March 7, 1965: Selma, Alabama becomes a flashpoint in the Civil Rights Movement. A crowd estimated at 600 people were determined to march from Selma to the State capital of Montgomery, 54 miles away, to demand a Voting Rights Act to follow the Civil Rights Act of the previous year.
The march was led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The marches reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, carrying U.S. Route 80 over the Alabama River. Built in 1940, the bridge was already heavy with symbolism: Pettus was a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, and later an official in the Ku Klux Klan. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1896, and served until his death in 1907.
By 1965, Pettus was virtually unknown outside Alabama, but the bridge named for him became a landmark.
When the marchers got to the other side of the bridge, State Troopers were waiting for them. Their commanding officer, John Cloud, ordered them to disband. Williams tried to speak to him, but was shoved. The Troopers then moved forward, shoved other demonstrators, and began beating them with their nightsticks. Tear gas was fired. Mounted Troopers charged.
Williams escaped serious injury. Lewis did not: He sustained a fractured skull. (That's him in the overcoat, in the middle of the photograph above.) Amelia Boynton, another organizer of the march, was beaten unconscious. Television cameras captured it all: The horses, the shoving, the beating, the gas. There were 67 injuries, including 17 people admitted to hospitals. Incredibly, no one died. But the event became known as Bloody Sunday.
There have been many "Bloody Sundays" in human history:
* Many of them have involved the struggle for Ireland: An 1887 police attack on a demonstration in London, a 1920 battle between the Irish Republican Army and undercover British intelligence agents in Dublin, a 1921 Loyalist massacre in Belfast, and a 1972 British Army shooting of protesters in Derry City.
* Some of them were in connection with the labor movement: A police charge during the 1911 Liverpool transit strike, the Everett Massacre in Washington State in 1916, police attacking a steelworkers' strike in Nova Scotia in 1923.
* Probably the best-known one outside the English-speaking world was in St. Petersburg, leading to the failed Russian Revolution of 1905.
This was America's Bloody Sunday. March 9 was "Turnaround Tuesday." Dr. Martin Luther King led marchers over the bridge, then, faced with another phalanx of State Troopers, turned them around and marched back. That night 4 KKK members attacked the 3 white Unitarian Universalist ministers who had been assisting the black marchers. One of them, the Rev. James Reeb, died from his injuries on March 11.
On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, demanding the Voting Rights Act that the marchers wanted. This white Southerner, once an opponent of civil rights, had made a complete turnaround, and told the nation, "It is not just Negroes, but, really, it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
On March 17, the bill for the Act was introduced in Congress. The same day, a federal judge ruled that the marchers had the legal right to proceed, and that the government of the State of Alabama, through any of its law enforcement agencies, could not interfere.
On March 21, 2 Sundays after the 1st attempt, the marchers, led by Dr. King, tried again. Among the celebrities who joined the march were black singers Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone, and Hispanic singer Joan Baez -- but also white singers Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary (Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers). Many of those had been at the March On Washington a year and a half earlier.
On March 25, the march reached the State Capitol, where Dr. King said, "I know you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."
That night, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white mother of 5 from Detroit was driving marchers back to Selma, as she had volunteered to do. A car full of Klansmen pulled up to her, and shot her. The KKK had no respect for the dead, especially those they murdered: They said she was a registered member of the Communist Party who had abandoned her white children in the North to have sex with black men in the South. It was a total lie.
On July 15, Barry McGuire recorded "Eve of Destruction," a song written by P.F. Sloan. The 4th and last verse contains these lines, invoking strife foreign and domestic:
Think of all the hate
there is in Red China
then take a look around
to Selma, Alabama.
You may leave here
for four days in space
but when you return
it's the same old place.
Some things did change: On August 6, 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Some things didn't change: On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In 1975, his widow, Coretta Scott King, led 4,000 marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the march.
In 1986, John Lewis was elected to Congress from a district in Atlanta. In 1995, Lewis led a 30th Anniversary march. In 1996, with the Olympics set for Atlanta, the Olympic torch was carried over the bridge. In 2015, on the 50th Anniversary, Lewis, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Barack Obama (the 1st black President), Michelle Obama (the 1st black First Lady, and she and her husband flanked Lewis and held hands with him), and George W. Bush (whose record on race relations as Governor of Texas and then as President was, to put it politely, less than stellar), led a new march, of 40,000 people.
Mrs. Robinson died later that year. Hosea Williams had died in 2000. On July 17, 2020, John Lewis died at age 80, having served in Congress for 33 years. On July 26, a horse-drawn carriage carried his coffin over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and he lay in state at the Alabama State Capitol. The coffin was flown back to Washington, where it lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on July 27 and 28.
March 7, 1965 was a Sunday, but it was during the NFL's (and, given that this was the 1960s, also the AFL's) off-season. And baseball was in its Spring Training, so there were no regular-season games in that sport, either. There were, however, 4 games played in the NBA that day:
* The New York Knicks lost to the St. Louis Hawks, 132-106 at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. The Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968. The Auditorium was torn down in 1992, and the St. Louis Blues' new arena, now named the Enterprise Center, opened on the site in 1994.
* What was then the NBA's biggest rivalry was played at the Boston Garden. The Boston Celtics of Bill Russell beat the Philadelphia 76ers of Wilt Chamberlain, 133-111. A month later, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics beat the Sixers when John Havlicek stole the ball on the final play, the most famous defensive play in the sport's history.
* The Baltimore Bullets beat the Detroit Pistons, 111-105 at the Baltimore Civic Center. The Bullets moved to Washington in 1973, and changed their name to the Washington Wizards in 1997. The Civic Center still stands, under the name of the Royal Farms Arena.
* And the Los Angeles Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor beat the Cincinnati Royals of Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, 106-104 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The Lakers would reach the NBA Finals in 1965, but lose them to the Celtics. They moved to the Forum in Inglewood in 1967 and the Staples Center in downtown L.A. in 1999. The L.A. Sports Arena was demolished in 2016, and in 2018, the new home of soccer's Los Angeles FC, Banc of California Stadium, opened on the site. The Royals became the Kansas City Kings in 1972 and the Sacramento Kings in 1985.
* There were 9 teams in the NBA at the time. The San Francisco Warriors, who became the Golden State Warriors in 1971, were not scheduled for that day.
All 6 teams then in the NHL were in action on March 7, 1965:
* The New York Rangers lost to the Detroit Red Wings, 6-5 at the old Madison Square Garden.
* The Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs played to a 3-3 tie at the Boston Garden. In other words, the old barn on Causeway Street hosted games by the Celtics and the Bruins on the same day.
* And the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Canadiens, 7-0 at Chicago Stadium. In spite of this result, the Canadiens would beat the Hawks in that season's Stanley Cup Finals.
There is one more game that took place on that day that should be mentioned. The U.S. national soccer team was in qualification, through CONCACAF -- the governing body for soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean region -- for the 1966 World Cup in England.
The U.S. was placed in a group with Mexico and Honduras. We got a 1-0 win and a 1-1 draw with Honduras, but only a 2-2 draw and a 2-0 loss with Mexico. Had that 2-2 draw with Mexico at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on March 7, 1965 been a 3-2 win, we would have advanced to the round-robin with Costa Rica and Jamaica.
Could we have won that? We'll never know. We still would have had to beat Mexico out for the one and only berth in the World Cup awarded to CONCACAF.
But even if we had won that game with Mexico, it would not have been the biggest story of the day. The Selma-to-Montgomery March was a story that should be remembered for all time.