Securing the Right to Vote: The Selma-to-Montgomery Story

by Martha Bouyer

Essential Question

What conditions created the need for a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, and what did that march achieve?

Background

Throughout American history, African Americans have struggled to gain basic civil rights, such as the right to vote. When marchers gathered at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, to demand voting rights, the nation was forced to acknowledge the depth and breadth of racial discrimination and bigotry that existed in the United States.

In the century following the Civil War, African Americans citizens were consistently denied rights given to white Americans. By looking at political, social, economic, and cultural institutions of post-Civil War America, students will gain an understanding of the struggle for civil and human rights. The1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for the constitutional right to vote significantly advanced this nation closer toward its goal of "justice for all."

This lesson plan examines the struggle for voting rights, from the early history of the United States to the climactic battle that captured and focused the attention of the world on the "Black Belt" region of Alabama and the town of Selma. The events that took place in Alabama ultimately caused the United States to reexamine how it addressed matters of race, human rights, economic empowerment, social justice, political justice, and basic civil rights. The public struggle for African Americans to be treated as first-class citizens pushed the United States to live up to its creed, so eloquently espoused in the documents upon which this nation was established.

We are confronted with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities . . . [T]he time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.

President John F. Kennedy, 1963

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 is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. 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 the right to vote . . .Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes . . . No law that we now have on the books . . . can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it . . . There is no Constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States' rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

. . . what happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

Objectives

  • To investigate the conditions, such as Jim Crow laws and other segregation policies, under which African Americans lived in Alabama and other parts of the South from 1875 to 1965.
  • To analyze the impact of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.
  • To apply information gained from primary documents and class activities in understanding the strategies used by African Americans in pursuing the right to vote, and to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies.

Motivation

Share the following quotations with the class:

“Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on til victory is won.”

- From “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” James Weldon Johnson

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the governed. . . . Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; . . . all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

-From the Declaration of Independence

 “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

-Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

-Pledge of Allegiance

Ask your students whether or not these essential American documents have always referred to all groups of Americans.

Warm-Up Activity

Have students read and discuss the short story, "Liars Don't Qualify" by Junius Edwards. Students should also complete the "Liars Don't Qualify" Worksheet.

Activity One: Registering to Vote

To help students understand the difficulty African Americans faced in becoming registered voters prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have them participate in this experiential voter registration activity. First, explain to the students that literacy tests were used in Alabama and six other states to prevent blacks from voting. White citizens were not required to take the test in order to register. Next, have each student complete the voter registration form (PDF) available from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans and take the literacy test (Civil Rights Movement Veterans). The teacher will serve as the registrar and will determine who is "qualified" to vote. Set a time limit for completing the test in order to leave time for students to discuss the experience. Determine which students qualify to vote and allow students to discuss their reactions to the requirements.

At the end of the 1950s, seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) used tests, and five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia) used poll taxes to prevent blacks from registering. In Alabama, voters had to provide written answers to a twenty-page test on the Constitution and on state and local government. Questions included: "Where do presidential electors cast ballots for president?" and "Name the rights a person has after he has been indicted by a grand jury." The Civil Rights Act of 1957 allowed the Justice Department to seek injunctions and file suits in voting rights cases, but it increased black voter registrations only by 200,000.

Activity Two: Document Analysis

Ask students to work in groups, with each group analyzing one of several key documents relevant to the voting rights struggle, using the Document Analysis Worksheet to guide its work. When the groups have completed the exercise, have them present their work to the entire class. Because each group will have a different document, you may also want to use the Cooperative Literacy Worksheet as a tool for reporting the group's findings.

Suggested Resources for this Activity

Activity Three: Mapping Change

Examine the origins of the struggles of African Americans, students, and women for equal rights. What factors contributed to growing radicalization of these groups during the 1960s?

Which strategy—court battles, nonviolent protest, or violent confrontation—was most effective in bringing about social change?

What do you think was the major goal in the struggles of African Americans, students, and women for equal rights—a transformation of American society or equal participation within the existing order?

Ask students to write one paragraph summarizing the significance of the data for the election process and for the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the United States.

Ask the students to work as a class to analyze data on the 1962 map of Alabama counties showing the disparity in the numbers of black and white voters prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a map is available from the Alabama Department of Archives and History Public Information.

Have the students answer the following questions:

  • Which county had the lowest number of African American voters?
  • Which county had the highest number of African American voters?
  • Which counties, based on the data reported and what you have learned, had no African American voters?

Following the class discussion, distribute copies of the Birmingham News articles published in October and November 1966 to each student.

Links to articles:

Project the blank map of Alabama counties and ask students to enter the data from the November article, Alabama Department of Archives and History Public Information

Then ask them to answer the following questions:

  • Which county had the greatest increase of African American voters?
  • Which county experienced little or no measurable change?
  • What do you think accounted for any drastic changes?
  • What do you think accounted for any lack of change?

Next, project the data from the Civil Rights Revolution: Interpreting Statistics. Have the students answer the questions provided and also the following: 

  •  Examine the origins of the struggles of blacks, students, and women for equal rights. What factors contributed to growing radicalization of these groups during the 1960s?
  • Which strategy--court battles, nonviolent protest, or violent confrontation--was most effective in bringing about social change?
  • What do you think was the major goal of the struggles of blacks, students, and women for equal rights--a transformation of American society or equal participation within the existing order?
  • Ask students to write one paragraph summarizing the significance of the data for the election process and for the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the United States.

Activity Four: Photo Analysis

There are two photo links to use for this activity:

Have students select at least five images from each link that they think are the most moving. Students will use the images to create a photo journal to tell the story of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. Each image must have a caption. The journal should have a brief introduction explaining the importance of the march. If students do not have access to the Internet, the teacher should select the images to display. The images may be shown as a PowerPoint presentation or copied and used as transparencies. In either case, students should use the Photo Analysis Worksheet (pdf) to interpret the documents.

Extension Activities

  • Create a book jacket for a fictional book on the voting rights struggle and its impact on the United States.
  • Write a children’s story of the voting rights march.
  • Have students interview a family member who took part in civil rights activities or who can remember events of that era. Share the interviews with class.
  • Have students develop PowerPoint presentations that shed light on the overall movement or that focus on an aspect of it.
  • Read the article “The/A Child of the Movement” (pdf) to gain the perspective of a child who was a “foot soldier” for justice. Ask students to discuss the article. Solicit responses about what they would have done if they had lived at that time.
  • Read the poems “Alabama Centennial,” (Civil Rights Movement Veterans) and the “Road from Selma” (Civil Rights Movement Veterans). Have students write poems to share what they have learned. Allow them an opportunity to share their work with their classmates.
  • Ask students to do research to show how the voter rolls changed in states other than Alabama.

Additional Resources

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