A month before Selma became synonymous with the struggle for voting rights, a group of Congressmen traveled to the city and returned to Washington to sound the alarm. “We—as Members of Congress—must face the fact that existing legislation just is not working,” Joseph Resnick of New York said upon his return. “The situation in Selma must jar us from our complacency concerning voting rights.”
In January 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launched a voter registration campaign in Selma. By the end of the month, nearly 4,000 African-American citizens were jailed, including King, arrested on charges of parading without a permit. In one instance, authorities arrested 300 school children, using cattle prods to force the children to run several miles to the jail.
As incarceration and instances of violence continued, King and the SCLC invited Members of Congress to Selma as “events of the past month have raised serious questions as to the adequacy of present voting rights legislation.” Twelve Democrats and three Republicans answered, representing districts in the West, Midwest, and Northeast. As it was not an official congressional delegation, each Member paid his own way to Selma.
On February 5, the Members flew from Washington to Montgomery, then traveled on by car to Selma. Four Alabama Representatives, not happy with the prospect of their colleagues' visit, arranged to meet the delegation in Selma to keep a close eye on them. Representative William Dickinson of Alabama told reporters he was not in favor of a “self-appointed, self-anointed group coming down here until they get their own backyard cleaned up.”
The delegation first went to the city jail, where they were confronted by Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, who labeled them as outside agitators. The Alabama Representatives, wanting to shape the delegation’s trip, organized a sit-down with city and county officials. The two-and-a-half-hour summit did not lead to any concessions. Local officials maintained that “if outsiders would leave town things would return to normal.”
Finally, the delegation met with Dr. King, who secured bail earlier in the day, and local black citizens, who provided testimony of failed registration attempts, physical violence, and brutal prison conditions. Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan reported that Selma’s black residents “were greatly lifted by the fact a delegation would come from Washington to try to help them. They were inspired by the racial complexion of our delegation. It encouraged them to keep fighting to attain their objective of being first-class citizens with the right to vote.”
The delegation returned to D.C. that night, with many of the Members immediately calling for congressional action and new voting legislation. Representative Ogden Reid of New York said, “We were interested in seeing the facts at firsthand. . . . It was clear in Selma, Ala., and in Dallas County, and I am sure is clear in some other areas, that there are patterns and practices of voter discrimination.”
On February 9th, Representatives Diggs and John Conyers of Michigan organized two back-to-back special order speeches to allow Members to detail to the House what they saw in Selma. Inserted into the Congressional Record were a copy of a voter registration application and questionnaire, the testimony from black residents, and calls for congressional investigation and legislation. “If each of us confines his activities strictly to his own local interests,” Gus Hawkins of California said, explaining his participation in the Selma delegation, “who in Congress is going to be looking after the national interests?”
But a group of Congressmen on a fact-finding mission held little sway on public opinion. Like so much of the story of the civil rights movement, what jarred Americans and Congress from complacency were the iconic images of peaceful protestors who met with violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge less than a month later.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (8–9 February 1965); Montgomery Advertiser, 4 February 1965; Baltimore Sun, 6 February 1965.Follow @USHouseHistory