'Foundation of the bridge': Recalling 'Courageous Eight' who risked all to spearhead Selma marches

The "Courageous Eight."
The "Courageous Eight."

Nearly 60 years ago, Black leaders organized three marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest legislation preventing Black Americans from voting.

The three marches, with the final occurring on March 21, 1965, were led by historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams.

But historians and Selma natives say the marches wouldn't have come about without eight people in particular, all members of the Dallas County (Alabama) Voters League, known as the Courageous Eight.

The searing images of white state troopers attacking peaceful marchers in Selma were among the factors that eventually led President Lyndon B. Johnson and other lawmakers to  support national voting rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

How did the marches come about?

Ernest Doyle (center) holding an NAACP sign at a rest camp site. Doyle and other protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He was also a member of the Courageous Eight, a group that spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.
Ernest Doyle (center) holding an NAACP sign at a rest camp site. Doyle and other protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He was also a member of the Courageous Eight, a group that spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.

In 1956, the NAACP was banned in Alabama, prompting members of the local Dallas County Voters League to hold NAACP activities underground, said activist-historian William Waheed, who wrote a book about Selma's voting rights movement.

"One of the big problems in Selma is that you had about 60% to 70% of illiteracy among voting-age adults," Waheed said.

The Dallas County Voters League eventually began hosting literacy classes, he said, but there remained obstacles for Black voters, including poll taxes and literacy tests with questions such as "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?"

Shown in a photo taken Wednesday, Feb., 26, 2009, is a building on the Corner of First Avenue and Summerfield Road in Selma, Ala. The building housed the former offices of the Dallas County Voters League and Selma's first black contractor, George Wilson, Sr. It has been added to the National and Alabama Historic Registers.
Shown in a photo taken Wednesday, Feb., 26, 2009, is a building on the Corner of First Avenue and Summerfield Road in Selma, Ala. The building housed the former offices of the Dallas County Voters League and Selma's first black contractor, George Wilson, Sr. It has been added to the National and Alabama Historic Registers.

Local authorities told the voters league to cease public meetings, but the group kept at it, and eight people in particular – the Courageous Eight – remained active. Their work earned them a nickname locally among other Black families in Selma as "the Crazy Eight," Waheed said.

"They were educators. They were business people. They were professional people, so people called them crazy because they challenged the system," he said. "People also called them crazy because they knew they had awesome opportunities financially and professionally and they were giving it away."

In 1964, Selma's NAACP chapter was reinstated, Waheed said. Also that year, members of the Dallas County Voters League pushed the organization to invite King to Selma.

The league agreed under the condition that a select group of people oversee the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and King's activities in Selma. The Courageous Eight formed a steering committee, meeting at Boynton's home and crafting a letter to invite King to Selma, Waheed said.

The marches begin

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led protesters on a march from Selma to Montgomery.

Ticket stub for Washington, DC to Montgomery, AL for Selma-Montgomery March used by
Mulholland, Joan Trumpauer, American, born 1941
Ticket stub for Washington, DC to Montgomery, AL for Selma-Montgomery March used by Mulholland, Joan Trumpauer, American, born 1941

When they reached the height of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama law enforcement ordered them to turn around; when they refused, officers beat them, leaving Lewis with a fractured skull and a concussion.

More than 60 marchers were injured in what would go down in history as "Bloody Sunday."

Two days later, on March 9, King led at least 2,500 protesters on another march, and they were again blocked from reaching Montgomery. This day became known as Turnaround Tuesday.

On the last attempt, on March 21, more than 3,000 civil rights demonstrators marched from Brown Chapel AME Church, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and down Highway 80, joined by U.S. Army troops and federalized Alabama National Guardsmen.

"We hear about the bridge crossing, but very seldom do you hear about the pillars of the foundation of the bridge, which are the Courageous Eight," Waheed said. "They are the foundation of the bridge."

The Courageous Eight were:

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Ulysses Blackmon Sr.

Role in the marches:

Ulysses Blackmon Sr. was a Korean War veteran and Lutheran educator who taught math, according to the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. He graduated from Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined the Dallas County Voters League in 1950.

What his family says about his contributions:

"The Courageous Eight (was) an unselfish, cohesive group. No one part is greater than the whole. No one took credit for anything and because of the military structure that was in there, because of those veterans, they knew leadership. They knew that everybody had their place and everybody had their role that they needed to play, and nobody questioned that role. They served the country and then when they came home, the inequality that they experienced education, jobs they had another fight to take on."

– Ulysses Blackmon Jr., son of Ulysses Blackmon Sr.

The Rev. John D. Hunter

Rev. John D. Hunter, a member of the Courageous Eight.
Rev. John D. Hunter, a member of the Courageous Eight.

Role in the marches: 

The Rev. John D. Hunter was a minister who became president of Selma's chapter of the NAACP in 1950. His son, Phillip Hunter, said he often invited attorneys to Selma to take on cases others would shy away from.

What his family says about his contributions: 

"My father, he was a nonviolent person but he didn't take any stuff. He didn't participate in a lot of the marches because he probably would've struck out (or) retaliated versus just taking a hit."

– Phillip Hunter, son of John D. Hunter

The Rev. Frederick Douglas Reese

Role in the marches:

The Rev. Frederick Douglas Reese was a pastor and an educator in Selma for more than 50 years. He joined the Dallas County Voters League in 1960 and was elected president four years later. He was also president of the Selma Teachers Association and led teachers on a march to the local courthouse to register to vote in January 1965. Some locals didn't want King in Selma because they thought he'd shed a negative light on the movement, said Reese's grandson, Alan Reese. When the Courageous Eight invited him to the area, it didn't sit well with some. Still, the group pushed forward.

What his family says about his contributions:

"Different leaders in Selma ridiculed him for inviting Dr. King. He went against Selma, Alabama, to invite Dr. King there and then Selma benefited from that movement."

– Alan Reese, grandson of Rev. Frederick Douglas Reese

Amelia Boynton Robinson

In March of 2015, President Barack Obama, center, walks as he holds hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement. From front left are Marian Robinson, Sasha Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama, Boynton and Adelaide Sanford, also in wheelchair.

Role in the marches:

Amelia Boynton Robinson was a businesswoman who, with her partner Sam Boynton, began fighting for civil rights in the 1930s. Her husband died in 1963, and Boynton Robinson used his memorial service as the first mass meeting for Black people in Selma. The next year, she ran for Congress, the first Black woman in Alabama to do so. She was there on Bloody Sunday. She marched behind John Lewis and was tear-gassed and beaten unconscious, The Associated Press reported.

What her family says about her contributions:

"She was 9 years old. She was riding with her mother in a horse and buggy going from house to house. It was during women's suffrage and women gaining the right to vote. (She was) handing out leaflets to encourage women to register to vote. I always found that very interesting that at that age, she was exposed to that and mirrored it with her life later on."

– Carver Boynton-Pearson, granddaughter of Amelia Boynton Robinson

Marie Foster

Leaders of a march to Selma's City Hall exit the mayor's office, Feb. 7, 1990. About 600 marchers gathered at the building to protest the leadership of the city's school system. From left: Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, standing by window, and march leaders Ron Peoples, J.L. Chestnut and Marie Foster.
Leaders of a march to Selma's City Hall exit the mayor's office, Feb. 7, 1990. About 600 marchers gathered at the building to protest the leadership of the city's school system. From left: Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, standing by window, and march leaders Ron Peoples, J.L. Chestnut and Marie Foster.

Role in the marches:

Marie Foster was recruited to join the movement in 1962 by Robinson. Foster and Robinson became the first two women to join the Dallas County Voters League. Foster helped organize voter registration classes and taught people to read in the basement of Tabernacle Baptist Church. On Bloody Sunday, Foster was struck by a state trooper, her knees left swollen and bruised. Days later, she joined in additional marches and trekked 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery.

In her words:

USA TODAY was unable to speak with foster's daughter for this story, but in an oral history for the Voting Rights Museum in the Los Angeles Times in 2003, she noted that she became involved in the civil rights movement because race relations in Selma were so bad.

“I had a vision that we could do something about the bias conditions in Selma, the state and someday the world.”

James Gildersleeve

James Gildersleeve and his wife, Ludy Dunning Gildersleeve. James Gildersleeve was a member of the Courageous Eight, a group that spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.
James Gildersleeve and his wife, Ludy Dunning Gildersleeve. James Gildersleeve was a member of the Courageous Eight, a group that spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.

Role in the marches:

James Gildersleeve was a Lutheran educator who taught civics and political science. He joined the Dallas County Voters League in 1950. He was a military policeman in World War II, which allowed him to travel to different parts of the world and see how Black people were treated outside the U.S. Long before the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, Gildersleeve and others had begun protesting and educating the Black community.

What his family says about his contributions:

"Their character, their strategies, their persistence, their courage, their bravery and determination ... ended up resulting in the 1965 Voting Rights Act being passed. Our goal then was to get right to vote, using our ballot to speak for us, but we still have systemic poverty and poor Black neighborhoods going on, even today. It's going to take generations to come to continue to address the inequities in society." 

– Linda Gildersleeve-Blackwell, daughter of James Gildersleeve

Ernest Doyle

Ernest Doyle, a member of the Courageous Eight. The group spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.
Ernest Doyle, a member of the Courageous Eight. The group spearheaded the voting rights movement in Selma.

Role in the marches: 

Ernest Doyle was a World War II veteran and was NAACP president for 15 years. On Bloody Sunday, he stayed inside because the group knew there was a chance violence would erupt and they didn't want to lose all of their leaders, said his granddaughter. He marched on March 21, 1965. Doyle and other local leaders were also part of the push to integrate the city's schools. Doyle, who had taken up interior and exterior decorating and carpentry, suffered financially and was blacklisted, as were other signees and activists, he wrote in a firsthand account of his experiences. His wife, Ruth Doyle, was also a teacher who lost her job because she went to mass meetings. She couldn't get a job in Alabama, so she had to teach in Georgia instead. Each week, she'd trek to Georgia, teach, then head back to Selma. Ruth Doyle died in a car wreck on one of those trips, but Ernest didn't stop his activism. In 1970, Doyle became the first Black person on Selma's city council since Reconstruction.

What his family says about his contributions:

"I would have thought that having the experiences they'd had, that they would be racist or they would be biased, but that wasn't it at all. There was no animosity. They just wanted their rights. He just wanted what was right."

– Shannah Tharp-Gilliam, granddaughter of Ernest Doyle

The Rev. Henry Shannon Sr.

Rev. Henry Shannon Sr., a member of the Courageous Eight.
Rev. Henry Shannon Sr., a member of the Courageous Eight.

Role in the marches:

The Rev. Henry Shannon Sr. served in the U.S. Army and received a World War II victory medal, a bronze star and a good conduct medal. He was a barber and joined the Dallas County Voters League in 1950. His son, Harry Shannon, said his father was a powerful man, a jack of all trades and a master of none.

What his family says about his contributions:

"He'd often say: 'If you've got something on your mind, don't sit on it. Move on it.' He had Ph.D. in common sense. He'd always tell me to engage my brain before I open my mouth. I'm the proud son of a proud man."

– Harry Shannon, son of Henry Shannon Sr.

Contributing: Camille Fine

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who are the 'Courageous Eight' in 1965 Selma Civil Rights marches?