The images are iconic: the horses, the tear gas, the billy clubs and bloodied bodies.
It was March 7, 1965, when ordinary, working-class citizens were brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama law enforcement during a march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery in support of voting rights. The violent assault on nonviolent protesters would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
It would be a day etched into the history of this nation and into the souls of those who were there on that tragic day. Those like John Rankin, a retired steel worker, who was a high school junior on Bloody Sunday and participated in the march despite his mother’s protests.
But he was determined.
“We weren’t treated right,” says Rankin. “We didn’t have the right to vote. We didn’t have the right to go to any restaurants. We couldn’t get the type of jobs we were qualified for.”
Mae Richmond can relate. She lived it too.
“As children, we saw the discrimination,” says Richmond, a former social worker. She remembers the separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; sitting in the balcony of movie theaters while whites sat up front; and receiving 2-year-old used schoolbooks that had been passed down to black students. “When we wanted to order food from different restaurants, we couldn’t order from inside the restaurants,” she says. “We had to stand outside under a shed while whites sat at the table and ate.”
That was Selma in 1965. Like so many cities in the Deep South, the brutal system of segregation relegated black Americans to second-class citizenship. But activists such as Amelia Boynton had been working for years in the struggle for freedom and justice.
Co-founder of the Dallas County Voters League, Boynton understood the power of the vote and contacted Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to assist in their voter-registration campaign. King arrived in Selma and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the fight for black voting rights.
Then Jimmie Lee Jackson died. His family was participating in a march to protest the arrest of SCLC member James Orange when state troopers attacked the crowd. Jackson, a 26-year-old former soldier and church deacon, was shot trying to protect his mother from being beaten.
Enough was enough. Civil rights leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and in support of voting rights. And on March 7, Rankin joined hundreds of others at Brown’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and began the journey to Montgomery. His father, an Alabama preacher, assured him that the Lord would protect him.
“My daddy said, ‘God will take care of you,’” remembers Rankin.