On March 7, 1965, 600 people protesting frustrated efforts to register black voters in Alabama began a 54-mile march to the statehouse in Montgomery to commemorate the killing of a young civil rights worker three weeks earlier.
Their route would take them over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River.
“It was so orderly, we were so peaceful, we were so quiet walking 600 strong,” said Rep. John Lewis, today a Georgia congressman, back then a young civil rights activist. “We came to the highest point on the bridge, and down below we saw a sea of blue.”
Alabama police and state troopers, some on horseback and brandishing billy clubs, tear gas and whips, ordered the marchers back. Instead, the marchers, people of all races, knelt in prayer. Then the lawmen advanced.
“They were beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas,” Lewis told MSNBC TV in an interview in March. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I thought I was going to die. I was going in and out of consciousness, and I could hear people hollering and crying, the horses’ hooves on the pavement.”
What happened that day on a bridge named for a Confederate general was an event many see as a turning point in the pursuit of civil rights in the United States, one that led to two more Selma-to-Montgomery marches and five months later to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Video: Remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ As lawmakers and activists mark the law’s anniversary 40 years after President Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965, there is a consensus that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most effective laws in U.S. history, standing with Brown vs. Board of Education as an enduring example of the nation’s living up to its original principles.
Setting the stage
The Voting Rights Act was passed to help enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments and stymie the efforts of state governments determined to maintain the segregationist status quo. It also sounded the death knell for the Jim Crow laws that were central to economic exploitation of blacks for more than 100 years.
The law was the culmination of years of gathering frustration with the nation's resistance to change. But the fuse for that transformation was lit by events long before 1965.
- Since the end of Reconstruction, in 1867, some state governments had tried to roll back voting by black voters, either rewriting state constitutions or instituting poll taxes and literacy tests.
- In 1944, spurred by the legal groundwork of NAACP counsel (and later Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, Smith vs. Allwright, banning all-white primary elections in Texas and setting the stage for the first tentative increases in black and Hispanic voter registration in Texas and in other states.
- In September 1957, President Eisenhower signed into law a civil rights bill protecting voting rights for African Americans, the first such civil rights legislation passed into law since Reconstruction.
- The March on Washington, in August 1963, lent the civil rights movement the moral high ground in defining the American ideal and framed the debate on the rights of America's citizens in populist terms.
- The murder of NAACP voter registration organizer Medgar Evers outside his home in 1963 and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 were two other horrors that galvanized lawmakers and citizens into action.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination in housing, public accommodations and voting was signed into law weeks after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers who had been registering black voters during Freedom Summer, were slain in Mississippi.
‘A sense of righteous indignation’
The assault on the Selma marchers was seen by many as the final insult in the battle for civil rights. But the public soon was solidly behind the movement, thanks in part to television.
Like the war in Vietnam that was just beginning to explode into America's living rooms, the incident in Selma was broadcast on the evening news, reaching Americans in their homes by the millions.
CBS and NBC, which had recently expanded news programs to a half-hour, both broadcast the march and its aftermath; CBS produced a special report on the event, and ABC interrupted a prime-time movie to air footage of the assault.
“The nation saw what had happened,” Lewis said. “People couldn’t stand it. They saw the photographs in the newspapers and magazines. They saw the video on television. There was a sense of righteous indignation.”
No longer an abstraction, the civil rights struggle became a collective national experience.
The historic significance of the Voting Rights Act can be measured by the changes the law ushered in and that still resonate today.
Registration, then and now
In March 1965, for example, only 19.3 percent of black eligible voters were registered in Alabama, compared with 69.2 percent of whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Alabama secretary of state.
In 2005, 74 percent of black Alabamans old enough to vote do so, compared with 77 percent of whites.
The Voting Rights Act also enhanced the opportunities of minorities to be candidates as well as voters.
“The facts on the ground in 2005 are different from those on the ground in 1965,” said Edward Blum, a senior fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity and co-author of a book on the law. “No longer do we have white voters refusing to vote for minority candidates," he said.
“In Texas, we have a Hispanic elected to the Supreme Court and an African American elected as railroad commissioner. In Georgia, we have an African American serving as attorney general. These things were unheard of in 1965.”
Update in 2002
The Voting Rights Act continues to evolve. In 2002, two years after the contentious vote count in the presidential election in Florida and the controversy over “hanging chads,” Congress passed the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act.
Under the law, signed by President Bush in October 2002, states are receiving almost $4 billion in federal money to replace outdated punch-card and lever voting machines and improve voter education and poll-worker training.
“The immediate consequence of the 2000 elections and its unsettling aftermath was a realization that even 30 years after the Voting Rights Act became law, the nation's election system was not what people thought it was,” Sen. Robert Torricelli said in December 2001.
Envisioning America without it
Given the law’s impact on the nation, it’s tempting to consider how America might have evolved in its absence.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine the country without it,” said Clayborne Carson, editor of the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford University. “It would have put the United States even more out of touch with the trend in the world toward greater involvement and basic political rights.”
Todd F. Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees but said the need for the law has run its course. “America needed the VRA very much 40 years ago but doesn't much anymore,” he said.
“It was a fantastic success, which in part created a political and legal regime that make some of its ‘temporary’ provisions unnecessary,” he said, referring to Section 5 of the law, which still requires states and some municipalities, mostly in the South, to clear any changes in voting policy and procedures with the Justice Department.
That provision will be up for renewal in 2007, but some lawmakers say it is no longer needed.
Impact, foreign and domestic
The Edmund Pettus Bridge was a battleground 40 years ago, the stakes for the nation's future as high that day in 1965 as they were a century earlier, during the Civil War.
Over the years, the lessons of the Voting Rights Act have also assumed a global dimension.
“The contemporary significance of the Voting Rights Act is that it reminds us that democracy is an unfinished experiment,” Carson said. “We talk about the United States being a democratic nation; we talk about nation-building to bring democracy to the rest of the world.
“Once you get away from the notion that the United States represents the ideal of democracy, you'll see there are ways we can improve our own democracy, learning from the rest of the world — as we expect the rest of the world to learn from us.”
The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Alex Johnson contributed to this report. Michael E. Ross is author of “Interesting Times: Essays and Nonfiction.”