From Selma to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) begin considering a campaign in Selma, Alabama, where less than 2 percent of eligible African Americans are registered to vote. Lyndon B. Johnson is re-elected to the US presidency.
King launches the Selma campaign with a rally at Brown Chapel.
In his State of the Union address, Johnson lists voting rights for all citizens as a priority of his administration.
“Find the worst condition you can run into . . . get it on the radio, get in on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings.” (President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a phone call to Martin Luther King, January 15, 1965)
105 black school teachers defy the superintendent and rally at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma.
King and 500 schoolchildren are arrested in Selma; 650 African Americans march in nearby Marion. Unitarian Universalist ministers Ira Blalock and Gordon Gibson arrive in Selma to work with the SCLC. The Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sends a telegram to King in jail, praising him as a “model of discipline and non-violence.” Greeley urges Johnson and Congress to guarantee voting rights to all citizens.
“There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” (Martin Luther King, writing from the county jail in Selma, February 5, 1965)
Sheriff Jim Clark sends 165 black teens on a forced run out of town, pursued by patrol cars.
A night march in Marion ends with a brutal attack. Dozens are injured; 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson* is shot by a state trooper.
Jackson dies. The SCLC announces a protest march to Montgomery at his memorial service.
The march from Selma to Montgomery begins, but state troopers and a sheriff’s posse stop the marchers with clubs and tear gas on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. TV news footage of “Bloody Sunday” interrupts a program about Nazi atrocities. King calls religious leaders to join him in Selma.
Dr. Homer Jack receives King’s telegram at the UUA offices in Boston and begins calling UU ministers. Orloff Miller, James Reeb, and Clark Olsen are among 40 who leave for Selma that night.
450 religious leaders join 2,000 African Americans for a second march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. After praying at the site of Sunday’s attack, they return to Brown Chapel. That night, Reeb, Olsen, and Miller are attacked outside a whites-only restaurant; Reeb is fatally injured.
Reeb dies. Thousands protest outside the White House and in other major cities.
“This was not so much the attempt to murder a man as an attempt to murder the hopes and dreams of a people.” (Martin Luther King, speaking to the press after learning of Reeb’s death, March 11, 1965)
Several hundred UU leaders join hundreds of others in Selma. King speaks at Reeb’s memorial service in Brown Chapel. President Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Bill.
“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.” (President Johnson addressing Congress, March 15, 1965. Click here to read the full speech.)
Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU laywoman and housewife enrolled at Wayne State University, decides to go to Selma after participating in a sympathy march in Detroit.
With the National Guard protecting them, 3,200 marchers leave Selma for Montgomery. The Rev. Richard Leonard is the only UU among the 300 marchers who completes the full march. (Updated 2.27.15: Steve Graves, a Meadville Lombard seminarian, also completed the march, according to Mark Morrison-Reed’s 2014 book, The Selma Awakening.)
25,000 demonstrators join the marchers when they reach Montgomery for a final rally at the state capitol. That night, Viola Liuzzo is shot and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen as she drives toward Montgomery to pick up a carload of marchers.
Three men are indicted for the murder of James Reeb.
One of the Klansmen arrested for Liuzzo’s murder turns out to be an FBI informer, who testifies against the other three. Each is acquitted.
President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.
Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, and Father Richard Morrisroe, a Chicago priest, are released from a week in jail for participating in a public demonstration in Lowndes County, Alabama. A deputy sheriff shoots them with a shotgun before they can leave town. Daniels dies instantly; Morrisroe is seriously injured. The deputy is acquitted of murder charges.
The three men acquitted in Liuzzo’s murder are indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to violate her civil rights. A federal jury convicts them in December.
The three men charged in the murder of James Reeb are acquitted.
“All Americans should be aroused by the Selma acquittals, which leave unresolved the murder of James Reeb. Those guilty of the bombings, the beatings, the killings, and the snipings in the dark cannot remain unconfronted.” (UUA President Greeley, following the verdict)
The UUA installs a memorial to Jackson, Reeb, and Daniels in Brown Chapel. The UUA also buys a house for Jackson’s mother and establishes a fund for his family, using extra proceeds of more than $100,000 given in Reeb’s memory.
1/12/10: The online version of this article had given the wrong year for the first entry. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
Updated: Earlier versions of this article spelled Jimmie Lee Jackson’s name “Jimmy,” in keeping with most of the historical sources at the time. We have adjusted the spelling to reflect the preferences of his family. Click here to return to the updated paragraph.
African American citizens wait in the rain to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, on February 17, 1965 (AP Photo)
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Christopher L. Walton was the editor of UU World and director of the UUA’s Periodicals staff group until June 2021. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah.
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