The Selma Campaign 1965


Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democra

  • 1964: CORE, the SNCC and the NAACP joined - organise voter registration programme in the South, mainly Mississippi (lowest black voter registration: 6.2%)
  • 800 volunteers also set up 30 'freedom schools' - taught black history and the philosophy of the civil rights movement
  • Faced white opposition: KKK firebombed 30 black homes, 37 black churches and murdered a number of blacks, including 3 young civil rights volunteers (2 white, 1 black). No local court would convict the murderers - so convicted of civil rights violations in federal court. Over 1,000 protestors were arrested and over 100 beaten or shot
  • As a result of this, only 1,600 of the 17,000 blacks who tried to register to vote were able to do so
  • The SNCC organisers couldn't register black voters through normal methods: so set up the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which 80,000 people joined
  • Democratic National Convention: August 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey: both parties demanded to represent Mississippi
  • LBJ offered a compromise: MFDP could have two representatives but no voting rights: leader Fannie Lou Hamer rejected this and walked out
  • Significant because:
    First serious dispute between LBJ and the CRM
  • Black radicals saw this as proof that the fundamental racism in the US political system could only be overcome by more radical methods
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Why did the SCLC choose Selma, Alabama?

  • MLK expected tough resistance: 3,000+ people recently arrested for protesting about the lack of black voter registration. Blacks were asked ridiculous questions they had to get correct to register and the registration office was only open for 2 days a month. Only 21% of blacks in Alabama could vote: In Selma 99% voters were white whilst most civilians there were black. When 250 blacks managed to register, Sheriff Clark threatened to tell their white employer
  • MLK predicted that local Sheriff Jim Clark would turn violent if provoked (similar to "Bull" Connr in Birmingham) - giving the campaign a propaganda victory so LBJ had to act
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Sheriff Clark's stupidity

  • He was filmed on TV poking in the stomach of black people who were queuing in an orderly fashion to register - he hoped to provoke them to respond violently but failed
  • He used electric prods against protesting black students
  • He refued to talk to a local black Baptist preacher, CT Vivian, who shouted at him: "You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice"
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The Selma Campaign 1965

  • SCLC faced mounting black anger at the violence in Selma: murder by police of Jimmie Lee Jackson who was trying to protect his mother and grandmother. Attempted to channel the anger with a march from Selma to Governor Wallace's capital at Montgomery which led to violence from state troopers at Pettus Bridge, Selma, with 80 demonstators injured. This was then called "Bloody Sunday"
  • To SNCC anger, MLK curtailed a 2nd march because of a federal court order
  • The 3rd march had 25,000 people: the biggest ever seen in the South. When they reached Montgomery (scene of the famous bus boycott nearly 10 years earlier MLK's first civil rights campaign) there was great symbolic significance as MLK made an inspirational speech to inspire his followers
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The 1965 Voting Rights Act

The violence and publicity the Selma Campaign (along with others) created persuaded LBJ that the only way to end the crisis in the South (that was causing huge international damage to the USA's reputation) was to completely support the blacks.

In August 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act:

  • Struck down all of the tactics used to obstruct black voters e.g. literacy tests
  • Authorized the Attorney General to send federal registrars where he had reason to believe blacks were being denied their right to vote
  • The Act was highly effective: some officials in the Deep South made reforms, elsewhere the federal registrars were sent in
  • Over 230,000 new black voters were registered within a year of the Act which made a noticeable difference: blacks began to appear in state legislatures and even racist southern politicians now had to court the black vote
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SUMMARY: The Successes and Failures 1963-5


  • 2 successive presidents (Kennedy and Johnson) committed themselves to passing effective civil rights legislations
  • Public opinion in the USA had swung in favour of black civil rights (as a whole)
  • MLK's reputation nationally and worldwide peaked: in 1964 he won the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Two main demands of CRM so far (desegregation and voting rights) had, in terms of federal legislation, finally been achieved
  • MLK's campaign at Selma: culmination of his non-violent tactics


  • Already signs of division and tension in the movement e.g. MK being criticised by radicals
  • MLK referred to poverty in his Montgomery speech (end of the 3rd Selma March) in which very little had been done to help the blacks economically. In the North, they were still living in ghettos and this was where there had never been legal segregation and they could already vote
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