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A Look Back: ADL's Role in Selma and the Voting Rights Act

The Quest for Voting Rights in Selma

In January 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other local African American civil rights activists began a campaign to push for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.  As a result of discriminatory laws and practices at the time, only two percent of African Americans were registered to vote in Selma.

Although police arrested and jailed many peaceful protesters in Selma, including Dr. King and more than 200 protesters on February 1, for the first month of the campaign the clashes between police and peaceful protesters were nonviolent.  But on February 18, 1965, a state trooper shot and killed a young black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson while he was attempting to protect his mother and grandfather from the policeman’s nightstick. 

ADL reacted swiftly, passing the following resolution at its national meeting in February 1965:

The Anti-Defamation League, shocked by the blatant attempt by public officials in Selma, Alabama to subvert the voting rights of Negroes, urges that the federal government make every effort to secure these rights for our fellow Americans.   

Bloody Sunday

Led by now-Congressman John Lewis and Hosea Williams, on March 7, 1965 activists set out to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and to advocate for voting rights.  That day—a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday—state troopers and a sheriff’s posse brutally attacked the 575 peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Immediately, ADL sent telegrams to President Johnson, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and Leroy Collins, Director of the Community Relations Service at the Department of Commerce, asking that "federal power" be invoked in Selma to protect the protesters.  

That evening Dr. King began “calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us…in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom.”  ADL answered the call.

ADL Joins March from Selma to Montgomery

After a second failed attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, on March 21, 1965 demonstrators began the successful five-day protest.  ADL National Director Ben Epstein, his wife, and Oscar Cohen, Director of ADL’s Program Division, joined “more than 3,000 Americans: Negroes and white, ministers, rabbis, Catholic nuns, students, representatives of organizations, those who belonged to no group other than the human race—all in peaceful demonstration against blind violence, in ‘gigantic witness’ to the constitutionally guaranteed right of all citizens to register and vote.”

As the march approached Montgomery, more ADL leaders joined.  The new group included Rabbi Solomon S. Bernards, Director of Interreligious Cooperation; Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz, Chair of the Interreligious Committee; Lawrence Peirez, Chair of the Fact Finding Committee; Lester Waldman, Director of Organization and Planning; Howard Braverman, Secretary of the Race Relations Committee; Sheldon Steinhauser, Denver Regional Director; Melvin Cooperman, St. Louis Regional Director; David Chancer, Assistant Director in Milwaukee; and Edith Tarkov of the Department of Intercultural Affairs.

As the march culminated on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Dr. King rhetorically asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

ADL Recommits Itself to Bending the Arc

As Benjamin Epstein wrote when he returned from the march, “the task ahead for the Anti-Defamation to smooth the road, to promote American ideals of democracy through obedience to law and through intergroup cooperation.  This we will do, with all the resources and experience of our more than fifty years of life.  For we, of all people, know the evil of silence.”

In March of 1965 ADL announced that it would expand and strengthen its work in the South to carry out its founding mission of “securing justice and fair treatment for all.”  ADL strongly supported the Voting Rights Act, which President Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.  Since then, ADL has been working tirelessly to defend and strengthen the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.

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ADL National Director Benjamin Epstein stands to the right of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at a meeting at the White House on June 22, 1963.
Abbie Rowe. White House photographs.

"The task ahead for the Anti-Defamation to smooth the road, to promote American ideals of democracy through obedience to law and through intergroup cooperation.  This we will do, with all the resources and experience of our more than fifty years of life.  Fore we, of all people, know the evil ov silence." -Benjamin Epstein, ADL National Director, 1965


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