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Teaching Selma: A Civil Rights Struggle Captured in Primary Sources

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Demonstrators protest police brutality in Selma
Demonstrators protest police brutality in Selma, March 12, 1965

In the small town of Selma, Alabama, in the early weeks of March 1965, a series of marches took place that brought the nation’s civil rights struggle to a point of crisis, and that captured the attention of the world.

These symbolic marches by nonviolent demonstrators, as well as the violent attacks upon them by police and others, were witnessed in person by hundreds or thousands of people. But the scenes of conflict and determination were also captured by reporters, artists, and photographers, and broadcast across the nation and around the globe.

Today, images of these tumultuous weeks allow students to explore this watershed event in the battle for equal citizenship for African Americans. They also provide an opportunity to explore the ways in which primary sources can help illuminate different perspectives on, and different ways of understanding, a historic moment.

On March 7, in the midst of a voter-registration drive that had been marked by police violence, several hundred marchers, led by 25-year-old activist leader John Lewis, set out to walk from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery in protest. On the edge of town, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies–beaten with clubs, tear-gassed, and trampled by police horses.

15,000 people march in Harlem
15,000 people march in Harlem, March, 1965

When the police onslaught was shown on national television that evening, it provoked outrage across the nation. Protestors picketed the White House, and demonstrators in eighty U.S. cities demanded the federal government take action. Photos of these demonstrations were, in turn, published in newspapers and magazines, and the wave of solidarity with the protesters grew.

Activists, religious and lay leaders, and everyday citizens flooded into Selma to support the civil rights workers, and on March 9, a second group of marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, prayed there, and returned to church.

On Monday, March 15, President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered a speech before both houses of Congress, calling for them to pass legislation securing the right to vote for all Americans, and closing with words taken from a song of the civil rights movement. “….it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Participants in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery
Participants in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery

On March 21, thousands of people, including local activists, national civil rights leaders, college students, and clergy from across the country, set off from Selma to march to Montgomery. Protected by federalized National Guard troops and accompanied by reporters and photographers, they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and headed east toward the state’s capital city.

Four days later, a crowd of more than 25,000 surged into central Montgomery for a celebratory rally. On the steps of the state capitol, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that “the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” On August 6, with King and other civil rights leaders looking on, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery
The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery
  • What can you learn about these moments based on images created at the time? What questions do they provoke?
  • What points of view do you see represented in these images? What purpose do you think their creators had in making them? Does thinking about their creators’ purpose change the way you look at them?
  • How do you think participants in the Selma marches would represent themselves? How do you think they might depict the events differently than these images do?

If your students have ideas about Selma that these images complement–or contradict–please let us know in the comments.

Comments (6)

  1. I love you guys. I always feel like I have a true teaching – partners. You do a great service. PEACE.

  2. I respect that the lesson plan has the goal of students exploring different perspectives – but still…
    I am concerned about the sentence “The marches themselves, as well as the tense and sometimes violent confrontations that accompanied them…”
    It is not clear who was perpetrating the violence.
    Yes, in describing the events during the march from Selma, it is clear that the police used “excessive force”. If that was all, it would be horrid – but what is not mentioned is that this was a movement that embraced nonviolence and peaceful resistance. The movement was confronting the unjust situation in our country – but it was based on on-violence. Other movements, working toward similar goals, took different approaches.
    Some of the more concrete thinking students may not catch these subtle differences.

  3. I feel as though the images are capturing those that are marching towards Selma. I would agree that the article does not make it clear that Selma was embracing nonviolence. The questions these images provoke are Why questions on why these events were going on.

  4. Thank you for bringing these series to educators.

  5. 2 and 3, thank you for your input. We’ve tweaked the language to make our intended meaning more clear.

  6. This was good and full of facts I never knew

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