In January of 1965, the civil rights movement was coming to a boil in Selma, Alabama, over voting rights for the black population. What happened in Selma over the next three months would change history, and a young CBS News reporter named Bill Plante was there, taking notes on the extraordinary events that unfolded around him. Plante was only 27 and one year into his job at the network.
Fifty years later, Plante is still reporting for CBS News, now as the senior White House correspondent. He is 77.
60 Minutes Overtime convinced Plante to dig up not only his memories, but also his dusty file of scripts--covered with cigarette burn marks and scribbled edits--which he typed each day in Alabama on his trusty Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter. What we found in Plante’s scripts was a remarkably detailed first-hand account of the key events that led to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“The Civil Rights Movement was the big story of the mid-’60s, the big domestic story,” says Plante. CBS News sent Plante to Alabama in late January of 1965 to cover the story, along with a group of reporters and correspondents that included Bill Stout, Lew Wood, Nelson Benton, and Murray Fromson.
Plante was there on February 18th, the night an Alabama State Trooper chased a young activist named Jimmie Lee Jackson into a café and shot him. “The shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson was the spark that ignited the marches on Montgomery,” says Plante. After the shooting, outraged civil rights workers proposed a 50-mile march from the town of Selma all the way to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital and a bastion of the Confederacy.
On March 7th, civil rights workers assembled in Selma to begin the march. They didn’t get far. The violent events of that day, depicted in the Oscar-nominated film “Selma,” would later become known as Bloody Sunday. “The vision of State Troopers with their clubs raised, their gas masks on, teargas, John Lewis being beaten-- those scenes were etched in America’s memory,” says Plante. “And then when the call went out for people to come down and join in another march, people did. People of all races and creeds.”
Weeks later, on March 21st, thousands of civil rights workers assembled again in Selma, determined to march all the way to Montgomery, 50 miles away. “As that march began, it was both a party and a joyful act. There was singing, there was cheering, clapping, signs held aloft, and a sense among all of these people that this was a great victory.”
It took five days for the enormous crowds to march into Montgomery, and Plante stayed with the march the whole way. “It was pretty obvious when that march got to Montgomery, Alabama that it was a historic moment. And you were just happy to have been there.”
In the video above, produced by 60 Minutes senior producer Ann Silvio and producer-editor Lisa Orlando, watch CBS News archival footage of the historic 50-mile march and hear Plante tell the story himself.
Editor’s note: The video was originally published on Feb. 8, 2015.