Nearly six hundred civil rights campaigners, attempting to make a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, were attacked and beaten by state troopers and hastily-deputised white locals on this day in 1965.
Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act the year before, many states in southern America clung on to local legislation and practices that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, such as a poll tax, residency requirements and literacy tests.
Black voter registration efforts in Alabama had been hampered by white officials and locals who would threaten to beat them, or sanction them economically. While more than 3,000 were arrested in protests between January 1 and February 7, fewer than 100 new black voters were registered.
When a young activist named Jimmie Lee Jackson died after being shot by a state trooper while on a peaceful demonstration, a memorial march of the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery was organised by members of Dr Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The march began peacefully, but as it crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, it was met by a wall of state troopers and specially-deputised white males. When the marchers refused to disperse, they were attacked by the posse with clubs and tear gas.
Around 60 marchers were hospitalised; SCLC organiser Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious. Pictures of the attack made the national newspapers the next day causing widespread outrage, with President Lyndon Johnson denouncing the violence in the town.
Two days later, Johnson introduced the bill that became the Voting Rights Act, which overrode any state interference in voter registration. At the third attempt, the Selma-Montgomery march finally took place unhindered on March 21, with 25,000 joining it as it reached the state capital four days later.