Today marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the first of three marches that would spur the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Voter suppression among the black community was an unwritten law across the Jim Crow south in the first half of the 20th century, and Selma, a small town in the heart of Alabama, became a pivotal battleground in the fight for civil rights.

Together in January 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Dallas County Voters League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference rallied in Selma in an effort to remedy the segregationist practices that had become commonplace for blacks when attempting to vote: literacy tests, poll taxes, and the use of grandfather clauses. The activist organizations proposed a bold idea: march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capitol, and demand blacks be given their constitutional right to vote.

The first march took place on March 7. Led by Hosea Williams, James Bevel, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and others, some 600 protestors headed east toward the state capitol but were stopped by a mob of law enforcement at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As marchers attempted to cross the bridge, police attacked with relentless fury. The New York Times captured the unimaginable mayhem: “Alabama state troopers and volunteer officers of the Dallas County sheriff’s office tore through a column of Negro demonstrators with tear gas, nightsticks and whips here today to enforce Gov. George C. Wallace’s order against a protest march from Selma to Montgomery.”

Days later, on March 9, Martin Luther King Jr. led a second march. It was also unsuccessful; no injuries, however, were caused.

But the horror of Bloody Sunday was too grave to ignore. The government could no longer turn its back to the movement, which was gaining momentum with each passing day.

On March 15, standing before Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged lawmakers to right the wrongs of America and pass voting rights legislation. “There is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy,” he said. “There is no Negro problem, there is no Southern problem, there is no Northern problem, there is only an American problem.”

Seeking the help of the federal government, Judge Frank M. Johnson sided with the SCLC and overturned Governor Wallace’s injunction, who believed a mass march was a threat to public safety. Judge Johnson argued: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups... and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” So, on March 21st, 7,000 freedom fighters set out from Selma to Montgomery in one of the most historic protest marches in American history.

Four days later, on March 25, they reached the capitol. Before a crowd of 25,ooo people, King opened his speech like so:

King, flanked by his SCLC brethren, ended his speech with these now-historic words:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir) I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes, sir) How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because “no lie can live forever.” (Yes, sir) How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because “you shall reap what you sow.” (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The fight was not yet over, but on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. “It is difficult to fight for freedom. But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it,” Johnson said before signing the bill. “There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding toward those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: It must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too.”

[Image via Getty]