Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Four Transferable Lessons from Selma on the 59th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Dr Marcus Bright Headshot 213591 637e62cb81db6

As we commemorate the 59th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” last weekend — which was the transcendent point of the Selma movement for voting rights in 1965 — it is crucial to reflect on the implications of what transpired and its relevance to our current work and time. I unpack four key lessons below that can be gleaned from Selma that are transferable to today.

1. The bigger purpose superseded tension among organizations and individuals.

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus BrightThere was a significant level of tension among individuals and organizations that had been doing work to advance voting rights in Selma and the surrounding areas. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been on the ground working there since 1962 and there was tension with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who had been called in to assist the movement there in 1965. Several SNCC members felt that they had been the foot soldiers of the movement and SCLC had often garnered most of the attention and credit.

There were also tactical differences as SCLC focused more on mobilizing people for direct action that could prompt broader legislative action while SNCC focused more on organizing in communities for a longer period of time and facilitating the development of local leadership.

SNCC as an organization voted to not participate in the march in Selma on March 7, 1965, that eventually would become known as “Bloody Sunday” over the objection of their chairperson, John Lewis. Lewis decided to join the march anyway as an individual who was not there on behalf of the organization. SCLC’s Hosea Williams also campaigned to convince King to approve the march for that Sunday though King initially wanted him to wait until Monday when he could join them. King was in Atlanta preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church on that Sunday.

Despite these internal rifts and tactical disagreements, the broader goal of achieving federal intervention to dismantle barriers to the ballot box in Selma and beyond remained paramount. The movement transcended individual egos and organizational rivalries, highlighting the importance of uniting diverse factions toward a common, overarching objective.

This underscores the significance of collective action and solidarity in effecting lasting change. While disagreements and divisions may arise within movements, it is imperative to prioritize the shared mission over personal grievances or organizational differences. In the grand scheme of things, what truly matters is the enduring impact and positive transformation brought about by a united front working toward a common goal.

2. Dramatizing a problem is often necessary to force action.

The struggle for voting rights had long been marred by insidious barriers that impeded Black people from registering and casting their ballots. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which was supposed to guarantee the right to vote, Blacks faced formidable obstacles such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence, effectively disenfranchising them for generations. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s spotlighted the entrenched nature of these injustices that the nation could no longer turn a blind eye, compelling action to rectify these longstanding wrongs.

The searing events of "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge served as a catalyst for swift legislative action, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to urgently push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In his impassioned address to a joint session of Congress just nine days after the brutal assault on peaceful marchers in Selma, Johnson underscored the urgency of the moment, emphasizing that mere laws on paper were insufficient in the face of systemic discrimination. He emphatically called for the removal of illegal barriers to voting rights, highlighting the constitutional imperative of ensuring equal access to the ballot box for all citizens, irrespective of race or color.

President Johnson's clarion call to open polling places to all, eliminate discriminatory practices, and extend the full rights of citizenship to every individual resonated deeply with the collective conscience of the nation, transcending partisan divides and underscoring the universal struggle for human rights. Through the lens of Selma, 1965, we are reminded that the power of dramatization, coupled with moral conviction and resolute action, can pave the way for transformative social change and uphold the democratic principles enshrined in the fabric of our society.

3. “Bloody Sunday” was not just a singular event; it was a part of a long process.

The events of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma are etched in American history as a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. However, it is crucial to recognize that this tragic day was not an isolated incident but rather a culmination of a protracted struggle for voting rights in the South.

Even before the infamous events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, SNCC activists like Bernard Lafayette had been actively engaged in advocating for voting rights in Selma since 1962. Others like Amelia Boynton, who had revitalized the Dallas County Voters League and was the first Black woman to run for Congress in Alabama in 1964, had been pressing for rights there long before then. Their grassroots organizing, alongside other civil rights organizations, laid the foundation for the mass mobilization that would eventually lead to the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery. The movement work in Selma was part of a broader strategy to challenge discriminatory voter registration practices throughout the South.

Moreover, it is essential to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the civil rights movement across different regions. While Selma garnered national attention in 1965, the struggle for voting rights extended to states like Mississippi, where activists faced similar barriers to voter registration. The efforts of SNCC, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other organizations were bolstered by support from initiatives like the Voter Education Project, which provided critical funding to facilitate local organizing and voter registration drives.

In essence, "Bloody Sunday" was a flashpoint in a larger narrative of resistance and resilience in the face of systemic disenfranchisement. The bravery and determination of individuals on the ground in Selma and across the South laid the groundwork for legislative victories that would shape the trajectory of civil rights in America.

4. Appealing to a higher authority is necessary when progress is stalled at one level of government.

The movement in Selma is also a powerful example of the necessity to appeal to a higher authority when progress is obstructed at the local or state level. At the time, George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, stood as a staunch opponent of integration, voting rights expansion for Blacks, and the broader goals of the civil rights movement. Given this dynamic, though the direct action of the people happened in Selma, the target was a national audience that would press for legislation action at the national level.

Ultimately, the events in Selma underscored the power of federal intervention in advancing civil rights and equality. By appealing to a higher authority and mobilizing national attention, the activists in Selma were able to effect change and pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation that dismantled discriminatory barriers to voting. The legacy of Selma endures as a testament to the courage and determination required to challenge injustice and create transformative change.

Dr. Marcus Bright is an author and social impact professional.

The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers