On March 7, 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. The march was led by John Lewis of SNCC and the Reverend Hosea Williams of SCLC, followed by Bob Mants of SNCC and Albert Turner of SCLC. The protest went smoothly until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and found a wall of state troopers waiting for them on the other side. Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators. Many were knocked to the ground and beaten with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas. Mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.
Televised images of the brutal attack presented people with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the U.S. civil rights movement. Amelia Boynton was beaten and gassed nearly to death; her photo appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, and the day was nicknamed "Bloody Sunday".
Immediately after "Bloody Sunday," King began organizing a second march to be held on Tuesday, March 9, 1965. He issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join him. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights struggles — from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Freedom Summer — and shocked by the television images of "Bloody Sunday," many hundreds of people responded to King's call.
To prevent another outbreak of violence, the marchers attempted to gain a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering. Instead of issuing the court order, Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson issued a restraining order, preventing the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.
Based on past experience, SCLC was confident that Judge Johnson would eventually lift the restraining order and they did not want to alienate one of the few southern judges who was often sympathetic to their cause by violating his injunction. There was also insufficient infrastructure in place to support a long march, one for which the marchers were ill-equipped. Further, a person who violates a court order may be punished for contempt even if the order is later reversed. But movement supporters, both local and from around the country, were determined to march on Tuesday to protest the "Bloody Sunday" violence and the systematic denial of black voting rights in Alabama. To balance these conflicting imperatives, SCLC decided to hold a partial "ceremonial" march that would cross over the bridge but halt when ordered to do so in compliance with the injunction.
On March 9, King led about 2,500 marchers out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and held a short prayer session before turning the marchers back around, thereby obeying the court order preventing them from marching all the way to Montgomery. But only the SCLC leaders were told of this plan in advance, causing confusion and consternation among many marchers, including those who had traveled long distances to participate and put their bodies on the line in nonviolent opposition to police brutality. King asked them to remain in Selma for another attempt at the march once the injunction was lifted.
That evening, three white ministers who had come for the march were attacked and beaten with clubs. The worst injured was James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston. Selma's public hospital refused to treat Rev. Reeb, who had to be taken to Birmingham's University Hospital, two hours away. Reeb died on Thursday, March 11 at University Hospital with his wife by his side. Blacks in Dallas County and the Black Belt mourned the death of Rev. Reeb as they had earlier mourned the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. But many activists were bitter that the media and national political leaders expressed great concern over Reeb's murder, but had paid scant attention to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. SNCC spokesman [Stokely Carmichael] was reported as saying "What you want is the nation to be upset when anybody is killed… but it almost [seems that] for this to be recognized, a white person must be killed."
A week after Reeb's death, March 16, Judge Johnson ruled in favor of the protestors, saying their First Amendment right to march in protest could not be abridged by the state of Alabama:
The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . . These rights may . . . be exercised by marching, even along public highways.
Williams v. Wallace, 240 F. Supp. 100, 106 (M.D. Ala. 1960).
On March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel to commence the trek to Montgomery. Most of the participants were black, but some were white and some were Asian and Latino. Spiritual leaders of multiple races religions and faith marched abreast with Dr. King, including Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Davis, and at least one nun, all of whom were depicted in a famous photo. In 1965, the road to Montgomery was four lanes wide going east from Selma, then narrowed to two lanes through Lowndes County, and then widened to four lanes again at Montgomery county border. Under the terms of Judge Johnson's order, the march was limited to no more than 300 participants for the two days they were on the two-lane portion of Highway-80, so at the end of the first day most of the marchers returned to Selma by bus and car, leaving 300 to camp overnight and take up the journey the next day.
On March 22 and 23, 300 protesters marched through chilling rain across Lowndes county, camping at three sites in muddy fields. At the time of the march, the population of Lowndes County was 81% black and 19% white, but not a single black was registered to vote. At the same time there were 2,240 whites registered to vote in Lowndes County, a figure that represented 118% of the adult white population (in many southern counties of that era it was common practice to retain white voters on the rolls after they died or moved away).
On the morning of the 24th, the march crossed into Montgomery County and the highway widened again to four lanes. All day as the march approached the city, additional marchers were ferried by bus and car to join the line. By evening, several thousand marchers had reached the final campsite at the City of St. Jude, a complex on the outskirts of Montgomery.
That night on a makeshift stage, a "Stars for Freedom" rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone all performing.
On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the steps of the State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech "How Long, Not Long." "The end we seek," King told the crowd, "is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."
Later that night, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to support voting rights for blacks, was assassinated by Ku Klux Klan members while she was ferrying marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. Among the Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was FBI informant Gary Rowe. Afterward, the FBI's COINTELPRO operation spread false rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist Party and abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the civil rights movement. The third march spread the marchers' message without harassment by police and segregation supporters. These factors, along with more widespread support from other civil rights organizations in the area, made the march an overall success and gave the demonstration greater impact.
U.S. Representative William Louis Dickinson made two speeches to Congress on March 30 and April 27 seeking to slander the movement by making spurious charges of alcohol abuse, bribery, and widespread sexual debauchery at the marches. Religious leaders present at the marches denied the charges, and local and national journalists were unable to substantiate his accounts.