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Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

Selma March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Selma March

In March 1965, tensions flared and lives were lost when demonstrators led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of discriminatory voting laws.

In January 1965 leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined local activists in Selma, Alabama, to execute a voting rights campaign. At the time, only 2 percent of the black population in Selma was registered to vote because of restrictive voting laws. The first month of the nonviolent campaign was plagued with arrests. The second month saw an increase in physical attacks by the police, and on February 18, a black clergyman was shot while protecting his mother from a state trooper. He died eight days later.

Spurred by the clergyman's death, an estimated 600 protesters began marching from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery on March 7. They were stopped on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge by a coalition of state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and men specially deputized for the occasion. Under direct orders from the governor, George Wallace—an old-style Southern Democrat staunchly in favor of segregation—law enforcement officials told the demonstrators to turn around and moments later attacked with tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips, sending more than 50 marchers to the hospital.

Footage of "Bloody Sunday" aired on newscasts throughout the nation, gaining support and sympathy for the unarmed protesters. Encouraged to restart the protest, organizers marched to the bridge again on March 9. However, unwilling to violate a temporary restraining order on demonstrations while the courts decided the legality of the march, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped short of the bridge. He then led the 2,000 protesters in prayer before turning the group around. That night, three white clergymen who participated in the march were beaten by a group of white segregationists. One died.

King and the rest of the organizers got approval to go ahead with the march on March 17. They were allowed five days to complete the 50-mile walk with the stipulation that a maximum of 300 marchers walked the 22-mile stretch of two-lane Highway 80.

The third iteration of the march started on March 21. King led between 3,000 and 8,000 protesters from all over the country out of Selma. Other protesters joined along the way. By the time the marchers reached Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, their numbers had reached 25,000. For protection, they were accompanied by 1,800 Alabama National Guardsmen and 2,000 soldiers. Once in Montgomery, King gave his now-famous "How Long, Not Long" speech, in which he asked the amassed crowd, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?"

The demonstrators and their supporters nationwide did not have to wait long for their protest goal to be met. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reformed voting laws and eliminated unjust voting procedures. The act became law on August 6, 1965.
After two aborted attempts, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, took place from March 21 to 25, 1965. By the last day, over 25,000 marchers from around the country had joined.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08102

Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended unfair laws and practices meant to prohibit African Americans and other minorities from voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a direct result of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. Before the march, President Johnson was hesitant to bring up specific voting legislation before Congress. He hoped the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would put an end to restrictive voting regulations in Southern states. He was also uncertain whether a voting rights bill would have enough votes in Congress to pass. Southerners were already deeply upset by the current desegregation legislation, and he had no wish to provoke further outrage.

Bloody Sunday forced Johnson to take action. On March 15, 1965, he introduced a voting rights bill to both houses of Congress. In his address, he compared the historic events in Selma with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, famous turning points in the American Revolution.

The proposed bill built upon the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed that the right to vote would not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous servitude." Despite that promise, African Americans in the South often found themselves disenfranchised, or unable to vote, because of discriminatory practices. Following the Civil War, African Americans greatly outnumbered white people in some parts of the South. In light of the potential voting power of African Americans, many white people feared for their own political supremacy. As a result, white lawmakers tried to prevent a change in the political and social order by instituting literacy tests, poll taxes, and other barriers to voting for black citizens.

In spite of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, many of those practices were still in use in 1965. Subsequently, Johnson's Voting Rights Act explicitly prohibited literacy tests to determine voter eligibility. It further challenged the use of poll taxes, which required people to pay a fee before they could register to vote. The law also required federal approval when states known for administering literacy tests wished to change their voting laws or procedures. The law was expanded in the 1970s to protect voting rights for non-English-speaking American citizens.
On August 6, 1965, in the presence of such notable civil rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 2803443 (Okamoto, Yoichi R. (Yoichi Robert), 1915-1985)

Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination based on race, religion, or country of origin in the selling, renting, and buying of residential real estate.

Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was an important victory in the battle for equality and justice. However, African Americans still faced enormous discrimination in housing practices. Neighborhoods in most regions of the country had been segregated since the late 19th century following a population shift as African Americans migrated from the rural South and into cities. These practices became official in 1924 when the National Association of Real Estate Brokers told its members to "never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood ... members of any race or nationality ... whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood." Individual neighborhoods drew up their own policies preventing African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods. These practices weren't just limited to the South. Black ghettos, economically depressed sections of cities that are almost exclusively populated by a minority group, formed all over the country as African Americans were forced into their own subsections of major cities.

In 1948 prohibiting certain populations from living in certain neighborhoods by limiting property rights to white people was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. Yet, because the Supreme Court has no power to enforce laws, many neighborhoods ignored the ruling and discrimination against African Americans in regard to housing persisted. Congress began tackling the problem in 1966. The proposed Fair Housing Act was championed at the grassroots level, but Congress did not yet offer it enough support to make it a law.

Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been a vocal proponent of the act, was assassinated. Following King's death on April 4, 1968, President Johnson urged Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act to honor King's memory. They did so on April 11, 1968.

The Fair Housing Act made it illegal for sellers, landlords, or financial institutions to prevent any individual from buying, renting, or selling property for any reason except lack of financial resources. As long as a person had the financial resources, that person could not be barred by race, religion, or nation of origin from living where they desired. The law was expanded in 1974 to further prevent discrimination by gender. The impact of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 on housing segregation was mixed at best. The law lacked the enforcement mechanism to be effectively applied, and the growth of urban ghettos continued its upward trend.