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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Pettus Bridge

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was built in 1940, carries U.S. 80/Broad Street traffic across the Alabama River on the south side of Selma. It had been named after a Civil War General who served in the United States Senate from 1897 until his death in 1907. He was the last Confederate General to serve in the Senate.

John Lewis and Hosea Williams led marchers from Brown Chapel at around 1:40 p.m. The day was gray and hazy, with a brisk wind from the Alabama River. They were stopped almost immediately by Selma Sheriff Baker, who advised them that since they did not have a parade permit, they would have to break into small groups. After breaking into groups of 25, they resumed marching at 2:18, the 500 or so marchers followed by vehicles with their supplies, including medical supplies and portable toilets.

At the Pettus Bridge, marchers found that troopers had blocked the road, as Branch described:

In the middle distance, a wall of trooper cruisers blocked all four lanes of Highway 80. Closer, a reserve of some 150 troopers, sheriff's deputies, and possemen mingled behind a front line of twenty-five troopers about two hundred yards beyond the foot of the bridge-the possemen in khaki jackets and white helmets, fifteen of them mounted on horseback, the troopers in blue uniforms and blue helmets. [Canaan, p, 49]

Troopers stopped the supply vehicles on grounds that the bridge had been closed to traffic.

As the marchers approached the bridge, troopers snapped on gas masks. Major John Cloud stepped forward to order the marchers to disperse. He gave the marchers 2 minutes to turn around. One minute later, he ordered the troopers to advance.

Overwhelmed, the marchers ran for their lives. Amid horses, troopers swinging nightsticks, bursting canisters of tear gas, and screams and shouts, the march dissolved in chaos. Lewis, struck on the head, collapsed with a fractured skull. Women, as well as men, were beaten; Amelia Boynton was found on the ground unconscious. In the rear, marchers unaware of what was happening, were knocked over by the front ranks of marchers and the pursuing troopers. Even at Brown Chapel, troopers in a frenzy lashed out at anyone they could reach. Sheriff Baker, confronting Sheriff Clark at Brown Chapel, demanded that he stop his troopers. Clark refused.

This time, Branch explained, film made it out of the city:

The ABC News film crew raced network competitors in a cavalry relay dictated by broadcast technology before videotape or satellite transmission. They drove around the troopers blockading Highway 80 at the first chance, then on through Lowndes County to the Montgomery airport and flights through Atlanta to New York, bearing canisters of undeveloped film to lab technicians rushed in for Sunday night work.

The FBI had been on the scene, but took no action during the melee except to arrest three white men, including James Robinson (the segregationist who had punched Dr. King), for attacking an FBI agent.

The network was broadcasting the television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg, the 1961 Oscar winning film about the war crimes trials in Germany. Shortly after 9 p.m., ABC interrupted the movie for a 15-minute bulletin about the Selma march:

ABC's bonanza audience of forty-eight million unsuspecting viewers transferred from the mystery of Holocaust atrocities among Good Germans to real-life scenes of flying truncheons on Pettus Bridge. ABC News executives let the footage run nearly fifteen minutes-as long as Sheriff Clark had appeared on Issues and Answers -before resuming the film. CBS and NBC aired similar bulletins during regular programming, but the Nuremberg interruption struck with the force of instant historical icon.

Like the images of Bull Connor suppressing protests in Birmingham, film and photographs of "Bloody Sunday" would prove to be a turning point for the Nation. They forced viewers to see with their own eyes what African-Americans experienced if they wanted to exercise a basic right that was routinely available to white Americans:

The tide of confidence in equal citizenship had swelled over decades to confront segregation as well as the Nazis, and would roll forward, but an opposing tide of resentment and disbelief rose to challenge the overall direction of American politics, contesting the language of freedom. [Canaan, p. 56-57]

After a distressing day of telephone reports from Selma, Dr. King announced plans for a renewed march.

By Sunday evening, Dr. King had announced he would lead a ministers' march to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9. He telegraphed invitations around the country:

No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths, representatives of every part of the country, to join me in a ministers' march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land. [Canaan, p. 60 note]

The response was sensational. Overnight, some four hundred ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns, students, and lay leaders-black and white alike-rushed to Selma to stand with Dr. King and the voting rights marchers.

Over a thousand people waited for Dr. King at Brown Chapel on Monday evening. He told them about the dangers the marchers faced. "We must let them know that if they beat one Negro they are going to have to beat a hundred, and if they beat a hundred, then they are going to have to beat a thousand." [Canaan, p. 64]

At the White House, President Johnson was looking for a way out. His overtures to Governor Wallace were not productive; the President understood that the Governor needed to appear strong to his white backers and so could not be trusted. Picketers marched outside the Justice Department, and students were camped outside Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach's office.

The President's representatives tried to convince Dr. King to call off the march, to avoid another Bloody Sunday blot on the national image, but Dr. King made clear that he could not do so unless the President offered significant alternatives to expand voting rights.

In the morning, Dr. King received news that Judge Johnson had approved a court order prohibiting the march from Selma, despite knowing that his order was unconstitutional and would be overturned on appeal - long after the day of the planned march. U.S. marshals were racing across U.S. 80 from Montgomery to Selma to serve the injunction on the march leaders named in the court order.

President Johnson dispatched former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, now heading the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, to appeal to Dr. King. Branch summarized the appeal:

The President felt strongly that Sunday's violence disgraced the United States in the eyes of the world, said Collins. His overriding concern was to prevent more violence that would inflame racial hatreds and threaten stability far beyond Selma. Therefore, quite apart from legal mandates, the President wanted King's people to stay home to guarantee the peace.

This was too much for Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. "You're talking to the wrong people," he interrupted from the background. Shuttlesworth, the irrepressible movement leader from Birmingham, said Collins was mixed up about who was beating people over the head and who was nonviolent. Did he see the pictures? Shuttlesworth suggested that Collins take up the issue of violence with Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark. "They're the ones in the disgrace business," he said with his matador's bravado.

Collins suggested a compromise, even though it would violate the court order. Dr. King could lead a march across Pettus Bridge, but then turn around. Already, Colonel Lingo had arranged his state troopers on the far side of the bridge, with 150 police cruisers behind them. "I don't believe," Dr. King told Collins, "you can get those people not to charge into us even if we do stop." [Canaan, p. 70-71]

Protesters marched outside the White House, the sit-in at the Justice Department was growing, and President Johnson was distracted from the ceremony planned for the signing of the Appalachian Regional Development Act. But that afternoon, Dr. King emerged from Brown Chapel to a roar from the crowd. "Almighty God, thou has called us to walk for freedom, even as thou did the children of Israel," he began in prayer. As aides organized the marchers, he said through a bullhorn, "I say to you this afternoon that I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience." Nevertheless, he warned the crowd:

If you can't be nonviolent, don't get in here. If you can't accept blows without retaliating, don't get in the line.

The march began shortly after 2:17 p.m., with about 1,500 marchers behind Dr. King. Governor Collins emerged from a government sedan to meet with Dr. King as he led the march. The troopers would not attack, Collins said, as long as the marchers kept to a route marked on a map that he gave Dr. King. Despite Dr. King's doubts about trusting the State's word, Collins hopped back into his sedan and headed to the other side of the bridge. He planned to stand with Colonel Lingo to try to keep him to the promise.

The route shown on the map was the normal route to the bridge via U.S. 80/Broad Street. As Dr. King approached Pettus Bridge, Deputy U.S. Marshal Stanley Fountain held up his hand to halt the marchers. He read the full text of Judge Johnson's 600-word order. When Fountain was done, Dr. King said, "Let's go." He reached Pettus Bridge around 2:35.

Confronted by a State trooper and ordered to disperse, King and some of the other leaders kneeled to lead the front ranks of marchers in brief prayers. As they rose, they saw to their surprise, that the troopers had been ordered to move aside, leaving the road to Montgomery open.

The unexpected move stunned Dr. King, the other marchers, Justice Department observers, and bystanders. Dr. King had to decide quickly whether he would be leading the marchers into a trap, knowing that if he turned back, he might appear timid. King led the marchers back into Selma. [Canaan, p. 74-77]

President Johnson, having been advised not to issue a statement following Bloody Sunday, issued one on Tuesday. "I am certain," he said, "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." He had dispatched officials to Selma to monitor the situation and had directed the Justice Department to enter as a "friend of the court" in the request before the Federal District Court in Alabama enjoining State officials from interfering with the right of Alabama citizens to walk from Selma to Montgomery. In addition, he expected to have recommendations for legislation by the following week. He concluded:

We will continue our efforts to work with the individuals involved to relieve tensions and to make it possible for every citizen to vote. I urge all who are in positions of leadership and capable of influencing the conduct of others to approach this tense situation with calmness, reasonableness, and respect for law and order.

That night, three white Unitarian ministers who had answered Dr. King's call were walking down the street after dinner at Walker's Café when they were attacked by several white men. One of them hit James Reeb in the head with a bat. Ministers Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen tried to protect Reeb and themselves from the kicks and taunts. When the attack ended, the three ministers made it to Diane Nash who arranged for medical treatment. Reeb was in desperate need of treatment in a neurosurgery unit in Birmingham.

An ambulance raced off, but outside Selma one of its tires blew. The crew were delayed trying to find a place where they could safely summon a second ambulance. While they waited, one of Sheriff Clark's deputies stopped to see what was going on, but refused to help them get to Birmingham. The second ambulance finally arrived, 2 hours after the attack, and raced Reeb to the hospital.

The ambush made national news the next day, with dramatic stories about how Reeb's wife had flown to Birmingham to be with her husband. "I told the children this morning as soon as they woke up that their father had been hurt," she told reporters. "The younger ones did not fully understand, but the thirteen-year-old was quite upset." [Canaan, p. 80-81, 84-85]

The day before, while waiting with six congressional leaders in the White House before the signing ceremony for the Appalachian bill, President Johnson had talked extemporaneously about the urgency of voting rights. "Good Lord, Mr. President," gasped Speaker of the House John McCormack (D-Ma.), "why don't you say that to the people?" The President told him, "At the right time I will." [Canaan, p. 74]

Bloody Sunday, the turn-around march on Tuesday, and now the news about Reeb, who lay dying in Birmingham, advanced the schedule for voting rights legislation. Pressure mounted on the President when six African-American students and six white students entered the White House along with other tourists but began a sit-in in an East Wing corridor. They were removed-gently and out of sight of the White House press corps-before 50 or so Members of Congress arrived for a briefing on Vietnam.

The President brought up the situation in Selma. "The ghost of Lincoln is moving up and down the corridors rather regularly these days," he said. When Katzenbach explained that the Justice Department planned to prosecute individual violators, Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi "blasted Katzenbach for siding with Communist agitators to trample on the rights of the South," as Branch put it. [Canaan, p. 87-89]

Reeb died in Birmingham on Thursday, March 11, at 6:55 pm.

On Friday, the President, Vice President, and Katzenbach met for more than 4 hours with activists and clergy, many of whom had been in Selma. At one point, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., asked the President why it was taking so long to send a voting rights bill to Congress. The President explained the difficulty of drafting a bill that would ensure the rights of African-Americans and pass a Congress dominated by Committee Chairmen from the South.

Later that day, the President learned that Governor Wallace had requested a meeting. Johnson accepted immediately.

In requesting the meeting, Wallace had not counted on the "Johnson Treatment," but he would receive, full force, when the two met on Saturday morning. The President began with some bantering. He pointed out that the Governor and Dr. King had one thing in common - the guts to demand an appointment with him and tell the press before he had accepted. The President directed the Governor to a low chair and pulled his own higher chair nearby so they were practically knee to knee. After the Governor spoke for 15 minutes soliciting the President's opposition to the Communists and outside agitators who were causing all the trouble, the President went into Treatment mode. He didn't care for demonstrators - they "kept my daughters awake every night with their screaming and hollering" - but "You can't stop a fever by putting an icepack on your head." You had to get at the cause of the fever.

In response to the Governor's objection to the White House's use of the word "brutality," he displayed photographs from Bloody Sunday. The Governor had to admit that "brutality" was the right word. The President badgered the Governor about getting away from this battle and on to other causes that would help the people of Alabama. "What do you want left when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads, 'George Wallace-He Built,' or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board that reads, 'George Wallace-He Hated'?" When the Governor's aide tried to discuss the menace of Communist agitators, the President handed him a pencil and said, "Here, take notes."

Going down a list he had solicited from Katzenbach that morning, the President suggested that the Governor join in a statement committing to desegregate the State's schools, or obeying Federal court orders, or the right of peaceful assembly, or biracial meetings to find solutions. Turning to the aide, he added, 'You getting this down?" Wallace could not agree to these options or the President's suggestion that he simply support universal suffrage.

The Governor assured him that everybody in Alabama could vote if they were registered, but since registration was handled by the counties, he didn't have the power to register African-Americans who failed county eligibility requirements. The President rejected this argument, recalling that his name had been left off the ballots in Alabama in 1964, leaving voters to choose only Democratic electors. (For the first time since the Civil War, Alabama had voted for the Republican nominee, Senator Goldwater.) He argued that if the Governor had the power to keep him off the ballot in 1964, "Surely you have the power to tell a few poor county registrars what to do."

The meeting lasted over 3 hours, after which the Governor told reporters the President was "a great gentleman, as always," but whatever he had expected to get out of the meeting, he didn't get it. On the flight back to Alabama, he told aides, "when the President works on you, there's not a lot you can do." [Canaan, p. 96-98]

On Monday, Brown Chapel held a memorial service for Reeb at 2 p.m. Dr. King was in Montgomery under court order during Judge Johnson's hearing. He also had been invited to Washington for the President's address to Congress on voting rights. Torn among responsibilities, Dr. King finally secured permission from the court to participate in the memorial service. Telling Brown Chapel's leaders to stall until he arrived, Dr. King raced along U.S. 80 from Montgomery to Selma.

Arriving late, Dr. King told the crowd that Reeb's death "was the result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith." Referring to Jimmie Lee Jackson and Reeb, Dr. King looked forward to the day when "our nation will realize its true heroes." He concluded, "Here and there an individual or group dares to love . . . . Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future . . . . So we thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness."

Reverend Abernathy stepped to the pulpit and announced that Judge Thomas had approved an order directing Sheriff Clark to allow a march to the courthouse. Since Tuesday, protesters had been limited to the perimeter of the church. Now 3,500 strong, they marched off shortly after 5 p.m. for the courthouse. They made no attempt to cross Pettus Bridge, but walked to the courthouse for a memorial service. [Canaan, p. 105-108]

That night, March 15, President Johnson entered the chamber of the House of Representatives for an address to a joint session of Congress and the Nation on the "American Promise." Members of the House and Senate, minus the delegations from Mississippi and Virginia and a few Members from other Southern States, had assembled for the speech. The President told them:

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed . . . .

But there is cause for hope and faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.

For the cries of pain, and the hymns and protests of oppressed people, have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government of the greatest nation on earth.

Selma, he said, had revealed "the secret heart of America itself." If the Nation defeated every one of its enemies and expanded its wealth, but could not overcome this issue, "then we will have failed as a people and as a nation." He continued, "For with a country as with a person, 'What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?'"

Noting that the Nation had been founded on the principle that, "All men are created equal," he said:

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans-not as Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

Despite passage of civil rights legislation, "No law that we now have on the books . . . can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it." He outlined his legislative proposal, which would outlaw all the restrictions that blocked African-Americans from registering to vote in Federal, State, and local elections. If State or local officials refused registration, the United States Government would register them. And it would ensure that registered voters were not prohibited from exercising their right.

He recalled how the voting rights provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been weakened, but that bill finally had passed after 8 long months of debate. "This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose." He added, "We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone."

As African-Americans struggled to secure "the full blessing of American life," he said:

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Branch described the reaction to the President's use of the Civil Rights Movement's most common phrase:

No one stood. Applause battled disbelief and renewed astonishment to hear such words from the first Southern President in a century.

The President's close friend and one-time mentor, Senator Russell of Georgia, told friends sitting nearby that his protégé was "a turncoat if there ever was one."

Watching on television, Selma Mayor Smitherman said the phrase was like "a dagger to your heart," but not far away, colleagues of Dr. King erupted in excitement to hear the phrase from the President's lips. "A tear rolled down King's cheek," Branch noted.

As he moved toward his conclusion, President Johnson said:

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform.

He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.

He recalled his first job as a teacher of poor Mexican-American children who experienced the pain of prejudice without understanding why:

I never thought then in 1928 that I would be standing here in 1965 . . . that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance, and I let you in on a secret: I mean to use it. And I hope you will use it with me.

This comment earned a standing ovation as he moved to the end of his speech:

I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.

Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.

Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says-in Latin-"God has favored our undertaking."

God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.

He left the House chamber to tumultuous applause. The President asked his aide, Jack Valenti, "how did I do?" Valenti had kept track. The President had been interrupted 36 times for applause lasting a total of 8 minutes and 40 seconds. [Canaan, p. 111-115]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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