On March 7, 1965, millions of Americans sat watching their television sets in horror. Grainy black-and-white news images from Selma, Ala., showed about 600 mostly African-American protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were marching to the state capital, Montgomery, to win voting rights in the Jim Crow South.
Opposing the protestors at the foot of the bridge were 50 or so Alabama State Troopers and deputized “possemen” on foot and on horseback. The lead state trooper, Maj. John Cloud, called out for the marchers to turn back. The marchers refused. A New York Times reporter described the scene:
“The next sound was the major’s voice. ‘Troopers, advance,” he commanded.
“The troopers rushed forward, their blue uniforms and white helmets blurring into a flying wedge as they moved.
“The wedge moved with such force that it seemed almost to pass over the waiting column [of protestors] instead of through it.
“The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying, and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip on to the pavement on both sides.
“Those still on their feat retreated. . . . A cheer went up from the white spectators lining the south side of the highway.”
Even after the protestors turned and ran, the state troopers pressed their attack. Horsemen rode people down with clubs. Others shot tear gas into the crowd. “These guys actually rode their horses all the way back, hassling and beating people,” remembered James Bevel, a march leader. “It was like they went totally berserk.” One of the protestors, Joanne Bland, recalled, “There was blood all over the bridge.”
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” as this day is now called. It left more than 17 people hospitalized and another 40 needing first aid. TV viewers across the country debated about what made them angriest—the screams of the protestors or the cheers of white spectators.
The public outrage over Bloody Sunday led to two more Selma-to-Montgomery marches, one abortive attempt on March 9 and a successful five-day trek that culminated on March 25. The public support generated by these marches led later that year to the passage in Congress of the Voting Rights Act. Congressman John Lewis, who suffered a severe concussion on Bloody Sunday, later said, “The Voting Rights Act was literally written on the highway between Selma and Montgomery.”