A Woman to Know: Marie Priscilla Martin Foster

Even in her old age, she could still outwork the young activists of today. — Selma mayor James Perkins Jr.

Even in her old age, she could still outwork the young activists of today. — Selma mayor James Perkins Jr.

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

On March 7, 1965, Marie Foster stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge Selma. The 48-year-old dental hygienist, a Selma native, was working as one of the “The Courageous Eight,” the nickname given to the Dallas County Voters League. Marie and other local activists had organized a non-violent voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, joined by icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis.

Marie’s personal experience with voter suppression pushed her into activism. In a previous election, Marie tried to vote eight different times before succeeding. Once she as registered, she began teaching classes to help other Black voters pass the “literacy exams” designed to bar them from the polls. Only one person showed up to her first class, an older man in his 70s. Marie taught him to write his own name. She stapled flyers around town and asked local ministers to announce the class times to their communities. Over time, the classes grew in popularity.

On that March 7 march — later to be known as “Bloody Sunday” — the activists only reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge before law enforcement attacked the marchers. As tear gas canisters erupted around her, a state trooper beat Marie near-unconscious. “I lay on the pavement with my eyes closed,” she later told a reporter. “I didn't move. I stood my ground.”

Two weeks later, the march was set to resume. With both knees still injured, Marie walked 50 miles in five days. Later that year, when the Voting Rights Act passed, Marie celebrated in her home with Dr. King.

Throughout the rest of her life, Marie remained involved in local activism and voter registration. She continued teaching Sunday School, campaigned to remove a statue of a Klan founder and eventually helped found the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. When she died in 2003, organizers honored her as “the mother of the voting rights movement.”

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