The civil rights activism of the late 1950s and early 1960s sparked
social, economic, and political changes throughout the country. The
Supreme Court declared segregated schools, buses, and waiting rooms
unconstitutional on a national scale. Lower court rulings and boycotts
resulted in better pay for African Americans and the removal of
"colored" signs in some cities. But change didn't happen
overnight, and success was often hard-won.
Birmingham, Alabama, was among a handful of cities that refused to
comply with Supreme Court rulings that banned discrimination, and
actually fought to preserve the segregated way of life. In spite of
progress elsewhere in the South, Birmingham remained one of the most
segregated cities in the country. Signs everywhere marked racially
segregated water fountains and restrooms. It was illegal for African
Americans to use the city parks, or for blacks and whites to sit
together in any public facility. Voter registration tests and scare
tactics made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for African
Americans to vote. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization
with a large presence in Birmingham, often enforced segregation with
random acts of violence against African Americans. Local police offered
no protection. In fact, police commissioner Eugene "Bull"
Connor and his deputies were known for their brutality.
In the late 1950s, the Alabama Council on Human Relations (ACHR) formed
to support racial equality. Made up mostly of white professionals, the
ACHR did not participate in marches or demonstrations, but instead
raised money, provided transportation and housing for visiting civil
rights activists, and contributed other more indirect means of support.
By the mid-1960s, the racial tension in Birmingham drew national
attention. News coverage showed police using fire hoses, police dogs,
and tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators. A bomb destroyed the
all-black 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young
girls. Resistance and violence continued even after President Lyndon B.
Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as African Americans
struggled to secure the right to vote. Some members of the ACHR wanted
to take a more active stand for civil rights by marching and
participating in civil rights demonstrations, but not everyone agreed.
In 1965, a faction of the ACHR split off to form the Concerned White
Citizens of Alabama (CWCA). Like many black civil rights activists,
whites who supported civil rights were threatened and intimidated by
those who opposed racial equality. The Klan burned crosses in their
yards, their names were published in local papers, neighbors shunned
them, and local merchants refused to do business with them. Still, the
CWCA continued to promote civil rights, and voting rights in particular.
On Saturday, March 6, 1965, the Reverend Joseph Ellwanger, a white
Lutheran minister, led the 72 CWCA members on a march in Selma, Alabama
to the Dallas County courthouse to protest voting discrimination and the
racial violence that dogged the black community. African Americans lined
the streets as the marchers made their way to Selma. From the steps of
the courthouse, Ellwanger read the statement of purpose. Nearby,
segregationists sang "Dixie" so that he couldn't be heard, but
Ellwanger and the CWCA responded by singing "America the
Beautiful." Black bystanders sang "We Shall Overcome."
The CWCA left soon after, narrowly avoiding a riot.
The CWCA march preceded a week of marching by other civil rights
organizations to protest voting discrimination. Sunday, March 7 would be
dubbed "Bloody Sunday" for the police brutality against
demonstrators, but civil rights leaders reorganized the march, in spite
of a federal court order banning the march and Governor George Wallace's
resistance. While the CWCA did not march, civil rights activists from
across the country participated.
By March 21, federal court justice Frank Johnson lifted the court order
banning the march, and 4,000 demonstrators, including the Reverend
Martin Luther King Jr., embarked on a five-day march from Selma to
Montgomery. An estimated 25,000 marchers -- black and white -- from all
over the country arrived in Montgomery. After a successful day of
demonstrations, a white volunteer from Detroit named Viola Liuzza was
shot in the face and killed by the Klan for helping to drive black
demonstrators back to Selma.
The demonstrations, marked by white support as well as white resistance,
made national headlines and amplified the demand for voting rights
legislation. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the
Voting Rights Act, giving African Americans full access to the political
process and elective office.