How events in Selma 50 years ago changed America forever

  • Sheriff Jim Clark, Dallas County Selma, Ala., stands in front of a group of African-Americans lined up at a side door of the Dallas County Court House in Selma on Jan. 21, 1965, as they drive to boost their voting strength from the present 300 to a 15,000 maximum and face arrest in the process. Sheriff Clark and his possemen have become a symbol of resistance to the African-American community, with clubs and electric cattle prods. Many were arrested by Clark, when they refused to use an alley entrance to the court house. 
  • (L) Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pauses in front of the Hotel Albert after leading a successful challenge to Selma’s historic segregation barriers, Jan. 22, 1965. Dr. King registered at the century-old hotel and then lead a march to register blacks to vote at the county courthouse. (R) Police frisk African-Americans arrested as they attempted to get into the voter registration line in Selma, Ala. on Jan. 26, 1965. After the first 100 African-Americans lined up to register, the police would not permit others to get in line in accordance with a court order.
  • Three white civil rights workers are arrested by Dallas County deputy sheriffs in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 27, 1965, as they approached line of African Americans lined up to register to vote at the courthouse. Officers told them to move on and when they argued they were arrested.
  • These youngsters carry signs protesting Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and segregation after more than 250 persons were arrested during a march on the courthouse in Selma, Ala., Feb. 1, 1965. Those arrested included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1964 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. About 400 school-age blacks were taken into custody and turned over to truant officials. 
  • African-Americans, many of them teenagers, during voter registration demonstration in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965. More than 400 people were arrested in the latest incident bringing total arrests to about 3,300. 
  • Hosea Williams, civil rights activist, tells demonstrators in Selma, Ala., that they will march to the courthouse “come hell or high water,” Feb. 13, 1965. 
  • It rained all day but that did not dampen the spirits of blacks determined to register to vote, Feb. 17, 1965. They stood in the rain trying to register in a priority book to take voter registration test in Selma, Ala. Nearly 1,000 black names were now on the book waiting to take the voter registration test. 
  • The body of Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, is removed from a Selma, Ala., hospital Feb. 26, 1965 after he died of a gunshot wound inflicted during race violence in Marion, Ala., Feb. 18, 1965. The violence broke out during a night demonstration of people against voter registration laws. 
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives for the funeral in Marion, Ala., of Jimmie Lee Jackson, slain during a racial demonstration, on March 3, 1965. MLK later led mourners three miles in the rain to a cemetery for burial. 
  • Alabama state troopers charge into a line of demonstrators making an attempt to march to Montgomery from Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965.
  • John Lewis, center, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is forced to the ground as state troopers break up the demonstration on March 7, 1965, what has become known as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala. Supporters of black voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper and to improve voter registration for blacks, who are discouraged to register. 
  • Alabama state troopers wearing masks round up stragglers in a heavy cloud of tear gas after breaking up a civil rights voter registration march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965.
  • Civil rights demonstrators struggle on the ground as state troopers use violence to break up a march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. The supporters of black voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper and to improve voter registration for blacks, who are discouraged to register. 
  • State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis (in the foreground), chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is seen being beaten by state troopers.
  • Tear gas fumes fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Gov. George Wallace, break up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their protest march to Montgomery, state troopers violently assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watched the police brutality on television and demanded that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks.
  • Mrs. Amelia Boynton is aided by two men after she was injured when state police broke up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. Mrs. Boynton, wife of a real estate and insurance man, has been a leader in civil rights efforts.
  • American religious and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) leads a prayer in a church in Selma, Ala., March 9, 1965.
  • Civil rights activists reach a police road block on street outside of Selma, Ala., on March 9, 1965.
  • Former American politician Emily Taft Douglas (1899 - 1994) speaks with religious and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) during the second Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march, also known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” Selma, Ala., on March 9, 1965.
  • Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carries a wreath, March 15, 1965, in a march to the courthouse for memorial services for white Unitarian minister Rev. James Reeb, who was killed by a white mob, in Selma, Ala. From left to right, front: His Eminence Iakobos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church; King; Revs. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. Back, left to right: Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, Boston, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of North America; Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers.
  • Participants in the Selma march are seen in Selma, Ala., 1965. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson made no secret about his support for the activists in Selma when he told a joint session of Congress, ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’’
  • Civil Rights demonstrators march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 21, 1965 as they head for the state capital at Montgomery, Ala. The estimated 4500 marchers set out on a five-day, 50 mile journey under the protection of federalized National Guardsmen, U.S. Military Police and other law enforcement agencies.
  • The Selma March in Alabama, 1965.
  • 
A supporter carries a sign as she walks during the Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Led by Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for black suffrage.
  • A National Guardsman stands outside a black home during the Selma March from Selma to Montgomery. The protestors marched under the protection of federalized National Guard troops ordered by President Lyndon Johnson.
  • Supporters are seen in marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
  • Participants in the Selma to Montgomery march are seen in Alabama. From the beginning of the march in Selma, the marchers found jeering bystanders and hostile statements.
  • From the beginning of the march in Selma, the marchers found jeering bystanders.
  • The police and the Army escort the Selma marchers.
  • A marcher takes a rest, March 1965 in Alabama. The marchers walked about 12 miles a day under the protection of federal troops, and slept in the fields at night.
  • Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and wife, Coretta Scott King (R, w. bonnet and sunglasses) look energized as they lead demonstrators on the fourth day of their march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
  • Crowds watch as marchers arrive in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. After five days and 54 miles, the marchers reached the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965. 
  • Civil rights demonstrators rally in Montgomery during the culmination of the Selma March on March 25, 1965.
  • A Canadian marcher carries an injured young boy on his shoulders on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. leads a group of marchers through the streets in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.
  • A line of policemen on duty during a black voting rights march in Montgomery, Ala. Around 50,000 supporters met the marchers in Montgomery, where they gathered in front of the state capitol to hear Dr. King and other speakers address the crowd.
  • Activist Stokely Carmichael (1941 - 1998) listens to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his ‘How Long, Not Long’ speech in Montgomery, Ala., at the culmination of the Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965.
  • Young African-American civil rights marchers singing as they marched along the road on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seen through sea of microphones, speaking before crowd of 25,000 civil rights marchers, in front of Alabama state capital building at the end of the Selma To Montgomery Civil Rights March, on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala.

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“You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.” — Rep. John Lewis

Fifty years ago this week on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the American civil rights movement came to a violent and powerful climax.

Hundreds of predominately black protesters of all ages were attacked in broad daylight with tear gas, billy clubs and even whips by the Alabama National Guard and local law enforcement. They were subject to the violence for simply trying to exercise their First Amendment freedom in a march to shine a national spotlight on legal minority voter suppression in the Deep South.

The nonviolent activists endured vicious beatings and hateful epithets, and their sacrifice shamed a nation into recognizing that it could not consider itself a democracy when a significant portion of its population is denied the right to participate fully in it.

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Following the first clash on March 7, 1965 – which has since become known as “Bloody Sunday” – there was another attempt to cross the bridge, this time led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the voting rights advocates, whose numbers swelled due to the addition of many out-of-state supporters, were repelled again.

In the aftermath of the second demonstration on the bridge, Rev. James Reeb, a white clergyman who had traveled from Boston to support Dr. King’s cause, was murdered in cold blood by segregationists. His death galvanized King and his followers, and the combination of his stirring oratory and the courage of the rank-and-file activists who returned to the bridge for a third time, provided a turning point for a struggle decades in the making. And the powers-that-be in Alabama lost an attempt in federal court to block marchers, setting the stage for a final showdown.

Celebrities, politicians and many more from every walk of American life ventured to Selma and this time the president of the United States was solidly in the corner of the civil rights movement. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson made no secret about his support for the activists in Selma when he told a joint session of Congress, ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’’

After five days and 54 miles, King and his followers reached their symbolic destination of Montgomery, the state’s capitol. It was there that King delivered one of his most memorable speeches in which he declared,‘‘There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”

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King may have been the face of the movement, but there were several crucial figures behind the scenes who made this historic action possible. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was among them. As young leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was on the front lines that fateful day and the experience not only shaped his future career as a politician, but his national identity as a heroic icon.

Lewis, who survived a brutal beating that day, wrote in his 1998 memoir “Walking With the Wind,” “I really felt that i saw death at that moment.” Yet today he remains resolute that what he and his colleagues accomplished that day still reverberates.

“If it hadn’t been for that march across Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, there would be no Barack Obama as president of the United States of America,” he said during a February interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

As President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their children make the pilgrimage to Selma this week to pay tribute to Lewis and his peers, it is clear that their debt to history is not lost on them.

“What happened in Selma is a quintessentially America experience not just an African-American experience,” the president told an audience attending a Black History Month reception at the White House on Feb. 26. ‘It speaks to what’s best in this country. It reminds us that the history of America doesn’t belong to one group or another – it belongs to all of us.”

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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