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LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. - photo: NARA

Lyndon Johnson took office in 1963, pledging loyalty to Kennedy's policies, especially expanded federal protection of civil rights for African Americans. In July, 1964, President Johnson signed a landmark Civil Rights bill outlawing segregation in public facilities. Six months later, Johnson went even further, using a racial crisis in Alabama to pressure Congress into backing the historic Voting Rights Act. On January 2, 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Selma, Alabama, demanding the right to vote for black people. Selma was known as one of the toughest places for African Americans to register. Of Selma's 15,000 black adults, only 300 could cast a ballot in 1965. Lyndon Johnson saw an opportunity. To pass a voting rights bill, LBJ needed the nation to see a vivid case of discrimination against black people trying to register. He called Reverend King in Selma on January 15, 1965.

LBJ: If you can find the worst condition of being denied the right to cast a vote…and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television, and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon, the fellow that didn't do anything but drive a tractor will say, "That's not right. That's not fair." And then that will help us on what we are going to shove through in the end…And if we do that…it will be the greatest breakthrough of anything…The greatest achievement of my administration….So that's what we've got to do now. And you get in there and help us.

MLK: That's right...

King's side of the conversation is hard to hear on tape, but he readily agreed. The civil rights leader was already doing the things Johnson wanted done in Selma. From January to March, orderly groups of black citizens lined up at the courthouse in Selma to register to vote. The police beat and arrested them. But they kept coming.

As King's demonstrations gained momentum - and increasing national attention - the local reaction turned deadly. After white segregationists murdered a young black man, King called for a 54-mile protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol. On March 7, 1965, a narrow line of marchers set out across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which led from Selma to Highway 80 and on to Montgomery.

At the crest of the bridge, marchers saw before them a barricade of Alabama State Troopers. With only a moment's warning - and seemingly oblivious to the news cameras rolling - troopers attacked the demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. A posse of white vigilantes on horseback chased down people trying to escape. More than sixty marchers were injured. The entire ordeal was caught on film and broadcast to a nation that reacted with shock to the brutality. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday."


Next: part 2