In the early 1960s, white supremacists in the American South were still waging war against the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which on its face prohibited denial of the vote based on race. Discriminatory literacy tests and simple intimidation kept the great majority of Southern African-Americans from registering or voting.


J.L. Chestnut, the first African-American attorney in Selma, Ala., relates metaphorically the travails of aspiring black voters in the South of the mid-20th century. Any African-American trying to register in Selma, he said, confronted at the registrar's office a large fierce dog that seemed trained only to attack black people. Few African-Americans dared to brave the dog's ferocity.

On Feb. 18, 1965, three weeks before the Selma to Montgomery march that we are celebrating this year, advocates for African-American voting rights organized a rare nighttime march in the small town of Marion in Alabama's "Black Belt" to protest the jailing of James Orange. Prosecutors had charged Orange with contributing to the delinquency of minors because he enlisted students in voter registration drives. Alabama state troopers responded by beating peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, sending terrified marchers fleeing into the night. Some took refuge in a nearby restaurant, Mack's Cafe.

State troopers followed them into the cafe, where trooper James Bonard Fowler fatally shot in the stomach an unarmed 26-year-old black voting rights worker, Jimmie Lee Jackson. Fowler claimed self-defense, saying that Jackson had reached for his gun. Eyewitnesses, however, said that Jackson was trying to protect his mother from police violence and that Fowler shot him deliberately, without provocation.

Alabama officials issued an arrest warrant for Jackson for assaulting a police officer while he lingered in a hospital for eight days before dying from his wound. They did not arrest, indict or discipline Fowler or release his name to the public. Fowler remained on the state police force and a year later shot and killed another unarmed black man, Nathan Johnson Jr., during an altercation at the Alabaster city jail. State police officials purged both killings from Fowler's personnel file, but fired him in 1968 for assaulting his white police supervisor.

Since post-Civil War Reconstruction, the chances of a white person in the South being indicted for killing a black person was very small and the chances of being convicted virtually nil. "The ballot is stronger than the bullet," Abraham Lincoln said. Yet without ballots, and unwilling to resort to bullets, African-Americans lacked leverage over the white officials who controlled Southern governments and their police forces.

Martin Luther King Jr., who had witnessed many killings of civil rights workers, considered dumping Jackson's body on the doorstep of Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace. Instead, he vindicated Jackson's cause by organizing a march for African-American voting rights from Chestnut's hometown of Selma to Montgomery. "We are going to march the length of Alabama until we can vote," King said. "You [Jackson] died that we can vote and we will vote."

On March 7, 1965, voting rights marchers began crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general, which spans the Alabama River in Selma. Southern police forces repeated the same mistakes they had made in Marion and earlier protest scenes — the same mistakes that Missouri police forces would make a half century later in dealing with demonstrations that followed the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. State troopers, with perhaps Fowler among them, attacked the marchers on the Pettus Bridge with nightsticks, tear gas, and yes, fierce police dogs, while television cameras carried these brutal images into America's living rooms. National outrage over the violence on this "bloody Sunday" led to adoption of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 2007, 42 years after bloody Sunday, as part of a federal-state effort to reopen cold cases from the civil rights era, Alabama prosecutors indicted 73-year-old James Fowler for murdering Jimmie Lee Jackson. Two weeks before trial in 2010, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five months of a six month sentence.

Yet even today, the vote is by no means secure for racial minorities. The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the requirement of the Voting Rights Act that required most Southern states to pre-clear with the U. S. Justice Department changes in election laws and practices. And such measures as the disenfranchisement of felons, the purging of voter registration rolls, the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls can limit minority voting opportunities.

Note: For a dramatic depiction of the Marion march and the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson, check out the Academy-award nominated movie "Selma."

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.