Martin Luther King, March to Montgomery, 1965

By Jen Benepe–Martin Luther King Day–January 20, 2014

In 1965 director and producer Stefan Sharff produced a film that documented the March 25, 1965 peaceful demonstration held from Selma, to Montgomery, Alabama.

White women watching peaceful demonstrators in 1965 as they marched from Selma, AL to Montgomery. Shot from the film by Stefan Sharff ©

The non-violent demonstration was held to highlight the lack of voting rights for African Americans, and was organized by several activist groups with Dr. Martin Luther King.

The march was also held in reaction to the shooting of a Selma activist and church deacon, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson from Marion by state troopers the previous month during a peaceful demonstration in Alabama.

Depicting the 54-mile mile march over five days by both whites and African Americans, the film was directed and shot by Sharff who happened to be my stepfather.  The black and white documentary uses unusual camera angles, folk music, and clips from that day in history.

The demonstration and other events around that time resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gave African Americans the right to vote in the United States.

Once they reached the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery that day, Dr. King told the assembled crowd: ‘‘There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.’’

The civil rights era had a deep impact on our melded families during the civil rights era, and included me, my two step sisters and children of Mr. Sharff, my older brother, and my half brother, child of Mr. Sharff and my mother Dr. Jagna Sharff.  The song “We Shall Overcome,” was well known in the household, and became part of the fabric of our upbringing.

Those words became the lexicon of the day, and were even uttered by President Johnson on 15 March when he addressed the U.S. Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: ‘‘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.”

Below in sequential order is parts one and two of the film, published on YouTube.

Stefan Sharff was a filmmaker who made films about Dr. King, the rock band “The Monkeys,” the musician Louis Armstrong, and many other films, including the feature film “Across the River.” In a NY Times write up about Mr. Sharff after he died in May 2003, they wrote, “Mr. Sharff, who started Columbia’s Ph.D. program in film studies despite having no doctorate himself, lived a colorful and varied life. He was an apprentice to the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.” Sharff died in 2003 leaving over 100 documentaries in the can behind him.

March 1965 was a difficult time in American history.  The events before the march to Selma, and those that followed eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave African Americans the right to vote.

The march to Selma, AL., in 1965. Shot from the film by Stefan Sharff ©

On August 6, 1965, recalling ‘‘the outrage of Selma,’’ Johnson called the right to vote ‘‘the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

In his annual address to SCLC a few days later, King noted that ‘‘Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965.”

Sharff who was a professor and head of the film school at Columbia University at the time had several assistants on the film, including Christopher Harris, Julian Krainin, Alan Jacobs, and Norris Eisenberg. The film was published under the Center for Mass Communication of Columbia University Press.

Part 1

The following description of the events that led up to the March to Montgomery, Alabama are derived from a summary of the events from Stanford University:

The original groups that organized in prior months to the march to Montgomery were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who had been campaigning for voting rights.

On 2 January 1965 King and SCLC joined the SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in a voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls.

SCLC had chosen to focus its efforts in Selma because they anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would attract national attention and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.

Part 2

The campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the first month. But it all changed in February when police attacks against the peaceful demonstrators increased.

On February 18, Alabama state troopers joined local police in breaking up an evening march in Marion and a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion. Jackson was trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.

In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out on 7 March, to march from Selma to the state capitol in

Children watching the march in 1965, from film by Stefan Sharff ©


Because King was in Atlanta at the time, his SCLC colleague Hosea Williams, and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march.

The marchers made their way through Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen commanded by Clark and Major John Cloud who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. Cheered on by white onlookers, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.

Television coverage of ‘‘Bloody Sunday,’’ as the event became known, triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten on the head, said: ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma,’’

That evening King began a blitz of telegrams and public statements, ‘‘calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us on Tuesday in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom’’ (King, 7 March 1965).

While King and Selma activists made plans to retry the march again two days later, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. notified the movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least 11 March, and President Johnson pressured King to call off the march until the federal court order could provide protection to the marchers.

Forced to consider whether to disobey the pending court order, after consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of 9 March.

King led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice, to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order.

Marchers walked peacefully for five days and 54 miles from Selma, AL., to Montgomery, AL. Ahead, the capitol building in Montgomery. From the film by Stefan Sharff ©

Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery, but the restraint gained support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: ‘‘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.” Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.

That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama. Johnson personally telephoned his condolences to Reeb’s widow and met with Alabama Governor George Wallace, pressuring him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage.

On 15 March Johnson addressed the Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: ‘‘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.”

The following day Selma demonstrators submitted a detailed march plan to federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who approved the demonstration and enjoined Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers. On 17 March President Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.

The federally sanctioned march left Selma on 21 March. Protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the demonstrators covered between 7 to 17 miles per day. Camping at night in supporters’ yards, they were entertained by celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a stretch of two-lane highway, the number of demonstrators swelled on the last day to 25,000, accompanied by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others.

During the final rally held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: ‘‘The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

Afterward a delegation of march leaders attempted to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, but were rebuffed. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Doar later prosecuted three Klansmen conspiring to violate her civil rights.

On 6 August, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


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