The House and Selma: Bridging History and Memory
Late in the afternoon of March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams paused on the sidewalk at the crown of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Williams peered over the side. A long way down—about 100 feet, Lewis figured—the Alabama River flowed south and west toward Mobile Bay. Behind them, a huge crowd of protesters made its way up a steep rise in the bridge. In front of them, at the foot of the bridge on the opposite bank, Alabama state troopers and Dallas County police officers waited to turn them back. Most were on foot, others were on horseback.1
Lewis, Williams, and the crowd of nearly 600 only paused for a moment before marching again. They crossed the bridge that day to protest the exclusion of African Americans from registering to vote in the South, but what happened next arguably changed the course of the civil rights movement. Confronted by the police who ordered him to turn around, Lewis told those around him to pray. Just as word of his action spread among the crowd, the state troopers and county police assaulted the marchers, beating them with clubs, choking them with gas, and stomping them with horses. The police pushed the demonstrators back across the bridge and back through town. Some suffered injuries bad enough to require hospital attention; there was a moment after being hit in the head that John Lewis thought he was going to die.2
March 7th was a Sunday. On Monday, major newspapers reported the violence in Selma with bold headlines and graphic photographs above the fold. On Capitol Hill, Members of the House of Representatives began their own responses to the events in Alabama. Representative James Grant O'Hara of Michigan became the first Member to take the floor that day shortly after noon to condemn the violence, pointing out that Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts had also addressed the situation during his morning press conference.3Denunciations by both parties followed on Tuesday as constituents began sending letters and telegrams demanding immediate congressional action.4
The violence in Selma had a domino effect: prompted by the images and reports from Alabama, the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act was introduced in the House on March 17th and in the Senate on March 18th. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., unable to attend the first march, led a second and then a third demonstration on March 21st, walking all the way from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The haunting scenes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the legislative response by the 89th Congress (1965–1967) did not happen in a vacuum, however, and nearly 50 years later the U.S. House continues to observe and learn from the event's history. Every year since March 1998, a bipartisan congressional delegation has made a pilgrimage to Selma on the anniversary of the march. But in order to understand the importance of the annual trip today we need to understand the conditions which sparked the protest in the first place, as well as the steps taken by the country's elected officials in the days and months following.
Consider this: In the early 1960s, Selma, Alabama, and surrounding Dallas County had a voting-age population of around 30,000, more than half of which was Black. But at the time only a few hundred of its Black residents were registered to vote.5 All across the South, Jim Crow discrimination, literacy tests, poll taxes, and violence had denied Black Americans access to the ballot. In fact, no African American had served in the U.S. Congress from a former Confederate state since 1901.6
During the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began a coordinated, though not necessarily unified, effort to dismantle segregation throughout the South. Voter registration programs, demonstrations, and sit-ins grabbed national headlines. Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but when Black residents of Selma tested the law's non-discrimination clauses, many wound up in jail. The Dallas County Improvement Association, a group composed of Black students and community leaders, contacted the SCLC and invited the group and Dr. King to lead a new large-scale voting rights push.
The Dallas County courthouse designated two days a month for voter registration, but the SCLC's plan pushed people to register every day beginning in the middle of January 1965. The first day's protest ended without arrests, but on the second day, the police detained 66 individuals. Each day following, Black men and women waited in line at the courthouse in Selma, and each day more were arrested. By the first week of February, the number of jailed protestors in Selma had swelled to 3,300.7
On February 1st, Dr. King himself was arrested in Selma. From prison, King composed "A Letter from a Selma, Alabama Jail" which ran as an advertisement in the New York Times four days later. "When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed," King wrote, "many decent Americans were lulled into complacency because they thought the day of difficult struggle was over…. This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls."8
In response to the mass arrests, Alabama Representatives Armistead Selden and George Andrews called for "a responsible and balanced congressional response to the need for a legislative investigation of the situation in Alabama."9Over the next few days two separate congressional delegations—one composed of four Alabama Members, and another bipartisan group composed of 15 Members from northern and western states—traveled around Selma. The Alabama delegation sought to bring attention to what they saw as an unwarranted intrusion of outside pressure on their constituents' local affairs.10 The larger delegation, meanwhile, investigated the claims of discrimination and the conditions at the city jail.11
Once they returned to Washington, Republicans Charles Mathias of Maryland and Ogden Reid of New York, both of whom participated in the larger delegation to Selma, introduced legislation empowering federal officials to register voters if local authorities refused to. Similarly, Democratic Representative Joseph Resnick of New York introduced legislation to create a new Federal Registration and Elections Commission with expansive powers to enter municipalities to register Black voters. Neither of these bills made it out of committee, however.
Meanwhile, 30 miles to the north of Selma, police violence in the town of Marion, Alabama, became deadly. Moments into a nighttime vigil for an imprisoned SCLC leader, the street lights went dark and state troopers descended on the demonstrators while local whites attacked the press covering the event. In the pandemonium, 26-year-old Army veteran Jimmie Lee Jackson ran to a local eatery with his mother and grandfather. State troopers followed, and soon thereafter shot Jackson twice in the stomach. He died from his injuries eight days later on February 26th.
At Jackson's memorial service, James Bevel of the SCLC suggested organizing a march to the state capital in Montgomery to demand equal treatment under the law and force Alabama Governor George Wallace to address the rampant injustice.12 The march that developed from Bevel's idea became the brutal trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge two weeks later on March 7, 1965, known as "Bloody Sunday." Two days after that, on March 9th, civil rights leaders organized a second protest they called "Turnaround Tuesday," which ended with Dr. King leading 1,500 demonstrators across the Pettus Bridge for a prayer before turning around to avoid a repeat of Bloody Sunday.
In the aftermath of the violence in Selma, President Lyndon Baines Johnson called for a Joint Session of Congress on March 15th to support new voting rights legislation. In his address, Johnson declared: "We cannot, we must not refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more. And the time for waiting is gone."13
On March 21st, after two weeks of negotiating with federal officials, Dr. King and thousands more gathered for a third time in Selma, lining up to march to Montgomery. With the National Guard watching from the side of the road, the column crossed the Pettus Bridge without incident. An earlier court order had limited the number of people who could make the trip to the state capital to 300, and after the others turned around, the core group walked 54 miles over four days, sleeping in designated fields along the highway.
On March 25th, on the road just outside of Montgomery, tens-of-thousands of people—from Selma, from elsewhere in Alabama, and from across the country—joined the marchers. When the massive group reached the state capitol, Dr. King delivered his landmark "How Long, Not Long" speech, intoning that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Governor Wallace refused to meet with the marchers, and later sent an aide outside to receive their petition.
Congress's legislative response to the events in Selma was decidedly different from the debates over the Civil Rights Act a year earlier. Whereas southern Democratic Senators had filibustered the 1964 act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed on May 26, 1965, by a vote of 77 to 19. The House passed its version of the bill on July 9th, 333 to 85. After both chambers agreed to the conference report later that summer, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.14The legislation provided legal protection to citizens attempting to vote across the country, banning poll taxes, literacy tests, and all other attempts to block voter registration.
Since 1965, Congress has extended the Voting Rights Act, with amendments, four times, most recently in 2006. The 54-mile route from Selma to Montgomery is now a National Historic Trail. And in Selma, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute hosts an annual event to coincide with the marches' anniversary. Every year, thousands of people, including the congressional delegation from Washington, march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a symbolic affirmation of the right to vote.
John Lewis served in the U.S. House from 1987 until his death in 2020, representing a district encompassing much of Atlanta, Georgia. Starting in 1998, Lewis led the congressional pilgrimage to Selma, and before Republican Amo Houghton of New York retired from the House in 2004, the two led the trip together. The pilgrimages are organized by the Faith and Politics Institute located in Washington, D.C., and are traditionally hosted by Members of the Alabama delegation. The itinerary includes visits to pivotal sites of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.
On March 1, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 562, directing the Office of the House Historian to begin studying the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the subsequent yearly congressional delegations, and the civil rights movement in general. The annual visits, as the legislation says, allow Members to "participate in fellowship, and recognize the achievements of the civil rights movement." They conclude with the Members marching over the Pettus Bridge.
Eleven Members of Congress traveled to Alabama in 1998, and in 2012, more than 20 attended. "This was a group that did not have any legislative program. We did not want to start any new government project," Representative Houghton said about the first congressional delegation to make the trip in 1998. "But we wanted to deal honestly with ourselves. . . . I think the interesting thing … [is] that we took these dialogues on race and the discussion which the Faith and Politics Institute put into effect and took them back into our districts. There were meetings all over the country. . . . We are better for it."15
1John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998): 338–39.
2Lewis, Walking With the Wind: 340.
3Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (8 March 1965): 4381.
4Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (9 March 1965): 4452–4465.
51961 United States Commission on Civil Rights, Voting, bk.1, 1961 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1961), http://law.umaryland.edu/marshall/usccr/titlelist.html (accessed 7 March 2013); David J. Garrow, Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978): 31; Cynthia Griggs Fleming, In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): xvi.
6Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007): 169.
7"King Leaves Jail to Seek Johnson's Aid," 6 February 1965, Chicago Tribune: 4.
8"A Letter from Martin Luther King from a Selma, Alabama Jail," 5 February 1965, New York Times: 5.
9Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (4 February 1965): 2031.
10Roy Reed, "Dr. King to Seek New Voting Law," 6 February 1965, New York Times: 1.
11Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (10 February 1965): 2495.
12Lewis, Walking With the Wind: 329.
13Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (15 March 1965): 5060.
14Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (3 August 1965: 19199.
15Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 2nd sess. (17 March 1998): 3839–3840.