“Bloody Sunday.” Close to 200 state troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, as demonstrators prepared to begin a march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination. Seventeen people were injured by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, including future Congressman John Lewis.
After President Johnson federalized the state National Guard and sent another 2,200 troops to protect the marchers, the walk began on March 21, with over 3,000 participating.
U.S. Marines landed in Vietnam. The two battalions were the first U.S. combat forces in that country. Some 23,000 U.S. personnel already served in Vietnam as military advisers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., led another march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march is largely symbolic; as arranged previously, the crowd turns back at a barricade of state troopers. Demonstrations are held in cities across the U.S. to show solidarity with the Selma marchers.
President Johnson issued a statement in the wake of the Selma protests: “I am certain Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote.”
“Statement by the President on the Situation in Selma, Alabama”
The U.S. Justice Department files suit in Montgomery, Alabama asking for an order to prevent the state from punishing any person involved in a demonstration for civil rights.
The Reverend James J. Reeb of Boston died in Selma following a beating. Two other white Unitarian ministers were injured in the attack.
President Johnson went before a special, televised joint session of Congress to urge swift enactment of voting rights legislation. He began with these words:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
“Special Message to Congress: The American Promise” (audio included)
The president sent a special message to Congress urging legislation to protect the right to vote:
Unless we act anew, with dispatch and resolution, we shall sanction a sad and sorrowful course for the future. For if the Fifteenth Amendment is successfully flouted today, tomorrow the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment—the Sixth, the Eighth, indeed, all the provisions of the Constitution on which our system stands—will be subject to disregard and erosion. Our essential strength as a society governed by the rule of law will be crippled and corrupted and the unity of our system hollowed out and left meaningless.
“Special Message to Congress on the Right to Vote”
Senator Everett M. Dirksen’s weekly radio and television broadcast to Illinois carried the title, “The Old Problem of Voting Rights.” Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, “I thought at least for a time that we would not be confronted with that issue in its entirety or any particular aspect until we had developed some experience and would then know how perhaps it would have to be implemented and amended.”
After reviewing the history of voting rights law, he admitted that congressional action had not gone far enough. “There has to be a real remedy,” he said. “There has to be something durable and worthwhile. This cannot go on forever, this denial of the right to vote by ruses and devices and tests and whatever the mind can contrive to either make it very difficult or to make it impossible to vote.”
He concluded: “All this is then by way of saying that the job of freedom in all its glorious aspects never seems to be quite consummated. Freedom and its attributes, the right of a free citizen to vote is somehow a battle that is never quite fully won in any time or generation and so now the torch is lighted for us and the mantel falls on our shoulders to carry on where those before us left off.”
President Johnson submitted a voting rights bill to Congress.
“Letter to the President of the Senate Proposing Legislation To Eliminate Barriers to the Right to Vote”
Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. rules in favor of the marchers. "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups."
“1965 Selma to Montgomery Fast Facts”
The president’s proposals were embodied in S. 1564, “To enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” The Senate bill was cosponsored by 39 Democrats and 18 Republicans.
In voting to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate required the committee to report the bill no later than April 9.
Dirksen made a Senate floor speech in favor of moving forward with the voting rights bill and defended its constitutionality under the 15th amendment. He asked that the bill be referred to the Judiciary Committee with the requirement that full consideration would begin on April 9.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler convened a session of Subcommittee No. 5 to consider the House version of the administration’s bill, H.R. 6400.
President Johnson received a telegram from Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, which Johnson read to reporters:
Dear Mr. President:
With regard to the order of the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, providing a plan for the so-called march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., the Department of Public Safety of the State of Alabama advises me that the following personnel will be required in order to provide maximum security for the march; 6,171 men, 489 vehicles, 15 buses, not including support units. The State of Alabama has available 300 State troopers and approximately 150 officers of the Department of Conservation and Alcohol Beverage Control Department for use in accordance with the order of the Federal Court. I respectfully request that the United States provide sufficient Federal civil authorities or officers to provide for the safety and the welfare of the citizens in and along the proposed march route and to provide for the safety and the welfare of the marchers. Officials of the Department of Public Safety of the State of Alabama are available to confer with your appropriate agency, the appropriate liaison officer being Capt. W. B. Painter, Department of Public Safety, Montgomery, Ala.
“Statement by the President in Response to a Telegram From the Governor of Alabama”
Civil rights demonstrators began their march to Montgomery, Alabama.
The marchers reach the state capitol in Montgomery. The number of marchers grows to about 25,000.
In his weekly radio and television broadcast to Illinois residents, Dirksen cited voter registration statistics in southern states before explaining in broad terms the proposed voting rights act.