Looking Back on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma

This week marks the 49th anniversary of the clash between marchers and police that made Rep. John Lewis a civil rights hero and forced LBJ to respond.

Police attack Selma-to-Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965.
Police attack Selma-to-Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965. AMERICASLIBRARY.GOV/FBI

The movement struggled to find its way in the immediate aftermath of that terrible Sunday’s violence. From the outside, King’s voting-rights crusade seemed poised for defeat. Internally, activists debated and fought among themselves over which direction to go. The government struggled to respond and react to events on the ground that seemed to outpace bureaucratic vision and political imagination.

Almost a half-century later, we remain more comfortable discussing historical landmarks that ultimately serve as signposts for political victories and defeats.

The movement’s internal challenges and the nation’s collective ambivalence about—if not outright hostility toward—the very ideal of racial equality is a part of the civil rights story that deserves additional reflection. Today, which falls between Bloody Sunday and LBJ’s “Moral Monday” speech, we have the opportunity do more than simply commemorate; we can also contemplate the struggles that led up to the game-changing historical moments that we more frequently study, discuss and debate.

These struggles exemplify the way in which, contrary to popular belief, social movements do not move in a straight line. More often they proceed in fits and starts, lurching inelegantly toward victories and defeats in ways that confound supporters and opponents alike. But in this chaotic atmosphere of social change lies the beauty of political struggle and resistance, even when—like those valiant, nonviolent soldiers in Selma—their future remains unknown.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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