Selma: A major step for African American voting rights

Downtown Selma is seen from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where route 80 crosses the Alabama River, on March 4, 2015 in Selma, Alabama (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
Fabienne Faur

Washington (AFP) - The march from Selma to Montgomery, which US President Barack Obama will commemorate Saturday in the southern state of Alabama, was part of the fight to end voting discrimination against African Americans a half century ago.

Obama will deliver remarks at Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked as they marched on March 7, 1965, a day which became known as "Bloody Sunday."

The first, failed attempt to carry out the march would be followed by another on March 9 and a final successful push on March 21. The latter two were led by 1964 Nobel Peace prize winner Martin Luther King Jr.

Below is a list of events leading up to and following the march.

- Between 1961 an 1964, young black activists campaigned for voting rights for African Americans in Selma, a small, majority-white town that had largely disenfranchised its African American population from the electoral process. Only two percent of its eligible black voters were registered.

King decided that the town would make an ideal symbol for the larger voting rights cause. The episode would unfold as Alabama Governor George Wallace, a staunch supporter of segregation, was at the helm of the state. At the end of his life, he would ask for forgiveness from African Americans.

- February 1965: Multiple peaceful demonstrations took place across Dallas County, whose seat was the town of Selma.

On February 18, black protester Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally wounded by a policeman and died. A protest march was called for March 7.

- First March, March 7: Some 600 protesters gathered in Selma, aiming to march 54 miles (87 kilometers) to the state capital of Montgomery.

They were stopped in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, by state troopers and local police who demanded they turn around.

When the protesters refused, the police, including some on horseback, fired tear gas and hit protesters with billy clubs. Multiple people were wounded, although the exact number varies. Images of "Bloody Sunday" were televised, arousing national outrage. King called for a second march on March 9.

- Second march, March 9: King himself led the march, which totaled around 2,000 people, including a number of black and white clergy who had heeded King's call to action. The group stopped in the middle of the bridge for a moment of reflection, and King turned them around, to avoid any further confrontation.

Hours later, a white pastor, James Reeb, who was attending the march in solidarity with the black protesters, was beaten to death. Amid outrage, demonstrations were held throughout the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson called for an end to violence and promised legislation.

- Third march, March 21: Under protection of federal police, 2,000 to 3,000 protesters led by King left Selma for Montgomery. Their numbers swelled to around 25,000 people by the time they arrived on March 25. Governor Wallace refused see them.

- August 6, 1965: President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act which guaranteed the right to vote to all, prohibiting in particular, reading and writing tests, which had prevented many blacks from voting.