Closer Readings Commentary

The Selma to Montgomery March and Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Students love a good fight. From the Boston Tea Party to Women’s Suffrage, students’ genuine interest in historical protests is as recurrent a theme in the classroom as uprisings and demonstrations are in human history. Teachers sometimes wonder why the fight for rights and for a redress of grievances—more than other historical themes—regularly awaken their students to the lessons of history and get them truly engaged in content.

The sights and sounds of a critical mass taking to the streets are hard to ignore, and the shared principles and values that bring many different people together across lines of race, class, gender, and ethnicity galvanize students’ civic spirit.

The most famous civil rights march in American history occurred 48 years ago and photographs of it provided some of the most recognized imagery of the movement.

Using EDSITEment resources and the NEH-funded Encyclopedia Alabama, teachers can bring the sights and stories of the march into their classroom, show its enduring impact on our laws, as well as teach some of the most valuable reading, writing, and research skills mandated by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.

The History of the Selma to Montgomery March and its Impact on the Voting Rights Act

On March 7, 1965, black citizens of central Alabama gathered together after more than a month of demonstrations in response to the death of a young civil rights activist, Jimmy Jackson Lee, at the hands of the police. Their purpose was to peacefully progress from Selma to the capital in Montgomery in order to gain national awareness for the denial of voting rights. The march began quietly, but several blocks from where they started, the 600 marchers were met with gas and violence by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were beat, trampled, and bloodied in an event that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”

After reorganization and careful negotiations with—and support from—the federal government, the march lead by Dr. King and John Lewis started again on March 21, 1965, and reached Montgomery successfully five days later. On their arrival in the capital, on March 25, the marchers numbered between 20,000 and 25,000.

The television coverage of the violence shocked the nation. It provoked an outpouring of support for the voting rights movement from white religious and labor leaders as well as ordinary citizens. President Lyndon Johnson and key members of Congress who had been dubious about the need for a bill now committed themselves to its passage. Johnson delivered one of the most important speeches on his presidency, “We Shall Overcome,” in support of the act on March 15. The bill that Dr. King, Lewis, and so many other civil rights leaders had sought was signed into law August 6, 1965 by President Johnson.

Using Photographs as Primary Sources

In Picturing Freedom: Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965, students use the lesson activities and interactive resource to learn about the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march and explore the role of photojournalists and media in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Students analyze James Karales’s dramatic picture for clues about the marchers and their rationale, drawing inferences about the American social and political sentiments of the time. They read background material on the photograph and generate critical questions about civil rights based on their interactive study of the image. After exploring the marchers’ goals and motivations, students are asked to produce a written and illustrated postcard recapping this civil rights event from a marcher's viewpoint.

Visual Learning, Research, and the Common Core

This lesson is especially pertinent to Common Core classrooms, in which all students are expected to “integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts” and “analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.”

Moreover, the CCSS emphasize the need for students to practice research skills using reliable sources. Students need to be able to:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.”
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

With this lesson, teachers can introduce students to the Encyclopedia of Alabama a free, online resources supported by the NEH. By exploring the rich civil rights section, they will gain deeper background information on a number of the significant events, places, and individuals who helped shape the course of the movement. Through these entries, students can find out about the Selma to Montgomery March, as well as important figures that shaped the march, including Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, and John Lewis, and view a photo gallery of the march.

They will also be exposed to one of the best online repositories of state history now available and thus have an authoritative point of reference beyond popular but unreliable homework sites. Other NEH-supported online state encyclopedias can be accessed through EDSITEment’s handy teachers’ reference shelf index.