The 1965 Civil Rights March That Changed Everything

March 21, 1965

Walter Dobyne intends to make it all the way from Selma to Montgomery this time. The 18-year-old student who was arrested with other voting rights activists in Marion, Alabama, in February and tear-gassed two weeks ago on Bloody Sunday now stands with some 3,600 other would-be marchers outside Selma’s Brown Chapel. This time, they will not be defying a court order when they embark upon the five-day 54-mile journey; Judge Frank M. Johnson, who had previously banned the march, has issued an injunction allowing it to go forward.

In his decision, Judge Johnson blasted Jim Clark, finding the local sheriff, along with his deputies and possemen, had engaged in “an almost continuous pattern of conduct… of harassment, intimidation, coercion, threatening conduct, and, sometimes, brutal mistreatment.” To prevent a recurrence of the Bloody Sunday brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and to ensure safe passage through inhospitable counties, the judge ordered both the State of Alabama and the federal government to provide marchers with protection. One thousand U.S soldiers have been called to Selma. Army helicopters fly overhead.

After promising to call in the state’s National Guard, Governor George Wallace changed his mind and passed the buck. “I intend to call on the “President of the United States to provide sufficient officers to guarantee the safety and welfare of citizens in and around the route,” he said. “The federal government has created this matter, they can help protect them.”

An angry President Lyndon Johnson then nationalized the Guard, mobilizing 2,500 troops. “Now why in the hell didn’t you stand up like a man and say what you were going to do to begin with?” he asked the governor.

Despite the presence of the soldiers, a safe march is not assured. The majority of white Alabamans remain sympathetic to Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark and hostile to the movement and Dr. King. Just hours before the march is to leave Selma, five time-bombs are discovered in Birmingham. Two are found at black churches, one at a high school, one at the home of a civil rights lawyer, and one at the former home of Dr. King’s brother.

Birmingham is not on the route. The marchers will, however, pass through one of the most violent and racist areas in the country, Lowndes County. Verbal, if not physical, assaults are assured.

Even if the marchers are not harmed, they will endure cold, damp weather. Sleeping and bathroom accommodations will be modest at best for five days. So why is Dobyne, who is not even old enough to vote, so committed to this cause? Engaged originally by the words of Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, he explains that his “eyes were opened” by the death of fellow activist Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of a state trooper and by Bloody Sunday. Before those traumatic events, he was blind to such hatred because he had always had white friends.

George Baker, a white college student from Illinois, is also committed. As he arrives at the church to help organize the departure, he sees “people, people, and more people.” These include civil rights figures, clergy of all faiths, labor leaders, politicians, and the faithful foot-soldiers of the movement.

Judge Johnson would not permit the march to proceed until he received a detailed plan from SCLC. The court-approved itinerary allows all participants to walk the seven-mile leg to the first campsite this Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, however, only 300 will be allowed to march through Lowndes County because the highway narrows to two lanes and a larger crowd could disrupt traffic. On Wednesday, when the highway widens to four lanes, people may again join the procession to Montgomery. The participants must reach the state capital by 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Provisions have been made to ferry supplies and portable bathrooms to the pre-selected roadside campsites. The Medical Committee for Human Rights has volunteered to set up and staff mobile hospitals. Other volunteers will prepare and serve meals.

On the First Day

The march is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but Dr. King does not arrive until 11. He then holds a mass meeting in the church. About two hours later, the crowd departs for Montgomery. “Lining the people up gave me the feeling of organizing a wagon train to go west,” Baker will write.

Dr. King is joined in the front ranks by Dr. Ralph Bunche, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, A. Philip Randolph, Albert Turner, Amelia Boynton, Rev. F.D. Reese, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Episcopal Bishop Richard Millard, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather Cager Lee, and others. Two American flags and a UN flag lead the way. Several cars full of newsmen precede the procession.

As the marchers exit Selma, Sheriff Clark declares, “I’m glad to get rid of the ones who are leaving, but I wish they’d come back and get the rest of them.”

The Selma Times Journal describes the “them” referred to by Clark: “Priests, nuns, ministers and rabbis walked. Beatnik types were there. So were white women, Negro civil rights leaders, a Negro pushing his baby in a stroller. Some were well-dressed, some wore Levis. Some sang freedom songs, some carried placards.”

Several local clerical leaders remain at home, opposed to the march. Catholic Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile says he respects Dr. King but claims “he is trying to divide our people.” The demonstrations, he adds, “are not helping anything at all.” King and the priests and nuns and other “crusaders” from out of state should go home and let Alabamans solve their own problems. “There are certainly things that need correcting,” the archbishop concedes, “but with the sane help of our people, they will be corrected in time.” He does not offer a timetable.

Rev W. Kenneth Goodson, bishop of the Methodist church in the Birmingham area, agrees with his Catholic brother and urges all members of his faith to stay home. “I see this march as doing a great disservice to the cause of human freedom and delaying still further the struggle for reconciliation that surely awaits all who call Alabama home,” he says.

Like Archbishop Toolen and some Southern politicians who consider themselves “moderate,” Rev. Goodson does not voice opposition to the extension of voting rights to African Americans. Rather, he objects to outsiders telling Alabamans how and when they should extend those rights. Ministers and laypeople who have come to Alabama should, he says, “return to their homes where I am sure there is ample responsibility and opportunities for Christian witness and service.”

After helping line up the marchers, Baker drives SCLC organizer Rev. James Bevel’s car to the first campsite. “I left just before (the march) started and got out over the bridge and parked,” he writes in his diary. “White people all along the highway. Army uniforms never looked so great and wonderful and protective.”

The protection is necessary. The white people along the highway spew profanities. Cars with “I Hate N—–s” written on their sides follow the marchers. King receives death threats.

Years later, Andrew Young would share a secret about how he tried to keep Dr. King as safe as possible during protests and marches. “Martin always wore the good preacher blue suit,” he told the makers of the documentary Eyes on the Prize, “and I figured since we couldn’t stop him from marching, we just kind of had to believe it was true when white folks said we all look alike. So everybody that was about Martin’s size and had on a blue suit, I put in the front of the line with him.”

By evening the marchers reach what Baker calls “the promised land.” Canaan is actually a farm owned by the Hall family. “Everyone is tired, happy, joyous, and contented,” writes Baker. Dinner is spaghetti, pork and beans, and coffee.

It is estimated that as many as 8,000 people marched at some time on Sunday. Knowing that only 300 may continue once they reach Lowndes County mid-day Monday, most participants return to Selma before bedtime in cars and buses provided by the organizers. Those who remain sleep on cots or in sleeping bags in two tents, one for men, one for women. King, already suffering a blister that makes him wonder if he will be able to complete the march, stays in a pink-and-white heated house trailer. National Guardsmen protect the camp, as do volunteer security guards from SNCC and other organizations.

The population of Lowndes County is more than 80 percent Black, but whites hold all the power.

The temperature is about thirty degrees when the marchers break camp early the next morning. They reach Lowndes County shortly after noon. By this time Dobyne has moved as close to the front of the line as possible to make sure he is in the select 300 allowed to stay on the road.

In the end, about 280 Black marchers are joined by 20 whites. This mix does not satisfy everyone. When the march reaches the point when only 300 may continue as dictated by the injunction, one African American asks, “Why can’t all the white people go back?”

Andrew Young replies: “We must have at least a small group of white people because, finally, the white people are our protection. Besides, this is not just a Negro movement. We are dramatizing all of America’s problems.”

The population of Lowndes County is more than 80 percent Black, but whites hold all the power. As in other counties throughout the South, the Blacks in Lowndes suffered greatly when Jim Crow laws were enacted. There were more than 5,000 registered African American voters in the county at the turn of the 20th century, but constitutional disenfranchisement through poll taxes and literacy tests drove that number down to a mere 57 in just six years.

The voter registration efforts of SCLC and SNCC in the Black Belt are beginning to pay dividends. In early March, for the first time in many years, four African Americans attempted to register in Lowndes. Within weeks, two had won the right to vote. And shortly before the march, about two dozen residents had—with help from SCLC and the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity—formed the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights.

When the 300 marchers enter Lowndes County, King leads them in singing “We Shall Overcome.” A small plane buzzes ominously overhead. Soon it drops leaflets created by White Citizens’ Action, Inc. of Tuscaloosa. The material calls on whites to engage in “selective hiring, firing, buying, [and] selling,” enforcing economic repercussions upon Blacks for their participation in the movement.

As they continue their journey, the marchers also see a billboard sponsored by the Citizens Council of Louisiana, Inc. showing “Martin Luther King at Communist training school.” (The photograph was actually taken at the interracial Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for movement training and social justice programs.) Ned Touchstone, secretary of the Citizens Council, says his group plans to put up more than 800 of these billboards across the country.

There are hecklers, too. “At about every intersection you passed, there would be a handful of whites out cussing, calling us ‘n—–s’ and stuff, ‘go back to Africa’ and stuff, and every day you put up with that,” remembers Dobyne. “The National Guard were posted at each street and made sure whites didn’t get close, but you had all that verbal abuse the whole distance.”

There are hopeful signs as well in Lowndes. “Along the road are Negroes who watch. Some smile and wave,” writes Baker.

Such interest does not escape SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael, who opposes the march, but is trying “to make a positive out of a negative.” He ventures off the road to collect names and addresses of Blacks who have turned out to see the marchers pass by. “Listen, we’re going to stay in Lowndes County, we’re not going to pass through,” he tells them. Unsatisfied with the symbolic power and media potential of the march, Carmichael focuses on recruitment for Black political engagement that will later bring about the Black Panther Party.

As the march makes its way to Montgomery, President Johnson is reported to be following its progress. Leaders in the Senate say that if a voting rights bill is not passed by April 15 they will work through their Easter break. Harry Truman also weighs in. As president in 1948, he signed an order committing the United States to integrating its military, but the current march is “silly,” he says. “They can’t accomplish a darned thing,” he explains. “All they want is to attract attention.”

The second day’s campsite is on land owned by Rosie Steele, a 78-year-old Black woman. Conditions are far from comfortable. Red ants plague the marchers. A light rain turns into a heavy downpour.

Dr. King does not spend this second night on the road. He flies to Cleveland to accept an award. He plans to return before the march reaches Montgomery.

On Tuesday, March 23, the third day of the march, John Lewis, local leader Albert Turner, and others head the procession. The rain continues. Wet clothes and shoes cannot be escaped, nor can chafed skin and blisters. Some shoes fall apart and are repaired with cellophane. The evening’s campsite is all mud.

On the Fourth Day

Led by Andrew Young, the marchers leave early Wednesday morning on a 16-mile leg that will bring them to the outskirts of Montgomery. They exit Lowndes County a few hours later. Back on a four-lane road, they are joined by more and more people.

King returns before noon with his wife and Ralph Abernathy. Surveying the crowd, he announces, “We have a new song to sing. We have overcome.”

George Baker marches the entire distance on Day Four, serving as a marshal who keeps everyone in line. He notes that by evening, “[the] line is very long. Can’t see the end of it.” An estimated 5,000 people approach that night’s destination, the City of St. Jude, a Catholic institution on a 36-acre campus four miles from the Alabama State Capitol. Here they will spend the final night of the march on a baseball field turned campground.

“Negroes who watch, wave and cheer,” Baker will write. “Have the feeling of the Allied Armies when they march through Paris and people cheer them.”

No water—no water—stumble to First Aid station and demand water, get it, is sweet, very sweet.

A few hours later, the 19-year-old volunteer is in charge of security for a free evening of entertainment arranged by singer and activist Harry Belafonte. An estimated 30,000 people attend the “Stars of Freedom Concert” featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Mahalia Jackson, Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein, Nina Simone, Nichols and May, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Chad Mitchell, Nipsey Russell, and others. The makeshift stage sits on top of coffins donated by black funeral homes.*

Worn down like so many on the journey, Baker has neither the time nor energy to enjoy the performances. He is dealing with “mobs of people” trying to get as close to the stars as possible. Some faint. He fears the stage is overloaded and will collapse.

“I have blisters on my feet which cause me to limp. For three hours I try to control crowd. Almost have nervous breakdown, take tranquilizers. When show starts I stumble away in state of shock. I sit in a car away from stage, oblivious of songs. Have had stomach cramps all evening from lack of food. Saliva in mouth is like whipped cream from lack of water. Am hoarse from yelling all day. No water—no water—stumble to First Aid station and demand water, get it, is sweet, very sweet. Performance is over. Cramps get worse as I walk, so I stop every 20 feet to rest. Find sleeping bag and stumble into gym and crawl into oblivion.”

Baker makes no reference to Dr. King, who is cheered when he takes the stage and says, “This is the greatest march on any capitol that there has ever been in the South. This will go down in history as one of the greatest developments in the civil rights movement.”

King does not sleep at the campground, but returns the next morning to lead the march to the Capitol. Security is so tight that Army guards initially deny his car entry to St. Jude. Then a Montgomery policeman recognizes him and tells a sentry, “You danged fool. This is the man. Let him through.”

There is tension as everyone assembles for the last leg of the journey. Orange vests are to be handed out to the 300 who marched all the way and will now follow directly behind King. Other dignitaries, however, want the vests and want to march at the front. If they knew that King just received another death threat, they might not be so eager.

Some 15,000 people finally exit the St. Jude gate towards the Capitol. Army helicopters and military airplanes fly overhead. A light rain falls.

Four miles away, the State of Alabama is ready. Governor Wallace is in his office, which looks out over the site of the rally that will soon take place. He has no plans to interact with the marchers. Because female state employees have been given the day off to protect them from potential harm, legislative business is at a standstill.

The Selma Times-Journal describes the scene:

“The old capital of the Confederacy looked like an occupied military zone. Hundreds of battle-ready National Guardsmen and Army regulars, carbines slung from their shoulders, patrolled broad Dexter Avenue leading to the gleaming white Capitol. Soldiers were stationed atop the buildings. Military police, their green helmets gleaming, stood guard around the Capitol itself. One of the MP’s standing at the end of a driveway was a Negro.

A plywood covering lay over the big bronze star on the marble portico where Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the Confederacy. Wallace stood on the star when he was sworn in—the only governor known to have done so… An aid to the governor said the portico was covered only to protect the marble, but an unidentified state trooper said it was covered to prevent King from standing on the historic star.”

To me, there was never a march like this one before and hasn’t been one since.

John Lewis

Walter Dobyne is exhilarated. “I tell you what, I never really thought about the weather or being tired or anything,” he will say nearly fifty years later. “It was the mission to make it all the way, and I was so proud to be in that 300 that had the opportunity to go all the way. The conditions never really bothered me. I never really focused on them. To arrive there, it was a great accomplishment and we were proud to take part in it.”

“To me, there was never a march like this one before and hasn’t been one since,” John Lewis adds. “It was a sense of community moving there. And as you walked, you saw people coming, waving, bringing you food or bringing you something to drink. You saw the power of the most powerful country on the face of the earth.”

The crowd swells to at least 25,000. There are so many people that those in the back do not arrive at the Capitol until an hour after those in the front. Eight-lane Dexter Avenue is jammed, and the throng extends for several blocks.

Legendary activist Amelia Boynton later remembered those final steps:

White hecklers, together with secret sympathizers and well-wishers were among those who watched us… A young white woman, very pretty and intelligent looking, stood in the doorway of an office building. Seeing the integrated group passing seemed to enrage her, and she screamed vile things… She held her nose, turned her back to the street, and hoisted her dress.

A flatbed truck serves as the stage for speakers and performers. Odetta, Oscar Brand, Joan Baez, Len Chandler, and Leon Bibb all sing before the speeches begin. The rally is broadcast live to the nation until Mary Travers of the folk trio Peter, Paul, & Mary kisses Harry Belafonte on the cheek. White viewers angered by the interracial kiss telephone the networks, and CBS temporarily switches back to its regular afternoon programming.

Albert Turner is among the civil rights leaders who speak. “I look worse than anybody else on this stage. That’s because I marched fifty miles,” he says. After reading the voting statistics from his Alabama county, he says. “We are not satisfied.” The crowd cheers.

Dr. King now addresses ”all the freedom loving people who have assembled” in Montgomery. “We are not about to turn around,” he tells them. “We are on the move now.” He praises nonviolent resistance and details how Selma “generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course.” Noting that the campaign in Alabama has been focused on the right to vote, he calls for a “march on ballot boxes.”

He then responds to the newspaper editorialists, politicians, and others who have called for SCLC and SNCC to leave and let Alabama return to normalcy:

“That is exactly what we don’t want, and we will not allow it to happen, for we know that it was normalcy in Marion that led to the brutal murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson… It was normalcy on Highway 80 that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. It was normalcy by a cafe in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.”

In his speech, King invokes others who have fallen in addition to Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb. The three civil rights workers in the Mississippi field—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The four little girls in the Birmingham church—Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carol Robertson. The NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary gunned down in his own driveway—Medgar Evers. And William Moore, a white postal worker and CORE member from Baltimore murdered in 1963 in rural Alabama as he marched by himself to protest segregation.

King concludes what is now known as his “Our God is Marching On” speech with a verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.

This is adapted from the Harlem Book Festival nonfiction finalist JIMMIE LEE AND JAMES: Two Lives, Two Deaths, and the Movement That Changed America, by Steve Fiffer and Adar Cohen.

Steve Fiffer’s most recent book is THE MOMENT: Changemakers on Why and How They Joined the Fight for Social Justice. (

Adar Cohen is a mediator and educator in conflict resolution.

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