The trail outlines the events of “Bloody Sunday” during an attempted march to Montgomery, and the final successful march after a federal judge ordered that the Alabama police had to allow the thousands of marchers to walk to Montgomery.
A total of 30 trials have been established since the passage of the National Trails System Act of 1968.
The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute is located in Selma, Alabama, near the Edmund Pettus Bridge were “Bloody Sunday” occurred during a planned march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The institution shows artifacts regarding the struggle of women and African Americans to garner the right to vote in every county and in every state in the United States.
The Ancient Africa, Enslavement & Civil War Museum of Selma, Alabama was established in 2002 to remind the visitors of the town the legacy of slavery, in ancient and modern times, and how it’s inhumanity should never again be allowed to be inflicted on others in America and around the world.
The museum shows exhibits on slavery in Ancient Africa, slavery in the United States, particularly how enslaved African American men and women were counted as a fifth of a person, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans through the Jim Crow Laws restricting voting rights and the mandatory segregation of private and public facilities.
Annie Pearl Avery, a Civil Rights and “Bloody Sunday” veteran who worked with Martin Luther King, Junior, currently works for the museum.
For months, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe (SNCC) attempted to registers African Americans in Dallas County, Alabama and were thwarted from succeeding in most of their attempts despite the passage of the new federal law. African Americans made up half of the Dallas County population, but only made up two percent of voters. On March 7, 1965, as about six hundred civil rights activists were marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest for the recent shooting death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson and the right of African Americans to register to vote, Alabama State Troopers, under the leadership of Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, planned to end the March with violence against the Caucasian and African American protestors.
Sheriff Jim Clark, along with his Alabama State Troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, ordered the marchers to stop.
The marchers refused the trooper’s orders and they badly beat and killed some protestors. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday” and was instrumental in the passage of the stricter Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was named after Brigadier General Edmund Winston Pettus of the Western Confederate Army whom became Democratic U.S. Senator and a Grand Wizard of the Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, over three decades after his death, was created to replace an older bridge that had to be hand drawn to let ships through. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was built between 1939 and 1940.
Before the state of the U.S. Civil War, Alabamian Edmund Winston Pettus asked his older brother John Jones Pettus, the Governor of Mississippi, to call for the state of Mississippi to leave the Union. Governor John Jones Pettus heeded his brother’s call and lead Mississippi to secede from the Union.
When the war began he enlisted in the army and was promoted to the Brigadier General for the Western Confederate Army.
After the war, Edmund Winston Pettus served as a U.S. Senator of Alabama and as a Grand Wizard of the Alabama Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Edmund Winston Pettus has a bridge named after him in Selma, Alabama over thirty years after his death.
On March 30, 1865, the Battle of Selma began General James Harrison Wilson detached Brigadier General John Thomas Croxton’s brigade to destroy all Confederate property at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After capturing a Confederate courier who carried dispatches from Forrest describing the strengths and dispositions of his scattered forces, Wilson also sent a brigade to destroy the bridge across the Cahaba River at Centreville. This action effectively cut off most of Forrest’s reinforcements. This began a running fight that did end until after the fall of Selma.
On the afternoon of April 1, after skirmishing all morning, General Wilson’s advanced guard ran into Forrest’s line of battle at Ebenezer Church, where the Randolph Road intersected the main Selma road. Here Forrest had hoped to bring his entire force to bear on Wilson. However delays caused by flooding plus earlier contact with the enemy enabled Forrest to muster less than 2,000 men, a large number of whom were not veterans but militia consisting of old men and young boys.
The outnumbered and outgunned Confederates fought bravely for more than an hour as more Union cavalry and artillery deployed on the field. Forrest himself was wounded by a saber-wielding Union captain whom he killed with his revolver. Finally, a Union cavalry charge with carbines blazing broke the Confederate militia causing Forrest to be flanked on his right. He was forced to retreat under severe pressure.
Early the next morning Forrest arrived at Selma, “horse and rider covered in blood.” He advised Gen. Richard Taylor, departmental commander, to leave the city. Taylor did so after giving Forrest command of the defense.
Selma was protected by three miles of fortifications which ran in a semi-circle around the city. They were anchored on the north and south by the Alabama River. The works had been built two years earlier, and while neglected for the most part since, were still formidable. They were 8 to 12 feet high, 15 feet thick at the base, with a ditch 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep along the front. In front of this was a picket fence of heavy posts planted in the ground, 5 feet high, and sharpened at the top. At prominent positions, earthen forts were built with artillery in position to cover the ground over which an assault would have to be made.
Forrest’s defenders consisted of his Tennessee escort company, McCullough’s Missouri Regiment, Crossland’s Kentucky Brigade, Roddey’s Alabama Brigade, Frank Armstrong’s Mississippi Brigade, General Daniel W. Adams’ state reserves, and the citizens of Selma who were “volunteered” to man the works. Altogether this force numbered less than 4,000, only half of who were dependable. The Selma fortifications were built to be defended by 20,000 men. Forrest’s soldiers had to stand 10 to 12 feet apart in the works.
Wilson’s force arrived in front of the Selma fortifications at 2 p.m. He had placed Gen. Eli Long’s division across the Summerfield Road with the Chicago Board of Trade Battery in support. He had Maj. Gen. Emory Upton’s division placed across the Range Line Road with Battery I, 4th U.S. Artillery in support. Altogether, Wilson had 9,000 troops available for the assault.
The Federal commander’s plan was for Upton to send in a 300-man detachment after dark to cross the swamp on the Confederate right, enter the works, and begin a flanking movement toward the center moving along the line of fortifications. Then, a single gun from Upton’s artillery would signal the attack by the entire Federal Corps.
At 5 p.m., however, Gen. Armisted Long’s ammunition train in the rear was attacked by advance elements of Forrest’s scattered forces coming toward Selma. Both Long and Upton had positioned significant numbers of troops in their rear for just such an event. However, Long decided to commence his assault against the Selma fortifications to neutralize the enemy attack in his rear.
Long’s troops attacked in a single rank in three main lines, dismounted with Spencer carbines , supported by their own artillery fire. The Confederates replied with heavy small arms and artillery fire of their own. The Federals suffered many casualties (including General Long himself) but not enough to break up the attack. Once the Union troops reached the works, there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Many soldiers were struck down with clubbed muskets. But the Union troops kept charging into the works. In less than 30 minutes, Long’s men had captured the outer works protecting the Summerfield Road.
Meanwhile, General Upton, observing Long’s success, ordered his division forward. The story was much the same for his men as on Long’s front. Soon, U.S. flags could be seen waving over the works from Range Line Road to Summerfield Road.
After the outer works fell, General Wilson himself led his escort, the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in a mounted charge, one of three that day, down the Summerfield Road toward the unfinished inner line of works. The retreating Confederate forces, upon reaching the inner works, all rallied and poured a devastating fire into the charging Union column. This broke up the charge and sent General Wilson sprawling to the ground when his favorite horse was wounded. He quickly remounted his stricken mount and ordered an assault by several regiments.
Mixed units of Confederate troops had also occupied the Selma railroad depot and the adjoining banks of the railroad bed to make a stand next to the present day Broad Street. The fighting there was heavy, but by 7 p.m., the superior numbers of Union troops had managed to flank the Southern positions causing them to abandon the depot as well as the inner line of works. In the darkness, the Union troops rounded up hundreds of prisoners, but hundreds more escaped down the Burnsville Road, including Generals Forrest, Armstrong, and Roddey.
To the west, many Confederate soldiers fought the pursuing Union soldiers all the way down to the eastern side of Valley Creek. They escaped in the darkness by swimming across the Alabama River near the mouth of Valley Creek (where the present day Battle of Selma Reenactment is held.)
The jubilant Union troops and some slaves looted the city that night and many businesses and private residences were burned. The words of a Union trooper describe it best. “Of all the nights of my experience, this is most like the horrors of war —a captured city burning at night, a victorious army advancing, and a demoralized one retreating….this Sunday night now nearly gone, will be remembered. If there is a merciful God in the heavens, he must be looking down upon this scene in pity.” E. N. Gilpin 3rd Iowa Cavalry US Selma, April 2, 1865
The Union troops spent the next week destroying the Army Arsenal, Naval Ordnance Works and other war industries. Then they left Selma heading to Montgomery and then Columbus and Macon, Georgia, and the end of the war.
The area of Selma, Alabama was first recorded on a map in 1732 as Ecor Bienville, in honor of the then-French provincial governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Seiuer de Bienville. Not until the early 1800s did European settlers begin to frequent the site, however, which by then they referred to as “High Soap Stone Bluff.” The site became known as “Moore’s Bluff” when Thomas Moore, a settler from Tennessee, built a cabin there in 1815. Two years later, a group of influential settlers in the area, including future vice president William Rufus King, formed the Selma Town Land Company to buy up land to establish a town above the river. On December 4, 1820, Selma was incorporated by the state legislature.
I have read several books pertaining to the civil rights movement, including John Blake’s, “Children of the Movement”. However, Charles E. Fager’s book, “Selma 1965: The March That Changed The South” goes more in depth regarding the brutality African Americans specifically faced by members of the racist local population, the city police and state troopers, in Selma, Alabama than any other book I have read thus far. Sheriff Jim Clark’s resentment of African American and Caucasian civil rights activists is well documented in this book. Sheriff Clark regularly beat blacks at the Selma Courthouse who were simply trying to register to vote and had certain members of his posse drive school buses around black marchers to keep reporters from taking pictures and videos of his other officers beating the people hidden from plain view.
During one rally of white supremacists, who assembled to counter a black march in conjunction with caucasian ministers from various other states, yelled to the police nearby, “Get those god-damned niggers!” Sheriff Clark had yelled in response, “and those god-damned white niggers!”.
Martin Luther King, activist James Bevel and other Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders spoke at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church during the course of their campaign to end segregation and to obtain equal voting rights between all races of people, in the face of blantant racism amungst the locals, politicians and law enforcement in Alabama. The church acted as a central meeting location for various “mass meetings” used to inspire people to get involved and to prepare for the logistics of their many marches to get individuals registered at the Selma courthouse and at other locations.
In 1965, a band of marchers left from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church, to head to Montgomery, were brutalized by Sheriff Jim Clark, his officers and several Alabama State Troopers near Edmund Pettus Bridge, a structure named after a former Confederate General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Tear gas was used and many police beat up elderly blacks, who were unable to run away, during the march. Then the police chased some younger and older blacks who ran into nearby stores, and continued to beat them there. Some officers followed twenty six year old Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother Viola and his eighty two year old grandfather Cager Lee and smashed out all the lights in the store. When one trooper hit Viola so hard it made her scream, her son came in to defend her. In response,
“The trooper struck him across the face, and young Jackson went careening into the floor himself. Then a trooper picked him up and slammed him against a cigarette machine while another trooper, a man named Fowler, drew his pistol and calmly shot Jackson point blank in the stomach. Jackson didn’t realize he was shot until a few moments later, because the trooper continued beating him and the others unmercifully. Pulling himself up again from the floor, he ran blindly out the door of the cafe, clutching his stomach, headed back up the street past the church towards the bus station, where his car was parked. But more troopers were waiting outside, and he was struck again and again along the way, until he collapsed bleeding on the sidewalk”.
Eventually someone found the unconscious Jimmie and took him to Perry County Hospital. Even present day Congressman John Lewis, one of the original 13 Freedom bus riders, was present for the events of “Bloody Sunday” and had his skull fractured by policemen.
With all of the savagery committed by law enforcement in Selma, the marchers never made it to Montgomery that day, and the brutality was worse because MLK’s advisers told him not join the group that day. Their logic was for MLK to wait until a couple of attempts were made to make it to Montgomery, then for him join once it appeared a march to Montgomery would succeed. The cautionary nature of the advisers came at a price, as MLK’s presence would of attracted reporters, whose cameras would of compelled the police and state troopers to act tamer during that organized march.
As a result of the brutality from his absence on “Bloody Sunday”, MLK decided to join the marchers during their second and third attempts to Montgomery from Brown Chapel A.M.E. church. The marchers were blocked from marching to Montgomery, by Public Safety Officer Baker, who repeated an order from a judge that they were not permitted to march on Highway 80 towards Montgomery. It was not until Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and a federal judge Johnson issued an order permitting 300 individuals to march on highway 80, that the activists were able to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama.
Before the third attempted March to Montgomery, James Bevel was preaching to black attendees and to out of town white ministers in at the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church when he berated the white preachers, calling them:
“… completely ineffectual. They don’t have enough preachers who believe strongly enough in what they say to love it. You white ministers are all thinking of going home to preach on Sunday. Now you just stay here. It will do your congregations much more good for you to be absent. You just let them sit there and let them think about what’s happening here. You’ve been preaching to them all these years, and they go home, eat a great big dinner, watch TV and go to sleep. So you just stay here and listen, and leave them home alone thinking. … If we communicate, people will stay awake and start moving. It involves more than taking a stand. Everyone is taking a stand these days, and the result is there is a lot of standing around.”
Bevel was correct to assert that those choosing to “stand around” and be apathetic to the grave mistreatment of blacks in America, permitted the mistreatment by the establishment to last longer than it ever should have; while suppressing the weakened voice of the suppressed class of Americas. However, once caucasians joined the movement en masse, it allowed the civil rights movement to finally get the ear of Lyndon B. Johnson, whom MLK spent years trying to persuade, to get federal involvement in Alabama.