University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
new search
page permalink
Case Name Williams v. Wallace VR-AL-0264
Docket / Court Civ. A. No. 2181-N ( M.D. Ala. )
State/Territory Alabama
Case Type(s) Election/Voting Rights
Special Collection Civil Rights Division Archival Collection
Selma and early civil rights enforcement
Attorney Organization U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Case Summary
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

Despite the Civil Rights Act and the Department of Justice's myriad lawsuits against Alabama state officials for voter ... read more >
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

Despite the Civil Rights Act and the Department of Justice's myriad lawsuits against Alabama state officials for voter discrimination, racial discrimination among Alabama's voters persisted. Tensions in Selma thus also persisted throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, an injunction issued in this case would enable the Selma-to-Montgomery marches to take place in March 1965. For additional context on the year leading up to the marches, go to this case.

In February 1965, a state trooper shot black man in Marion, AL during a riot following demonstrations in front of a courthouse, which sparked renewed tension in Selma and led to the planning of the marches from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, as a peaceful protest against discrimination. On March 6, 1965, Governor George Wallace issued a statement banning any march. Nevertheless, the first attempted march took place on March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday because of the violence that erupted between the protesters and state troopers. Although demonstrators were walking peacefully to Montgomery, state troopers gave them two minutes to disperse, though only a minute into their command and after the demonstrators had not dispersed, the state troopers began their attack. The troopers deployed tear gas, nausea gas, and canisters of smoke. They used clubs and horses to chase and beat the demonstrators.

Seeking protection for their future marches, civil rights leaders Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Amelia Boynton filed this class action suit on March 8, 1965 pursuant to the Civil Rights Act against Alabama Governor George Wallace, Dallas County Sheriff James Clark, and other state officials. Governor Wallace was a famous segregationist with repeated bids for president, while Sheriff Clark was known for his support of segregation and resort to violence in opposing the civil rights movement.

In addition to their complaint, the plaintiffs filed motions seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs claimed violations of the Civil Rights Act, as well as equal protection violations under the Fourteenth Amendment, and deprivation of rights under the First and Fifteenth Amendments. Accordingly, they sought to enjoin the State from interfering with their right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate their grievances concerning the right to register to vote in Alabama. The plaintiffs specifically asked for an injunction allowing them to march peacefully from Selma to Montgomery free of the State's interference, coercion, and harassment. Two days later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened. This action was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

On March 9, 1965, the court (Judge Frank Johnson) denied the application for temporary restraining order and instead issued an order temporarily restraining the plaintiffs from "any further enforce the rights they ask this Court to judicially determine" until the court could conduct a hearing on the matter. That same day, Dr. King led protesters to the border of Selma but no further, strategically choosing to respect the restraining order and not alienate a judge sympathetic to voter discrimination issues in Alabama. That day came to be known as "Turnaround Tuesday."

On March 17, 1965, Judge Johnson enjoined the state from interfering with the protesters, enabling the Selma-to-Montgomery marches to proceed (240 F. Supp. 100).

The court found that in Dallas County where Selma is located, as well as several other Alabama counties, less than 10% of the black voting age population was registered to vote. The court noted that in response, black communities organized voter registration drives as well peaceful demonstrations, while the numerous cases were filed in federal court to fight voter discrimination. Despite these efforts, the court found that while the black voting age population was greater than the white voting age population as of November 1964, only small or nonexistent percentages of black eligible voters were registered to vote across the various counties. These findings suggested "an almost continuous pattern of conduct...on the part of...Sheriff Clark [and his agents] of harassment, intimidation, coercion, threatening conduct, and, sometimes, brutal mistreatment" of demonstrators. The court found that this conduct ranged from unjustified mass arrests to forced marches into the countryside while using electrical shocking devices on the demonstrators. Indeed, the court found that state troopers sometimes assisted the Sheriff, including during the violence of Bloody Sunday. Moreover, the court found that Governor Wallace was aware of the tactics to be employed by the state troopers on that day.

The court held that these acts of violence on the part of the State were for the sole purpose of preventing and discouraging black citizens from the right to register to vote, the right to peacefully protest discrimination, and the right to petition one's government for redress of grievances. The acts were not meant to enforce any valid law. While governments have a right and duty to maintain safety and keep roads open for regular use, the court held that there is room for both this duty and the right to peacefully protest grievances. So long as the protest is peaceful and does not unreasonably interfere with other citizens' right to use the roads, the protest does not undermine the government's aforementioned duty. Thus, the court further held that Governor Wallace's March 6 proclamation banning all marches, as well as its subsequent enforcement, was an unreasonable and unconstitutional interference with the right to protest.

Judge Johnson poignantly noted that "it seems basic to our constitutional principles that the extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate and march peaceably along the highways and streets in an orderly manner should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against. In this case, the wrongs are enormous. The extent of the right to demonstrate against these wrongs should be determined accordingly." Indeed, Judge Johnson stated that this principle was especially true when the protester has been deprived of the usual and basic constitutional means of protest - voting.

The court ultimately found the plaintiffs' proposed march plan to be reasonable and a constitutional exercise of the right to peacefully assemble and petition the government for redress. While the plan " the outer limits of what is constitutionally allowed," Judge Johnson held that "the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon these plaintiffs and the members of their class...have clearly exceeded - and continue to exceed - the outer limits of what is constitutionally permissible." Moreover, the court found that the State did not offer any evidence apart from its hostility to the plan to indicate that the plan was in fact unreasonable.

Crucially, Judge Johnson issued an injunction compelling the State to provide the marchers protection from the State's law enforcement, which was to be supplemented with federal forces if requested by the State. The court further enjoined the State and its officers from intimidating, threatening, coercing, or otherwise interfering with the proposed march.

The next day, the State moved to stay the injunction, arguing that the march posed a threat of violence to white citizens opposing it. But Judge Johnson denied the motion, finding that argument unpersuasive and that there was nothing new to suggest a stay would be justified.

On March 21, 1965, thousands of protesters assembled in Selma to begin the march to Montgomery, which concluded on March 25. Along the way, they were protected by the United States Army and Alabama National Guard.

The case is closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.

Virginia Weeks - 04/13/2018

compress summary

- click to show/hide ALL -
Issues and Causes of Action
click to show/hide detail
Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Right to travel
Content of Injunction
Discrimination Prohibition
Preliminary relief granted
Race discrimination
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff
Voter qualifications
Voter registration rules
Causes of Action Civil Rights Act of 1957/1960, 52 U.S.C. § 10101 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 1971)
Defendant(s) Governor George Wallace
Sheriff James G. Clarke
State of Alabama
Plaintiff Description Department of Justice, civil rights leaders, class of demonstrators
Indexed Lawyer Organizations U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Granted
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 1965 - 1965
Filed 1965
Case Closing Year 1965
Case Ongoing No
Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
M.D. Ala.
Opinion (240 F.Supp. 100)
VR-AL-0264-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
show all people docs
Judges Johnson, Frank Minis Jr. (M.D. Ala., Fifth Circuit, Eleventh Circuit) show/hide docs

- click to show/hide ALL -

new search
page permalink

- top of page -