Prior to settlement by European peoples, the area of present-day Selma had been inhabited for thousands of years by varying cultures of indigenous peoples. The Europeans encountered the historic Native American people known as the Muscogee (also known as the Creek), who had been in the area for hundreds of years. French explorers and colonists were the first Europeans to explore this area. In 1732 they recorded the site of present-day Selma as Écor Bienville. Later European-Americans called it the Moore's Bluff settlement. Selma was incorporated in 1820. The city was planned and named as Selma by William R. King, a politician and planter from North Carolina who was a future Vice President of the United States. The name, meaning "high seat" or "throne", came from the Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma.
During the Civil War, Selma was one of the South's main military manufacturing centers, producing tons of supplies and munitions, and turning out Confederate warships such as the Ironclad warship Tennessee. The Selma iron works and foundry was considered the second most important source of weaponry for the South, after the Tredegar Iron Works inRichmond, Virginia. This strategic concentration of manufacturing capabilities eventually made Selma a target of Union raids into Alabama late in the Civil War.
On March 21, 1965, a Sunday, approximately 3,200 marchers departed for Montgomery. They walked 12 miles per day, and slept in nearby fields. By the time they reached the capitol four days later on March 25, their strength had swelled to around 25,000 people.
The events at Selma helped increase public support for the cause, and that year the US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voting rights for all citizens in state or jurisdictions where patterns of under-representation showed discrimination against certain populations, historically minorities.