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Reflecting on Selma’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ 58 years later

The images and video from "Bloody Sunday" swept the nation and served as a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Posted at 7:19 PM, Mar 05, 2023

This year marks the 58th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." 

On March seventh, 1965, a group of peaceful marchers planned to make their way from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama to protest voting inequities and the murder of a fellow activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, just weeks prior. 

Their march was stopped as marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridgeand were met by a wall of state troopers. Marchers were beaten back with clubs and whips. Tear gas was deployed. This attack became known as "Bloody Sunday."

“They were beaten and bloodied and arrested just for trying to get people registered to vote. I mean, how ridiculous does that sound?” said Linda Earley Chastang, the President and CEO of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation.

The images and video from that encounter swept the nation and served as a turning point in the civil rights movement. 

“It was a point in time where you could really see the sacrifice people made and the difference it would make, and it was made in real time,” said Sheffield Hale, the President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “They sacrificed their bodies for voting in this country and moving the country forward.” 

President Joe Biden walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Sunday, March 5, 2023.

Biden in Selma: Voting rights remain 'under assault'

“The conservative Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act over the years,” said President Biden.


“The first thing I hope that people will consider is how recent this was,” said Darren Hutchinson the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice at the Emory School of Law. “So many of the people who participated in "Bloody Sunday" as protesters, they're still alive today. Many of the police officers and onlookers who engaged in violence against the marchers are still alive. Our national culture, and perhaps it’s just human instinct, seeks to bury unpleasant memories as something from a fundamentally different society in the past. But, that this tragedy occurred just a few decades ago tells us a lot about how far we need to move as a society.” 

But from this pain, came change. Just three months after the nation saw the images from "Bloody Sunday," President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. 

The ACLU reported that by the end of 1965, 250,000 Black voters were registered for the first time. 

“We took this moment of tragedy, but we bridged something good,” said DeMark Liggins, the National Chief of Staff for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Liggins has made the trip to Selma many times to commemorate the anniversary. Each year, he said he’s reminded of the courage it takes to create change. 

“All of us should take inspiration on the fact that there's a world around us, and there's a world we know is right. And everybody can do something to make their right be seen, and just take that inspiration of courage and, you know, be bold,” said Liggins. 

The 1965 march was led by Hosea Williams and Congressman John Lewis—before Lewis was elected to public office. Linda Earley Chastang runs the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation today, and she said: Lewis’ bravery on "Bloody Sunday" is something we should channel now. 

Martin Luther King Jr. talks at a podium.

How voting rights have changed since Martin Luther King's push

Voting options are narrowing, and the voting process is getting tougher as many states put tighter restrictions in place.


“Today, people are still being beaten, arrested and killed just for living their lives,” said Chastang. “Voting rights are being assaulted. Books about the history of Blacks in America being banned. We've got a lot of work to do, and I think that's one thing that Congressman Lewis would want people to be reminded of.” 

Liggins agrees: the work Lewis and the marchers started in 1965 must continue every single day. “We knocked the veneer off and that's fine,” said Liggins. “But the substantive battle hasn't changed. We still struggle with what is right, what is equal, and who is ‘we?’ Right. When people say, well, ‘We the people,’ who comprises that ‘we,’ and are we treating that group of people correctly? And unfortunately, often that answer is not everybody. We're still fighting for that right now.” 

“It's really about civic engagement,” said Hale. “You have to be vigilant, and you have to engage, and you can't just sit passively by that think is the lesson from it.” 

Chastang said there are other legacies from "Bloody Sunday" that must also be recognized. “One is that strategically and peacefully making your point, making the case, makes a difference. And we know that from "Bloody Sunday." We also know from "Bloody Sunday" that you have to prepare and plan. Having a passion to get something done is not enough. You also have to have a strategy,” said Chastang. 

Chastang said Lewis’ strategy is still at work today, and she hopes to see our nation commit to it further for the next generation. 

“Freedom is the continuous action we must all take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair and more just society,” said Hutchinson. 

Liggins said he hopes honoring the fight for freedom will inspire this generation to bring the change those marchers only dreamed of. 

“We've done better as a country, and it's because of people like them,” said Liggins. “You can be John Lewis, you can be C.T. Vivian, you can be Amelia Boynton, but we don't really need another John Lewis. We need the first you.”