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Petersburg man holds memories from Selma march

Joey Matthews | 1/20/2015, 6 a.m.
As people across the nation flocked to the movies to watch “Selma,” 80-year-old Petersburg native Herbert V. Coulton Sr. already ...
Herbert Coulton

As people across the nation flocked to the movies to watch “Selma,” 80-year-old Petersburg native Herbert V. Coulton Sr. already knew the story — because he was there.

“It was indescribable,” Mr. Coulton said. “They did anything they could to stop us. It’s hard to believe how rough things were.”

Mr. Coulton, who was the Virginia field director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time, went to the march in the Alabama city in 1965 to join the critical and growing effort to gain voting rights for African-Americans.

He described how white police officers on foot and horseback severely beat marchers with billy clubs and bullwhips, sprayed them with tear gas and knocked them to the ground with high-powered water hoses.

“It was awful,” he told the Free Press from his home this week. “Some people were knocked unconscious and others were screaming and badly bleeding.”

German Shepherd dogs leashed by police chewed into the flesh of demonstrators, he said.

Refusing to succumb to the terror and intimidation tactics, the peaceful demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., changed U.S. history forever when they completed the third and final march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

The 54-mile civil rights march began March 21, 1965, with about 3,000 peaceful marchers. But by the time they completed the five-day walk March 25 at the State Capitol in Montgomery, an estimated 25,000 demonstrators celebrated at a victory rally.

“There was a lot of pride in that moment,” Mr. Coulton recalled.

A little more than four months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. His action was spurred in large part by the final triumphant march, which included two earlier unsuccessful attempts to march to Montgomery.

The importance of the iconic march is more pronounced today, with the federal Voting Rights Act under siege after the changed U.S. history forever when they completed the third and final march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

The 54-mile civil rights march began March 21, 1965, with about 3,000 peaceful marchers. But by the time they completed the five-day walk March 25 at the State Capitol in Montgomery, an estimated 25,000 demonstrators celebrated at a victory rally.

“There was a lot of pride in that moment,” Mr. Coulton recalled.

A little more than four months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. His action was spurred in large part by the final triumphant march, which included two earlier unsuccessful attempts to march to Montgomery.

The importance of the iconic march is more pronounced today, with the federal Voting Rights Act under siege after the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013 struck down key provisions in the act that determined which states must get federal permission before changes are made in their voting laws. Virginia, a former slave-holding state, was among nine Southern states covered by the highly controversial ruling.