MARCH 21, 1965

Protesters, led by Martin Luther King Jr., began a weeklong march from Selma to the state Capitol at Montgomery to bring attention to Alabama officials preventing Black Americans from registering to vote. An order by U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. helped clear the way: “The extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate and march should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protected and petitioned against. In this case, the wrongs are enormous.” 

Alabama Gov. George Wallace went into a rage, calling the march “Communist-inspired” and referring to his old friend, Johnson, as a hypocrite who “prostitutes our law in favor of mob rule.” 

Wallace fired off two telegrams to President Lyndon B. Johnson, refusing to provide protection to the marchers, saying it would cost the state $400,000. This time, marchers were protected from beatings by 1,863 members of a federalized Alabama National Guard and 1,000 U.S. Army troops, along with 100 FBI agents and 100 federal marshals. 

Demonstrators camped at night in supporters’ yards, where singers Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and others entertained. Protesters 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.

As demonstrators marched, they shouted questions and answers, “What do you want, what do you want?” “Freedom, freedom, freedom!” “When do you want it, when do you want it?” “Now, now, now!” Photographer James Karales captured the crowd marching through the storm for Look magazine — a picture that later appeared on Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-winning book, Parting the Waters.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.