By: Courtney Shea
Bloody Sunday. A spectacle the American people across the country couldn’t bear to see unfold on their television screens at home in 1965.
African American protesters and supporters marched two by two along the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to reach the other side of the bridge that crosses the Alabama River.
The protesters were met by state troopers, some on the ground and some on horseback, who threw tear gas and raised their billy clubs in a scene of violence covered in broadcasts across the nation.
The marches in Selma were a part of the Civil Rights Movement that changed American history.
The town was strategically chosen by the Rev. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Sheriff Jim Clark was known for his temper and his resistance to civil rights.
However, King didn’t want to set up the movement in Selma unless he was formally invited.
Eight members from the Selma community were the first people to reach out and write letters inviting King to their town. The Rev. F.D. Reese was thought to be the inspiration of these letters.
The eight of them became known as the Courageous Eight because of the risk they were taking inviting King to their community. The Ku Klux Klan could have planted a bomb in Reese’s church, similar to the one that went off in Birmingham.
The marches planned despite knowing that Clark would react violently, ultimately forcing legal action to be taken by the federal government.
The legislation King and his colleagues were seeking was a bill to be passed allowing African Americans the right to vote, unhindered by bogus literacy tests and other obstructive measures imposed by the local government.
The SCLC, with the help of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, set up other marches and protests throughout Selma, but the marches are what the town is still known for today.
On Jan. 2, 1965, King visited Selma and spoke at a mass meeting telling the people it was time for them to start the movement by marching and practicing nonviolence and start going to jail for what they believed in, according to Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who was a foot soldier in the movement.
“For a year or more, we were taught the principles of nonviolence,” said Lowery. “I learned that violence was more than just a physical nick. It was the words that people called you, and it was the looks. It was more than just the physical part of it.”
The first time Lowery and her sister, Joanne Blackmon Bland, heard King speak, they were disappointed. They thought they were going with their grandmother to see a German Shepard named King, from a Saturday morning program named Sargent Preston of the Yukon.
“When we were told by my grandmother that we were going to see King. We just knew that we were going to see that beautiful German Shepard,” said Lowery. “When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was introduced, we were still waiting on the German Shepard.”
When King started to speak, Lowery said everybody got quiet. Every child and every adult and they were sitting forward on the edge of the pews trying to hear what he had to say.
They were at the Tabernacle Baptist Church where he was speaking about the right to vote and on how the adults would be able to get that right through the practice of nonviolence.
“He said in that speech that you can get anybody to do anything through steady, loving confrontation,” Lowery said. “I heard him say it the first time, and the second time I distinctively remember him saying Lynda.”
Filled with excitement, Lowery remembers jumping up and saying, “Oh yeah, that’s how I’m gonna do it!” before being pulled back in the pew by her grandmother.
Lowery’s reasons for getting involved in the movement were directly related to the death of her mother.
“I was 7 years old when my mother died, and my grandmother and the older people said that she wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t had been colored,” Lowery said. “So, at 7 years old, I vowed that when I got big, I was going to change things so that nobody would ever grow up without a mommy again because of the color of their skin.”
“That’s what I was marching and going to jail for.”
Children played a key role in the marches. If adults participated and went to jail they would be leaving their children at home to take care of themselves. It would also be extremely likely that they would lose their jobs.
There would be two marches a day. Some children would go to school, say present and let their teachers know if they were going to participate in the morning march or the afternoon march and then they would leave.
The students who did not participate in the march would complete the homework and lessons for the students who were gone.
“The first week and a half that we marched they took us to the old National Guard Armory on Franklin Street,” Lowery said. “That’s where they would keep us until night time, and then they would let us go.”
The second week of marching is when they started taking the marchers to jail.
“They would let us march about four or five, maybe six blocks, and then they would march us up on the yellow school buses and drive us over to the jail,” Lowery said.
Lowery’s sister, Bland, was as equally involved in the marches as she was because Lowery was put in charge of Bland by their grandmother. Wherever Lowery went, Bland was there too even though she was three years younger.
“Now, you have to remember my age,” Bland said. “When I was a kid I certainly didn’t understand the connection between voting and the rights that it could help us get.”
Bland was being taught civics in school, where she thought she already had those rights, and looking back on her childhood, she doesn’t recall her grandmother taking her and her other siblings to places where they could be discriminated against.
Her desire to be a part of the movement came when she saw that she wasn’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter like the white children were able to.
“One of the drugstores downtown had a lunch counter, Carter’s Drugstore, and I wanted to sit at the lunch counter, but I couldn’t,” Bland said. “On this particular day, I was peeping in the window, and my grandmother looked over my shoulder and she said, when we get our freedom, you can do that too.”
That is when Bland started going down to First Baptist with Lowery to the SNCC meetings because she wanted to help fight for her freedom too.
“I wanted that kind of freedom because I thought they just didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves, but I couldn’t tell them that because I was a kid,” Bland said.
Every time she would march and get put in jail, she would go by Carter’s Drugstore and see that she couldn’t sit at the lunch counter still and went back to the meetings and kept on marching.
King and other leaders from the SCLC and SNCC coordinated a march that would go from Selma to the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, the protesters marched two by two along the street from Brown Chapel AME, to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Even the bridge itself contradicted what the people marching across it stood for.
Finished and dedicated in 1940, the bridge was named after a Confederate general who grew up in a family of slave owners in North Alabama, according to an article published in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2015.
Pettus was a lawyer in Selma and was elected to be a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan during the last year of the Reconstruction, according to the article.
Later in his life, he ran for U.S. Senate and won based off his campaign that opposed the amendments that followed the Civil War elevating former slaves to the status of free citizens.
During the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, African Americans made up a majority of the population throughout most of the Black Belt and were terrorized by the KKK.
When the bridge was dedicated, the city leaders at the time said, “The occasion marked another epoch in the growth and advancement of Dallas County.” And explained, “The new bridge is the answer to ‘The March of Progress.’”
Today, Bland said, “All over this world, that bridge is synonymous with freedom and struggle.”