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Notable Moments in Civil Rights History

Bloody Sunday

Outraged by the killing of a civil rights activist by an Alabama state trooper, the African-American community decided to hold a march on Sunday, March 7, 1965. They planned to walk from Selma to Montgomery, to demand that Governor George Wallace take action to put a stop to police brutality. However, when the marchers reached the city limits, they found state troopers blocking their way.

As the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (which led out of Selma), the troopers ordered them to disperse. The troopers, however, did not wait for the warning to be heeded. They attacked the crowd of people, using tear gas, whips, and clubs. Fifty marchers were hospitalized.

“Bloody Sunday” received national attention. Numerous marches were organized in response. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march to the Selma bridge two days later (during which one protestor was killed), and another march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25.

Shortly thereafter, President Johnson addressed Congress on the recent violence and in support of civil rights legislation. The speech helped ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 10. This legislation outlawed literacy tests and other such requirements intended to restrict African-American voting.

On the March

But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

—President Lyndon Johnson borrows a familiar line from the popular civil rights anthem during a critical 1965 address to Congress on civil rights.

King Assassinated

On April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers' strike. After an uplifting speech, he returned to the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying. Standing on the second-floor balcony with aides, he was shot and killed. Across the country, there were riots in 130 cities. Thousands attended the Nobel Peace Prize winner's funeral.

The eloquent and charismatic interpreter of the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi was mourned internationally. James Earl Ray pled guilty to the crime, was convicted, and died in prison.

With King's death, the civil rights leader with the broadest appeal was silenced. His passing marked the end of an era that had seen important improvements in civil rights—and continuing evidence of the violence and cruelty that lurked not far beneath the surface of mainstream racism in white America.

In the year Dr. King was assassinated, Governor George Wallace of Alabama—at that point still an unrepentant segregationist—mounted a presidential campaign that garnered 13.5 percent of the popular vote (amounting to nearly 10 million votes) and 46 electoral votes. Although progress had been made, racism was still going strong in the United States of America.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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