Selma is a city in and the county seat of Dallas County, in the blackbelt region of lower west Alabama. Located on the banks of the Alabama River, it has a population of 20,756 as of the 2010 census. The city is best known for the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches that originated in the city.
Prior to settlement by European peoples, the area of present-day Selma had been inhabited for thousands of years by varying cultures of indigenous peoples. The Europeans encountered the historic Native American people known as the Muscogee (also known as the Creek), who had been in the area for hundreds of years.
French explorers and colonists were the first Europeans to explore this area. In 1732 they recorded the site of present-day Selma as Écor Bienville. Later European-Americans called it the Moore's Bluff settlement. Selma was incorporated in 1820. The city was planned and named as Selma by William R. King, a politician and planter from North Carolina who was a future Vice President of the United States. The name, meaning "high seat" or "throne", came from the Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma. Selma became the seat of Dallas County in 1866.
Selma during the Civil War
Importance of Selma to the Confederacy
During the Civil War, Selma was one of the South's main military manufacturing centers, producing tons of supplies and munitions, and turning out Confederate warships such as the Ironclad warship Tennessee. The Selma iron works and foundry was considered the second most important source of weaponry for the South, after the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. This strategic concentration of manufacturing capabilities eventually made Selma a target of Union raids into Alabama late in the Civil War.
The capacities and importance of Selma to the Confederate movement were noted in the North, and were too great to be overlooked by the Federal authorities. As the town grew in importance, the Union felt it more important to capture and control. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman first made an effort to reach it, but after advancing as far as Meridian, within of Selma, his forces retreated to the Mississippi River; Gen. Benjamin Grierson, with a cavalry force from Memphis, was intercepted and returned; Gen. Rousseau made a dash in the direction of Selma, but was misled by his guides and struck the railroad forty miles east of Montgomery.
Battle of Selma
On March 30, 1865, General James H. Wilson detached Gen. John T. Croxton's brigade to destroy all Confederate property at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Wilson's forces captured a Confederate courier, found to be carrying dispatches from Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest describing the strengths and dispositions of his scattered forces. Wilson sent a brigade to destroy the bridge across the Cahaba River at Centreville, which cut off most of Forrest's reinforcements from reaching the area. He began a running fight with Forrest's forces that did not end until after the fall of Selma.
On the afternoon of April 1, after skirmishing all morning, Wilson's advanced guard ran into Forrest's line of battle at Ebenezer Church, where the Randolph Road intersected the main Selma road. Forrest had hoped to bring his entire force to bear on Wilson. Delays caused by flooding, plus earlier contact with the enemy, resulted in Forrest mustering fewer than 2,000 men, many of whom were not war veterans but militia consisting of old men and young boys.
The outnumbered and outgunned Confederates fought bravely for more than an hour as more Union cavalry and artillery deployed on the field. Forrest was wounded by a saber-wielding Union Captain, whom he killed with his revolver. Finally, a Union cavalry charge broke the Confederate militia, causing Forrest to be flanked on his right. He was forced to retreat under severe pressure.
Early the next morning, Forrest arrived at Selma, "horse and rider covered in blood." He advised Gen. Richard Taylor, departmental commander, to leave the city. Taylor did so after giving Forrest command of the defense.
Selma was protected by three miles of fortifications which ran in a semicircle around the city. They were anchored on the north and south by the Alabama River. The works had been built two years earlier, and while neglected for the most part since, were still formidable. They were to high, thick at the base, with a ditch wide and deep along the front. In front of this was a picket fence of heavy posts planted in the ground, high, and sharpened at the top. At prominent positions, earthen forts were built with artillery in position to cover the ground over which an assault would have to be made.
Forrest's defenders consisted of his Tennessee escort company, McCullough's Missouri Regiment, Crossland's Kentucky Brigade, Roddey's Alabama Brigade, Frank Armstrong's Mississippi Brigade, General Daniel W. Adams' state reserves, and the citizens of Selma who were "volunteered" to man the works. Altogether this force numbered less than 4,000, only half of who were dependable. The Selma fortifications were built to be defended by 20,000 men. Forrest's soldiers had to stand 10 to apart in the works.
Wilson's force arrived in front of the Selma fortifications at 2 p.m. He had placed Gen. Eli Long's Division across the Summerfield Road with the Chicago Board of Trade Battery in support. Gen. Emory Upton's Division was placed across the Range Line Road with Battery I, 4th US Artillery in support. Altogether Wilson had 9,000 troops available for the assault.
The Federal commander's plan was for Upton to send in a 300-man detachment after dark to cross the swamp on the Confederate right; enter the works, and begin a flanking movement toward the center moving along the line of fortifications. A single gun from Upton's artillery would signal the attack to be undertaken by the entire Federal Corps.
At 5 p.m., however, Gen. Eli Long's ammunition train in the rear was attacked by advance elements of Forrest's scattered forces coming toward Selma. Both Long and Upton had positioned significant numbers of troops in their rear for just such an event. But, Long decided to begin his assault against the Selma fortifications to neutralize the enemy attack in his rear.
Long's troops attacked in a single rank in three main lines, dismounted and shooting their Spencer's carbines, supported by their own artillery fire. The Confederates replied with heavy small arms and artillery fire. The Southern artillery had only solid shot on hand, while a short distance away was an arsenal which produced tons of canister, a highly effective anti-personnel ammunition.
Meanwhile, General Upton, observing Long's success, ordered his division forward. They succeeded in overmounting the defenses and soon U.S. flags could be seen waving over the works from Range Line Road to Summerfield Road.
After the outer works fell, General Wilson led the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in a mounted charge down the Range Line Road toward the unfinished inner line of works. The retreating Confederate forces, upon reaching the inner works, all allied and poured a devastating fire into the charging column. This broke up the charge and sent General Wilson sprawling to the ground when his favorite horse was wounded. He quickly remounted his stricken horse and ordered a dismounted assault by several regiments.
Mixed units of Confederate troops had also occupied the Selma railroad depot and the adjoining banks of the railroad bed to make a stand next to the Plantersville Road (present day Broad Street). The fighting there was heavy, but by 7 p.m. the superior numbers of Union troops had managed to flank the Southern positions. The Confederates abandoned the depot as well as the inner line of works.
In the darkness, the Federals rounded up hundreds of prisoners, but hundreds more escaped down the Burnsville Road, including generals Forrest, Armstrong, and Roddey. To the west, many Confederate soldiers fought the pursuing Union Army all the way down to the eastern side of Valley Creek. They escaped in the darkness by swimming across the Alabama River near the mouth of Valley Creek (where the present day Battle of Selma Reenactment is held.)
The Union troops looted the city that night and burned many businesses and private residences. They spent the next week destroying the arsenal and naval foundry. They left Selma heading to Montgomery, and were en route to Columbus and Macon, Georgia at the end of the war.
Civil rights movement
Like other southern states when white Democrats regained political power after Reconstruction, Alabama had imposed Jim Crow laws of racial segregation in public facilities and other means of white supremacy. At the turn of the twentieth century, it passed a new constitution, with electoral provisions, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. This left them without representation in government, as well as deprived them of participation in juries and other forms of citizenship. Through legal challenges and activities of private citizens, blacks became increasingly active following service in World War II in trying to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens.
Selma maintained such typical segregated facilities into the 1960s, which had been adapted to new institutions such as movie theaters. Blacks who attempted to eat at "white-only" lunch counters or sit in the downstairs "white" section of the movie theater were beaten and arrested. More than half of the city's residents were black but because of the restrictive electoral laws and practices, only one percent were registered to vote. This prevented them from serving on juries or taking local office. Blacks were prevented from registering to vote by the literacy test, administered in a subjective way; economic retaliation organized by the White Citizens' Council, Ku Klux Klan violence, and police repression. For instance, to discourage voter registration, the registration board opened doors for registration only two days a month, arrived late, and took long lunches.
In early 1963, Bernard Lafayette and Colia Lafayette of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began organizing in Selma alongside local civil rights leaders Sam, Amelia, and Bruce Boynton; Rev. L.L. Anderson of Tabernacle Baptist Church, J.L. Chestnut (Selma's first Black attorney), SCLC Citizenship School teacher Marie Foster, public school teacher Marie Moore, and others active with the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL).
A positive event in 1963 was that the public library of Selma-Dallas County was integrated under the leadership of Patricia Swift Blalock.
Beginning in January 1965, SCLC and SNCC initiated a revived Voting Rights Campaign designed to focus national attention on the systematic denial of black voting rights in Alabama, and particularly Selma. After numerous attempts by blacks to register, resulting in more than 3,000 arrests, police violence, and economic retaliation, the campaign culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches—initiated and organized by SCLC's Director of Direct Action, James Bevel. This represented one of the political and emotional peaks of the modern civil rights movement.
On March 7, 1965, approximately 600 civil rights marchers departed Selma on U.S. Highway 80, heading east to march to the capital. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only six blocks away, where they were met by state troopers and local sheriff's deputies, who attacked them, using tear gas and billy clubs, and drove them back to Selma. Because of the attacks, this became known as "Bloody Sunday."
Two days after the march, on March 9, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a symbolic march to the bridge. He and other civil rights leaders attempted to get court protection for a third, larger-scale march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. Frank Minis Johnson, Jr., the Federal District Court Judge for the area, decided in favor of the demonstrators, saying:
On March 21, 1965, a Sunday, approximately 3,200 marchers departed for Montgomery. They walked 12 miles per day, and slept in nearby fields. By the time they reached the capitol four days later on March 25, their strength had swelled to around 25,000 people.
The events at Selma helped increase public support for the cause, and that year the US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voting rights for all citizens in state or jurisdictions where patterns of under-representation showed discrimination against certain populations, historically minorities.