On Monday, January 17, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family will lead a march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C. at 10 a.m. before joining the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk. They are urging the Senate and President Biden to enact federal voting rights legislation.
It is important to remember that 57 years ago, in January of 1965, Dr. King launched a campaign of civil disobedience in Selma, Alabama, to bring national attention to disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Two months later, on Sunday, March 7, 400 mostly black protesters, not including King, tried to march across the Pettus Bridge, just outside Selma, only to be stopped by state troopers and local lawmen who attacked them with tear gas and clubs. That night all three national television networks broadcasted the assault. The broadcasts sparked outrage against the attackers. The day would become known as Bloody Sunday.
Two days later, on March 9, Dr. King led more than 2,000 marchers, black and white, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge but once again found Highway 80 blocked by state troopers. King stopped the march, led them in prayer, then turned the protesters around believing that the troopers were trying to create an opportunity that would allow them to enforce a federal injunction prohibiting the march. This decision led to criticism from some marchers who called King cowardly.
On March 15th, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on national TV and spoke these now famous words: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Not to be deterred, on March 21, Dr. King and some 2,000 people set out from Selma, Alabama on a march to Montgomery. Protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces that Johnson had ordered under federal control, and after walking some 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields along the way, they reached Montgomery on March 25.
Nearly 50,000 supporters—Black and white—met the marchers in Montgomery, where they gathered in front of the state capitol to hear King and other speakers including Ralph Bunche (winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize) address the crowd.
If we as a nation are to truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, it is imperative that all eligible citizens, regardless of race, class, age, gender, or religion be afforded the opportunity to participate freely and unencumbered in local, state, and federal elections. Efforts to detract, or discourage, or disrupt access to voting polls is an affront to everything Dr. King stood for. It is time our country passed comprehensive and enforceable voting rights legislation. We owe it to the legacy of Dr. King, Rep. John Lewis, and countless other champions of social justice who dedicated their lives to speaking up for the voiceless and forgotten in our nation. The time is now for our nation to come together as one.
For more on Dr. King read: Selma To Montgomery
Director, Albert Lepage Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion