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1965 Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2024
2min read

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 destroyed the legal foundations of segregation in America, but it did nothing to end the literacy tests and terrorism that Southern states used to deny black Americans the right to vote. In Alabama’s Wilcox and Lowndes counties, for example, not a single black voter was on the registration rolls. Nearby Selma was the logical place to take a stand for voting rights, explained Martin Luther King, Jr., “because it had become a symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil rights movement in the Deep South.” King announced plans for a protest march from Selma to Montgomery to take place on March 7. “We’re not on our knees begging for the ballot,” he said. “We are demanding the ballot.”

NEVER ” read a button on the lapel of Selma’s sheriff, James Clark, who in the past had revealed an uncanny ability to rejuvenate the civil rights movement with galvanizing acts of violence against demonstrators. On March 7 he did it again, sending his posse men to help five hundred Alabama state troopers disperse the Selma marchers with clubs, cattle prods, bull whips, and attack dogs. “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, and can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama,” said one of the injured protesters. “Next time we march … we may have to go on to Washington.”

A national television audience that evening saw ABCs broadcast of Judgment at Nuremburg interrupted by footage of America’s own racial hatred. The Minnesota senator Walter Mondale declared that the Selma violence made “legislation to guarantee Southern Negroes the right to vote an absolute imperative for Congress this year,” and later in the week President Johnson introduced a voting rights bill to Congress. But the fatal beating on March 9 of the Reverend James J. Reeb demonstrated that the battle was far from won. King announced his determination to undertake the march to Montgomery as “part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement” and declared that further acts of brutality would take place “in the glaring light of television.”

Beginning on March 21, three thousand federal troops lined U.S. Highway 80 as King’s legion left Selma for the five-day, fifty-four-mile journey. Outside Montgomery nearly twenty-five thousand people joined the marchers and accompanied them to the Capitol building. “We are on the move now,” King told the largest-ever civil rights demonstration in the South, “and no wave of racism can stop us…. We are moving to the land of freedom.”

That night Ku Klux Klansmen shot and killed Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, a white volunteer and mother of five, as she was driving to Montgomery. This shocking postscript to the Selma march intensified pressure for passage of the Voting Rights Bill, which Johnson signed into law in August.

∗On March 8 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that conscientious objectors with a sincere belief “in a relation to a supreme being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation” could be exempted from combat service in the U.S. military.

∗Thirty-five hundred American Marines began to arrive in South Vietnam on March 8 to guard the Air Force base at Da Nang. These men, the first American combat troops to land on the Asian mainland since the Korean War ended, joined twenty-three thousand American advisers already serving with the South Vietnamese military.

∗On March 24 Sen. Robert Kennedy became the first person to scale Mount Kennedy in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Kennedy overcame an acute case of acrophobia before reaching the summit, where he left several mementos of his brother John, in whose honor the mountain had been named. Kennedy said he made the climb for “personal reasons which seemed compelling,” but his wife Ethel had a different theory: “I think he wants to take his mind off the fact that he’s not an astronaut.”

∗The most popular motion picture in March was George Stevens’s biblical blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told . Critics attacked the film’s ponderous length and numerous celebrity cameo appearances but admired the American debut of the Swedish actor Max von Sydow as the Messiah. Von Sydow had previously established an international reputation for his anguished work in the films of Ingmar Bergman.

—Arthur Nielsen

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