The March from Selma to Montgomery: A Movement within a Movement (by Caroline Zaia)


In this lesson, students will learn about the role of the march from Selma to Montgomery as an important event in the Civil Rights Movement, consider the array of people who were involved in the march, and assess how that diversity affected the movement as a whole.


The main point of this lesson is to allow students to interact with a primary source from the civil rights era. It will educate students on the process and amount of planning involved in social justice movements, as well as the injustices that were being challenged during this time period. Students will be able to understand the level of commitment that was necessary for participants in the movement. They will also get a sense of the number of smaller movements that were necessary to make large-scale changes like those that were brought about by the Civil Rights Movement.

This lesson will teach students how to extract information from scholarly sources and understand what information different sources can and cannot tell the reader. Students will work collectively to extract information from the primary source and discuss the positive and negative effects of that information on the movement. This will allow students to gain knowledge from the textual source but also achieve understanding from collaboration with fellow classmates.

Essential Understanding

The march from Selma to Montgomery required a large amount of planning by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and it played an important role the overall fight for civil rights.

Essential Questions

1. What was the culture of voting rights in the South during the 1950s and 1960s?
2. What characterized the relationship between SNCC and SCLC?
3. What was Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the march?
4. What tactical moves did the organizers employ to achieve their goals?
5. How did the march from Selma to Montgomery affect the Civil Rights Movement as a whole?


The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most famous and successful social justice movements in the history of the United States. However, students rarely learn about how much planning and organization was truly necessary for activists to effect change in the country. Although black people were technically granted the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, black citizens in the South faced immense resistance when attempting to register to vote. Literacy tests, economic pressure, and violence prevented blacks from exercising their legal right to vote.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was one of the organizations that fought against the racism in the South. It worked in Mississippi and the surrounding states to promote community projects and voter registration drives.1 SNCC initially targeted Selma, Alabama, which lies in Dallas County. Fifty-seven percent of the citizens of Dallas County were black, yet only about one hundred thirty of those citizens (about one percent of eligible black voters) were registered to vote.2 This small-scale voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama prompted the march from Selma to Montgomery, which elevated this small movement to the national consciousness.

In an attempt to promote the Selma Voting Rights Movement, activists marched to the county courthouse on February 18, 1965. During that march, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama State Trooper and died eight days later. A larger march from Selma to Montgomery was planned to hold Governor George Wallace accountable for this unnecessary death and bring attention to the Selma Voting Rights Movement. The march began on March 7, 1965, when about six hundred people began the march out of Selma. They were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with state troopers. The marchers were attacked with tear gas and beaten with nightsticks. Seventeen people were hospitalized after the brutal attack on the non-violent marchers that is now known as “Bloody Sunday.” King noted that Bloody Sunday “brought into every home the terror and brutality that Negroes face every day.”3 This quote portrays the violence and cruelty of racism during this time period. Bloody Sunday was the very thing that activists were fighting against. However, as scholars, we must question King’s tactics during this movement. Did members of the SCLC instigate the attack? How much did they truly benefit from the brutality of the state troopers?

Two days later, a second march of 2,500 people ceremonially walked across the bridge, but then stopped when ordered to because the protestors had been court ordered to refrain from marching. On March 21, after Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson ruled that the marchers were exercising their First Amendment right to protest, the successful third march led by King set out for Montgomery.

The above information is a basic background of the march from Selma to Montgomery. It provides knowledge of the people and organizations involved as well as the first two attempts at a march. We can now analyze the primary source. It is important to distinguish what information we can extract from the document, but also what the source fails to teach us.


Primary Source
Selma 1965 – Edmund Pettus Bridge
White Board


Students should be assigned to read the primary source “Singing Missing: First Day Marked with Odd Quietness” as homework the day before the lesson is going to be taught in class. Instruct them to underline important information and annotate when appropriate, as well as noting any questions about the article that they may have. Finally, have the students prepare a short summary of the article to be turned in at the beginning of class.

Begin the class by stating the overall topic of the lesson: the march from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Ask the class if they knew any information about this event before reading the newspaper article that was assigned for homework. If they did have prior knowledge, discuss where they acquired this information. If they did not know anything about the march, take a moment to open a discussion on why the students had not already learned about this event from the Civil Rights Movements in previous history classes.

Next, divide the students evenly into four groups, and divide the white board(s) into four different sections. Title the sections as follows: facts from the article, conclusions drawn from the article, how the movement affected the Movement, and what more should we learn. Assign each group to one of the four sections. Give the class fifteen minutes to write a short outline on their section of the board and prepare a short presentation about their topic.

When the groups are ready to present, allow each group about five minutes to give their presentations. After each presentation, allow the audience to ask questions and make comments about the topic and the material that the group talked about in their presentation. The students in the audience can ask questions, add relevant information, or make clarifying statements. When all four groups have finished presenting and answering questions, you can ask the essential questions and open the floor for discussion. Make sure to touch on any bias the source may have, and discuss the tone and structure of the article as well. This is not a lecture, but rather a discussion, which you can facilitate but ensure that the students are the ones who are building conclusions from the discussion. Finally, have a concluding portion of class discussion and wrap up the themes and realizations that the students made during the class discussion.

At the end of the class, play the YouTube video on a large screen. After the video, allow for a short discussion about the images from Bloody Sunday and the march to conclude the lesson.

Additional Sources

(1) Andrews, Kenneth. “Social Movements and Policy Implementation: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, 1965 to 1971” American Sociological Review, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Feb. 2001), pp. 71-95. American Sociological Association.
(2) Jeffries, Hasan Kwame. “SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Spring 2006) pp. 171-193. Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.
(3) Fairclough, Adam. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Quest for Nonviolent Social Change” Phylon, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1st Qtr. 1986), pp. 1-15. Clark Atlanta University.


1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
3. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
4. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
5. Students identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations.
6. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

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