil rights marchers began their 50-mile trip to Montgomery. This time, no officers, police dogs, tear gas, or billy clubs would stop them.
– Masuma Ahuja contributed to this report