NBC's Rehema Ellis interviews Congressman John Lewis, Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, and others about the day known as "Bloody Sunday," when brutal police attacks on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama shocked the nation.
Civil Rights March in Selma
ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, co-host: It was only 35 years ago this weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a historic march out of Selma, Alabama. This was the second American Revolution, the fight for the right to vote. NBC's Rehema Ellis takes us back to the battleground.
President BILL CLINTON: I thank you all for what you did here.
REHEMA ELLIS reporting:
What they did here in the early '60s was stage a revolution, a nonviolent coup of a way of life. The right to vote was a major goal.
Policeman: All of you demonstrators are under arrest.
ELLIS: And Selma was one of the battlegrounds. Joe Smitherman was first elected mayor in 1964. Thirty-six years later, he's still the mayor.
Mayor JOE SMITHERMAN: Blacks were not allowed to vote. They might allow one out of a hundred, or maybe at times if they felt they could control that black vote. We had around 10 or 11,000 white voters in the county and we only had about 250 black voters.
ELLIS: In January, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived to turn up the heat. John Lewis was a young disciple of Dr. King.
Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Selma was a sleepy little town that had a sheriff that wore a button on his left lapel that said “never,” never to voter registration, never to integration. Very mean man by the name of Jim Clark. He wore a gun on one side, a nightstick on the other side and he carried an electric cow prodder in his hand. He didn't use it on cows.
ELLIS: Demonstrations were greeted with mass arrests. Then, that February, during one demonstration in nearby Marion, Alabama, police shot a young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson. He died one week later.
Rep. LEWIS: And because of what happened to him, we made a decision that we would march from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation, to the world and to the State of Alabama that people wanted to register to vote.
ELLIS: In 1965, Brown's chapel became the epicenter of the voting rights drive that turned its focus to Selma. On this Sunday morning, people gather to remember another Sunday not so long ago, when 600 people marched out of this church and into history.
Rep. LEWIS: I thought we were going to be arrested, I really did. But when we got out there, I didn't see any paddy wagons. So, I had the feeling that something was going to happen.
ELLIS: You got, really, over the little crest of the bridge and then what did you see?
Rep. LEWIS: When we got over the bridge, we saw a sea of blue, Alabama state troopers. A man identified himself and said, “I'm Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march and it will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.”
Mr. JOHN CLOUD: This march will not continue.
ELLIS: And what did you do?
Rep. LEWIS: We asked for a moment to kneel and pray. And before we could get word to the crowd behind, Major Cloud said, “Troopers, advance.” They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses, releasing their tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I thought I was going to die.
ELLIS: Sheyann Webb Christburg was seven years old in 1965. Unknown to her parents, she had joined the march and was on the bridge that bloody Sunday.
Ms. SHEYANN WEBB CHRISTBURG: As I stood there, my heart was just beating real fast. And all of a sudden I had started running. I could still hear the sirens and the cries of the people who were running, bleeding and falling, trying to make their way back to Brown's Chapel, our church.
ELLIS: Two days later, Dr. King led a second march to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This time, with the eyes of the nation on Selma, there was a tense standoff but no violence. One marcher came from Boston, the Reverend James Reeb.
Rep. LEWIS: That evening he came back and went out with a group of ministers to get something to eat. They were attacked by a group of local whites. He was beaten so severe he died two or three days later.
ELLIS: An outraged President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and 70 million TV viewers, calling for swift passage of a voting rights act.
Rep. LEWIS: One of the most moving statements any American president has made on the whole question of civil rights. He started that speech off that night by saying, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and for the destiny of Democracy.”
President LYNDON JOHNSON: And the destiny of Democracy. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just negroes but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
Rep. LEWIS: In that speech he said over and over again, “And we shall overcome.” I was sitting next to Dr. King as we listened to President Johnson, and tears came down his face. He cried. I think we all cried a little.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: We are in the midst of a great struggle today.
Rep. LEWIS: He was my friend, my brother, my leader, my hero. He said we can all be great because we all can serve.
ELLIS: Four thousand strong. Civil rights and religious leaders, politicians and celebrities in a line over a mile long. A Michigan man with just one leg. All joined by people from around the country to walk the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery and by presidential order under the watchful eye of the army and national guard. At the end, Dr. King gave a memorable speech in the shadow of the Alabama state capitol.
Rep. LEWIS: He spoke from his heart, from his soul, from his gut.
Dr. KING: It will not be long because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long because no lie can live forever.
Rep. LEWIS: You have to use the vote. And what convinced me long ago that the vote was so powerful is people fought so hard to keep us from using it.
ELLIS: For Today, Rehema Ellis, NBC News, Selma, Alabama.
In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Selma, Alabama the focus of its efforts to register black voters in the South. That March, protesters attempting to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery were met with violent resistance by state and local authorities. As the world watched, the protesters (under the protection of federalized National Guard troops) finally achieved their goal, walking around the clock for three days to reach Montgomery. The historic march, and King’s participation in it, greatly helped raise awareness of the difficulty faced by black voters in the South, and the need for a Voting Rights Act, passed later that year.