President Lyndon Johnson called “Bloody Sunday” a turning point in American history, comparing it to Lexington and Concord and Appomattox. This was not Texas hyperbole. The brutal attack on voting rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago this March 7 shocked the nation and forced LBJ to put a voting rights bill at the top of his legislative agenda. On March 15, he addressed the nation, telling the American people bluntly that “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote … [T]here must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise … It’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then he paused, and slowly and distinctly, Johnson uttered the words never before spoken by an American president: “And-we-shall-overcome.” Two days later, the bill was delivered to the House. In early August, it passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins and, on August 6, the president signed it into law. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans in the South were free to vote like all Americans. Among those commemorating Bloody Sunday on March 7 will be President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
While Bloody Sunday undeniably focused the attention of the nation on Selma and accelerated the congressional process, another event, which occurred on Thursday, February 18, 1965, also deserves to be remembered because it rescued King’s voting rights movement at a critical moment and led to that fateful confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one, “ Martin Luther King told his followers who had assembled at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church on January 2, 1965 to launch his voting rights campaign in Selma: “Give us the ballot!”
His listeners were familiar with the obstacles Alabama placed in their way: the Board of Registrars, located in the Dallas County Courthouse, opened only twice a month, and its staff usually arrived late, took long lunches, left early, and almost always ignored black visitors. Their oral and written tests were so complicated that not even the most brilliant teachers at Tuskegee Institute could pass them. And if that failed to dissuade black applicants, intimidation and violence were used against those who showed up to apply.
“Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” he said, and the people, numbered at 700, cheered with an intensity that shook the building. ...