50 Years After ‘Bloody Sunday’: Remembering the Activists Behind the Scenes

By Jamilah King Mar 06, 2015

The name "Selma" is indelibly etched into America’s political and cultural lexicon. That’s been the case since March 7, 1965 when the country sat transfixed watching Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge beat and tear-gas voting-rights demonstrators who were trying to march from Selma to Montgomery. March 7, which is now known as Bloody Sunday, marked the first of three attempts by non-violent protestors to make it to Montgomery. On March 21, under the protection of U.S. Army troops and members of the Alabama National Guard, marchers including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. finally made it. The Selma-to-Montgomery demonstration compelled President Lyndon B. Johnson to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed that August.

Ava DuVernay’s "Selma," which presents a searing portrait of King during the campaign, has introduced a new generation to the events of 1965. But as the country prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that three-week span, there’s a new documentary out that celebrates the movement’s lesser-known heroes. "Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot" is the latest in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s series called "Teaching Tolerance." And, fittingly, it takes particular aim at the students and teachers who braved beatings and sacrificed their lives to integrate the town’s public spaces and secure their parents’ right to vote. Here are some names you should know:

jackson_selma_030515.jpg(Photograph courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center)

Jimmie Lee Jackson. If there was a spark that became the fire of Selma in 1965, it was Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in nearby Marion, Ala. On February 18, Jackson, 26, was shot in the stomach by State Trooper James Bonard Fowler during what was supposed to have been a peaceful voting rights protest. Outrage over Jackson’s death led King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council to begin organizing the Selma-to-Mongomery march. In 2010, 45 years later, Fowler finally pleaded guilty to Jackson’s killing.

ameliaboynton_030515.jpg(Photograph from Bettmann/CORBIS)

Amelia Boynton. At age 9 Ameilia Boynton took her first action for voting rights–she rode around Savannah, Ga., in a horse-and-buggy with her mother passing out leaflets about women’s suffrage. In 1932, in her adopted home of Selma, the agriculture educator became one of few blacks to successfully register to vote. Boynton also worked with the Dallas County Voters League and she ran for Congress, a first for a black woman in Alabama. Throughout the ’60s Boyton provided critical infrastructure to the burgeoning civil rights movement in the city. It was Boynton who asked Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to support local voting rights efforts. Her home served as a central meeting place for King and other leaders. At age 53 Boynton became the face of gruesome white violence. On "Bloody Sunday," as she walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers beat her unconscious. A photo of her laying on the ground (see above) led to national outcry about the brutality.

Reese.jpg(Photograph courtesy of Teaching for Change)

Frederick Reese. As president of the Dallas County Voter’s League, Reese helped lead the fight for voting rights in Selma. He also wore another prominent hat: A science teacher at Selma’s Hudson High School, Reese was president of the Selma Teachers Association. In the ’60s as student sit-ins spread from one Southern city to another, Reese was one of several educators who encouraged–and often demanded–that his students leave class to join the demonstrations. Reese’s activism didn’t stop there. He later served on Selma’s City Council and ran for mayor. Today he serves as a pastor at Selma’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

lyndablackmon_030515.jpg(Photogrtaph from Robin Cooper/Penguin Random House)

Lynda Blackmon Lowery. Only 14 years old in 1965, Lowery was one of the youngest protestors to join the marches from Selma to Montgomery. In a new book, "Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom," Lowery details going to meetings, playing lookout during political gatherings and going to jail for the first time. Since the Selma-to-Montgomery march, she has dedicated her time to motivating today’s young black activists. "I would like for young people to know that each day of your life is a journey into history," Lowery told NPR’s Arun Rath. "You have the ability to change something each day of your life. Believe it or not, people, it can’t happen without you."

bonner_030515.jpg(Photograph from Sonoma State University)

Charles Bonner. Growing up in the town of Orrville, Ala., Bonner was racked by questions about inequality. He wondered why the white kids had better books and school buses and why the God he prayed to every Sunday was white. By age 16, Bonner was involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and he began holding protests at local libraries, lunch counters and movie theaters. "We just went on to keep organizing the students in Selma, and we kept practicing principles of nonviolence," he has recounted in an oral history. "And we began to canvass the neighborhood, talking to Black folks about registration and teaching them how to fill out the literacy forms. So that’s essentially how I got involved in the movement."