The Selma Conflict
The Civil Rights Movement and Voting Rights
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. The act outlawed “discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”1 It was a landmark piece of legislation for the Civil Rights Movement, which at that time was pushing for equal rights and the abolishment of segregationist policies and practices.
However, few powers were initially given to enforce the law. Therefore, even though the Civil Rights Act stated that there should not be voting discrimination on the basis of race, discrimination was still common in some areas of the United States. Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) met strong resistance when trying to register voters in Southern states such as Alabama. Many African Americans were denied the right to vote through the use of literacy tests and “voucher” systems. In a voucher system, an already registered voter had to vouch for you and say that you met the qualifications to vote. Very few minorities were registered to vote because of harsh restrictions and those who wanted to register were often met with intimidation and threats of violence.
In Alabama, Governor George Wallace was a steadfast proponent of segregation who challenged the attempts of the federal government to desegregate public schools and other institutions. In his 1963 Inaugural Address, he used the phrase “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”2 The Dallas County Sheriff, based in an Alabama town called Selma, was a man named Jim Clark who was opposed to racial integration and used violence to deter African American residents from registering to vote. As a result of the obstacles in Southern states in general, and Selma, Alabama in particular, “only 2 percent of Selma’s eligible black voters (300 out of 15,000) had managed to register.”3
Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his role in the Civil Rights Movement, and the SCLC decided to make Selma the focus of a voter registration campaign after local civil rights organizers requested help. They informed President Johnson of their plans to conduct non-violent demonstrations in Selma to dramatize the need for another piece of legislation that would make sure that black Americans could vote. Johnson was hesitant to try and pass a second civil rights bill so soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Then, on February 18th, law enforcement officials attacked a group of peaceful protestors in the nearby town of Marion. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a demonstrator who tried to escape the violence by hiding in a cafe with his mother, was shot by Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler. Jackson died eight days later.
1 Civil Rights Act of 1964
Turnaround Tuesday
On March 9th, Martin Luther King Jr. led a second march to the Edmund Pettus bridge. Many supporters from outside of Alabama traveled to Selma to join the cause. Demonstrations were also held in other U.S. cities to show solidarity with those in Selma.
Demonstrators with We March with Selma sign
The march stopped at the end of Edmund Pettus Bridge, as previously agreed upon, and ended peacefully.
President Johnson announced his voting rights bill and made a statement regarding the events in Selma:
Ever since the events of Sunday afternoon in Selma, Ala., the administration has been in close touch with the situation and has made every effort to prevent a repetition. 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.4
Although the demonstration concluded peacefully and Johnson showed action and support in favor of voting rights, the day did not end without bloodshed. Three white ministers who had traveled to Selma in support of the cause were attacked and beaten. One of them, James Reeb, died two days later.
The public was outraged. President Johnson called the death “an American tragedy.” Both President Johnson and Governor Wallace wanted to put an end to the violence, but their opposing political views and opinions on civil rights made it unlikely they could easily compromise on a solution for problems in Selma.
President Lyndon Johnson and Governor George Wallace
George C Wallace
Governor George Wallace of Alabama was a firm believer in states’ rights and opponent of the Civil Rights Movement. He planned to use both of those positions, which were popular with many white Southerners at the time, to launch a national political campaign and run in the 1968 presidential election. Wallace wanted to prevent further bloodshed and ensure that that his national political ambitions were not harmed. His goal was to prevent the Selma march from taking place.
President Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was progressive on the matter of civil rights for black citizens by the time he reached the White House. In his inaugural State of the Union speech, he said, “Let this session be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.”5 He signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. Johnson was reluctant to antagonize the South by implementing a show of federal powers. However, he believed that if he did nothing to protect the marchers, the situation would only get worse. His goal was to make sure that the march from Selma to Alabama could take place peacefully.
On March 12th, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey met with the members of the Council on Equal Opportunity for suggestions on actions they thought the President should take after the events of “Bloody Sunday.” The suggestion of inviting Governor Wallace to the White House was considered, but there was not consensus for the idea. Humphrey told President Johnson in a memo, “While Governor Wallace probably would not accept your invitation, this, it was suggested, would make it clear that you had exhausted all possible avenues.” He closed the memo by stating, “Finally, you should know that it was the overwhelming sentiment of the group that the decision as to use force was one that could be made only by you and that the Council recognized the difficulty of this decision and was ready to support you wholly.”6
Contrary to the beliefs of the advisors on the Council on Equal Opportunity, Governor Wallace was willing to come to the White House. In fact, later that day he sent a telegram to President Johnson asking for an appointment at the President’s earliest convenience.
Although he sought the appointment in the hopes that law and order can be restored to Alabama, Wallace’s telegram indicates that his bias prevented him from understanding the true purpose of the demonstrations.7 He believed that “Voter registration and voting rights are not the issues involved in these street demonstrations.” Wallace further stated that state authorities are “completely adequate to cope with the situation” although those state and local law enforcement instigated the attacks of “Bloody Sunday.”
Telegram page 1
Telegram page 1
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The Meeting
President Johnson’s goal for the meeting with George Wallace was to convince him to ask for federal law enforcement assistance for the march from Selma to Montgomery. In preparation for the meeting, he got input from advisors like Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
Katzenbach, in a memo to the President, advised that Johnson should respond to all arguments by taking the offensive. He added, “Throughout you should remember the Governor is attempting to use this as a political platform for himself. His demands upon you will be politically (as well as morally) unrealistic and you should have no hesitation making equally unrealistic demands of him.”8
Memo page 1
Memo page 2
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After the Meeting
After his meeting with Governor Wallace, President Johnson gave a press conference:
Two days later, Johnson gave a speech before Congress in which he stated that “Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”9
March 17th, two days after giving that historic speech, President Johnson submitted the Voting Rights Bill to Congress. On the same day, federal judge Frank Johnson, a former classmate of Governor Wallace, overturned Wallace’s prohibition of the march and ruled that the civil rights activists should be permitted to march from Selma to Montgomery to petition the government.
On March 19th, Wallace sent a telegram to President Johnson, officially asking for federal assistance. Johnson shared his reply to that telegram in a press release, where he reiterated that “maintaining law and order in our federal system properly rests with state and local governments,” but that because Wallace contended that the state of Alabama was unable to protect American citizens because of monetary considerations, the federal government would step in to ensure that the marchers can proceed safely to the state capital of Montgomery.10
Telegram page 1
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The march took place over five days, from March 21st to March 25th. Protected by a federal court order and federal troops, the march was completed successfully.
80 edmund PettusBridge
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Information sources for the video content produced by Stanford include the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, the LBJ Presidential Library, the Miller Center, The Politics of Rage by Dan T. Carter, Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman, and Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Misadventure and Triumph by Jim Cullen.

Colleen Fleming prepared this case under the supervision of Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.

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