On Saturday, thousands—including President Barack Obama—will descend on the tiny town of Selma, Ala., to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march so vividly depicted in the film directed by Ava DuVernay.
The march—the first of three attempts that would ultimately end at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery—became a key moment in the civil rights movement after images of marchers being brutally beaten by Alabama law enforcement were broadcast around the world. The violence would prod President Lyndon B. Johnson into calling for a Voting Rights Act, and on Aug. 6, 1965, the bill was signed into law.
The commemoration Saturday should serve as a reminder that voting rights are more important than ever. Here are five things you should know about the Selma movement:
1. Selma residents were working on voting rights long before Martin Luther King Jr. decided to go there. In Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, historian Gary May notes that in the 1930s, Samuel Boynton and his wife, Amelia, joined with C.J. Adams—the head of the local chapter of the NAACP—and other local residents to revive the Dallas County Voters League, which was founded in 1926 to encourage black Selma residents to register to vote, but had shut down after years of futility.
2. The youth activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had almost written off organizing in Selma … until Bernard Lafayette Jr. decided to take on the challenge. In his book, May recounts how the 21-year-old Fisk University student, who had cut his activist teeth during the Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, went to SNCC’s Atlanta offices looking for a new assignment. SNCC Executive Secretary James Forman showed Lafayette a map covered with pins indicating cities in the South where the movement was active. Selma was covered with an “X.” Forman told Lafayette that SNCC had abandoned the city because organizing voters there “was too hard,” according to May. Instead, Lafayette saw an opportunity.
In February 1963, he came to Selma and began working with the DCVL and other local residents to help prepare black Selma residents to overcome the barriers that county officials had put in place to deny blacks the right to register. More important, Lafayette began recruiting Selma’s young people into the movement. By the time King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Selma to focus on a voting-rights campaign, a firm foundation for the movement was in place.
3. The movement hijacked the symbolic history of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Who was Edmund Pettus? He was an Alabama native who served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After his side lost, he led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and was later elected to the U.S. Senate. Given the Klan’s history of terrorizing African Americans, it’s only fitting that a bridge named after one of its leaders is now forever known as a national historic landmark in tribute to the civil rights movement.
4. The day the Voting Rights Act was signed wasn’t an arbitrary date. When King and other Selma activists joined Johnson at the White House for the signing of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, the day’s historical significance may have been lost to some. On that day in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Confiscation Act—the first of two—which freed all slaves who were being used by the Confederacy. The acts were a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in rebel states.
5. The Selma movement helped give birth to the Black Panther Party. At the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., 23-year-old SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael decided to head to Lowndes County, Ala.—where 80 percent of the population was black but where there were zero black registered voters—to build a new political party. He formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which used the black panther as its symbol. In October 1966, Carmichael, who was now head of SNCC and a leading voice of the black power movement, was a keynote speaker at a conference in Berkeley, Calif. In attendance were Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who would adopt the black-panther logo of the LCFO for a new organization they were forming in Oakland, Calif.