How Geography Drove MLK’s Fight for a Ferry in Alabama

Weeks before Selma’s Bloody Sunday in 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged residents of Gee’s Bend, Ala., to vote, and fed a continuing fight over a small ferry that would last for decades.

Retro Report examines the story behind this little known tale from the Civil Rights Era, illuminating the forces that took the ferry off the river in 1962 and the decades of hardships that followed for African Americans living on Gee’s Bend. An unexpected alliance finally brought the ferry back in 2006. But what’s happened since?

Related: Martin Luther King’s Call for Voting Rights Inspired Isolated Hamlet by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Producer: Joel Bernstein
  • Editor: Elyse Kaftan
  • Reporter: Olivia Katrandjian

For Educators


This eight-minute video illustrates the achievements of the civil rights movement, as well as the enduring challenges facing Black Americans, by focusing on the small community of Gee’s Bend, Ala., a town that attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s. The video helps students draw a line between the battles fought by King’s movement nearly five decades ago and the barriers to equality and opportunity that residents of Gee’s Bend face today. For lessons focused on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the video serves as a bridge between the past and the present, and sets up a discussion about the unfinished agenda of King’s movement.

Background reading

The movement to register Black voters in the South during the 1960s was often met with violence, but not all of it was delivered with weapons in the tiny Alabama community of Gee’s Bend.

As part of his voting crusade in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged the peninsula community of several hundred people, many descended from slaves, to register to vote in Camden, the seat of Wilcox County, which was as segregated as anyplace in the South at that time.

But when a large number of Gee’s Bend residents started taking the ferry across the Alabama River to register in Camden, the ferry, which had been running for decades, simply vanished one day without a word from local white officials.

That ferry was Gee’s Bend lifeline: it was the quickest way to connect to Camden to shop, work, go to school or receive medical care as there wasn’t a hospital or doctor on the Bend.

So Bend residents were forced to drive up to an hour around the peninsula to reach Camden, if they could find a ride or were one of the few residents who owned cars.

It would take nearly four decades, and the election in the 1990s of the first Black U.S. Congressman from Alabama since Reconstruction, to get a new ferry running by 2006.

Lesson Plan 1: Dr. Martin Luther King at Gee’s Bend

Students will learn the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for voting rights in Gee’s Bend, Ala., a town whose status today shows both the achievements and unfinished work of King’s movement.

  • How Gee’s Bend, Ala., relates to the context of the 1960s civil rights movement.
  • How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership affected the residents of Gee’s Bend.
  • How the status of Gee’s Bend today illustrates both the achievements and unfinished work of the civil rights movement.
Essential questions
  • In the mid-1960s, when Dr. King visited Gee’s Bend, why had voting rights become the central issue of the civil rights movement?
  • Why did the white community in Camden remove the ferry to Gee’s Bend?
  • How did the removal of the ferry affect the Black community in Gee’s Bend?
  • When was a ferry finally restored to service?
  • What challenges does the black community in Gee’s Bend still face today?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.10: The African American Civil Rights Movement (1960s)

      Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development or process relates to another historical development or process.

      Theme 5: Power and Politics (PCE).