What is ‘Bloody Sunday’ 1965? Remembering Selma to Montgomery marches

Bruno Cooke March 8, 2021
What is ‘Bloody Sunday’ 1965? Remembering Selma to Montgomery marches
Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

On 7 March 1965, the first of three protest marches, from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, took place in defiance of segregationist repression. They were peaceful marches, but the first day later became known as Bloody Sunday. What is Bloody Sunday 1965, and why is it called Bloody Sunday?

What is Bloody Sunday 1965?

The Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 began on 7 March. 

Organised locally by civil rights leader and minister James Bevel and activist Amelia Boynton, among others, the purpose of the nonviolent protest march was to demonstrate the desire of African American citizens to exercise their right to vote.

Besides being part of a series of marches, it fitted into a broader voting rights movement throughout the American South.

Photo by Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Why is it called Bloody Sunday?

The first of the three marches became known as Bloody Sunday because of the state authorities’ response. Because of the extreme violence that state troopers inflicted upon the unarmed protestors, the event earned the moniker, “Bloody Sunday”.

States troopers and county “possemen” – traditionally groups of citizens mobilised by a sheriff to suppress lawlessness – attacked the unarmed marchers. They used billy clubs (batons) and tear gas after the protestors passed over the county line.

But images of peaceful activist Amelia Boynton, beaten unconscious and lying wounded on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, circulated worldwide, prompting waves of indignation.

Aljazeera celebrated Boynton’s 103rd birthday in 2015 with a video interview. The video contains archive footage of the Bloody Sunday 1965 march (including some upsetting images). 

Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage

What happened on Bloody Sunday?

As many as 600 civil rights marchers walked southeast out of Selma, Alabama, on U.S. Highway 80. They intended to reach Montgomery, but they didn’t get that far.

The authorities, including local possemen, descended on the protestors when they crossed the county line.

Soon afterwards, the violence that occurred on Bloody Sunday prompted a national outcry. In other states, protestors demanded protection for the marchers. 

President Lyndon B Johnson overrode the Alabama governor’s refusal to protect the marchers. As a result, when the third march took place, it did so with the protection of nearly 2000 National Guard personnel.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on 6 August, following a 77-19 vote in the Senate and a 333-85 congressional vote on 9 July.

Martin Luther King Jr, was present at the ceremony, alongside other civil rights leaders.

Johnson’s law aimed to overcome state- and local-level barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote in elections. 

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.