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.
John Lewis of the SNCC—now a Georgia congressman—and Hosea Williams of the SCLC led the march. As the crowd made its way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it was met by state troopers commanded by Sheriff Jim Clark, known for his notoriously violent tactics. The marchers were ordered to turn around, but when they didn’t, state troopers charged ahead, beating the protesters with billy clubs and spraying tear gas. Some troopers chased the marchers on horses.
“I will never forget how scared I was,” says Rankin. “Everybody was afraid. I thought maybe I was going to lose my life that day on Bloody Sunday, going across that bridge.”
Richmond was scared, too. She was 13 and wearing a brand-new coat her mother had bought her. “As children, we didn’t really think that anything was going to happen,” she says.
The state troopers had bullhorns, she remembers. The marchers were ordered to turn around and told they could not continue the march. The march leaders instructed marchers to kneel down and pray. “As we kneeled down and prayed, they threw tear gas at us, one right beside me,” says Richmond. “We couldn’t see. I ended up under the bridge.”
Leaders shouted for everyone to get back to Brown’s Chapel. Helicopters flew overhead and horses were everywhere, she remembers. “We were running, trying to get back to the church and people were opening their doors so we could run into their houses. I heard someone say, ‘They’re killing us over here,’” Richmond recalls.
Former school guidance counselor Sadie Moss didn’t even make it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Her family headed in that direction after Mass that Sunday and got no further than the foot of the bridge when they saw the tear gas and horses. “I ran back to a building at the foot of the bridge and got between some brick pillars to keep the horses from trampling on me,” says Moss, 73. “A man shielded me with his body.”
That day she vowed to stay in the struggle for freedom.
“I thought, ‘We can’t give up. We must keep fighting.’ That’s what was running through my mind,” says Moss.
The Rev. James Perkins Jr. was 12 years old on Bloody Sunday. His family was at home when his mother, an emergency room nurse, got a call to the medical facility that treated black patients. Young James ran toward Brown’s Chapel. He would never forget that scene, he says. “I saw people being beaten with long sticks. I learned later that they were billy clubs and cattle prods,” says Perkins. “To have witnessed this and to now understand what was driving and motivating people to treat people this way, it’s painful.”
He ran into a nearby resident’s home and stayed there until the melee died down. Afterward he went to Brown’s Chapel where some of the injured marchers had gathered. “I remember the fear in their eyes and the smell of gas in their clothes and their hair,” says Perkins. “People were more than injured.”
He says Bloody Sunday changed his life.
It also changed the hearts and minds of a nation. On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. In 2000 Perkins became the first African-American mayor of Selma. His last term ended in 2008, when Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president.
This weekend, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will be in Selma to recognize the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Generations of civil rights leaders will also be there to remember that tragic moment in history. Perkins, too, will be at the bridge for a re-enactment of the event. So will Sadie Moss, Mae Richmond and John Rankin.
“People really don’t understand what was given up, what was sacrificed to gain the right to vote,” says Perkins. “To see how the vote is undervalued by people now, it hurts.”
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Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.