Monday, Mar. 7 marked the 57th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery that later earned the name “Bloody Sunday”. On that day in 1965, a Civil Rights demonstration began peacefully but ended in violence.
Over 600 people met that day to honor the fight for Blacks to vote and the recent fatal police shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, a church deacon. The group of demonstrators, led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), planned to march the 54 miles from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital.
The protestors made it through downtown Selma peacefully and undisturbed. Alabama Governor George Wallace had ordered state troopers to use “whatever measures necessary” to prevent the march from happening.
Lewis and Williams found said measures waiting for them at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate general and Klu Klux Klan (KKK) member, who also served as a U.S. senator.
At the base of the bridge was a wall of state troopers with helmets and billy clubs and deputies on horseback. The protesters walked down the bridge on the sidewalk until they stopped about 50 feet from local authorities.
Marchers were bludgeoned, whipped, tear-gassed and chased back across the bridge. Although attacked, they did not fight back.
Television cameras caught the entire assault and footage of the event was flown that night from Alabama to media headquarters in New York. ABC newscaster Frank Reynolds interrupted the premiere of a star-studded movie to air the footage of Bloody Sunday to over 50 million Americans.
Ruth Cummings was born in Selma in 1952 and her family lived just a mile away from the Edmund Pettus bridge. Her brother Hosea was one of the demonstrators present on Bloody Sunday.
“We could hear the screams,” Cummings said. “And so we came out, and we could look and see the tear gas. It looked to us like smoke; we thought something was on fire.”
Her brother came home that night bruised, cut and covered in tear gas. Unfortunately, that was not the first time Cummings was exposed to brutality in Selma.
The first time she encountered the KKK, she was a toddler. As a child one day, Cummings was picking berries with her sister near train tracks when suddenly she was told to run.
“There was a train right up on us,” Cummings said. “He never bothered to blow his horn to let us know that he was there. And I guess his intent was to just get rid of all those. So that’s the kind of thing we kind of grew up with, knowing that we weren’t really safe.”
57 years later, Cummings doesn’t feel like much has changed in Selma, or in the country as a whole.
Cummings remembers how difficult it was for Black people to vote during her childhood. One of the obstacles they faced at the time was the poll tax. Cummings described the poll tax as being so high, no average Black person could pay it, so the community would scrape together money for one person to be able to register to vote.
This is what was done for one of Cummings’ neighbors.
“When they gave her the literacy test, she made 100 on it [and] they accused her of cheating,” Cummings said. “She had to come in and take another test. [On] the second test that they gave her had questions on it like ‘Name all the 67 counties in Alabama and their seats, and tell us how many beans are in a bushel’, and other questions that they know nobody could answer. And then they will tell you that you didn’t pass the test. Of course, we didn’t pass that test.”
Cummings believes that even today, it’s still hard for minorities to be able to vote fairly and that society continues to exclude them. That’s why she believes strongly in the right to vote.
“My husband says all the time. ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’” Cummings said. “So, you need to be in a position where you can exercise your right to vote in order to be able to choose who’s going to be over you, who’s going to be sitting next to you, who you’re going to work for, where you’re able to live.”