Join me as I journey to Alabama to retrace the route of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights, following in the steps of the heroes and martyrs who led the way.
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Retracing the Selma to Montgomery March
As a child of the South I knew about racial segregation, and I regularly heard racist comments in conversation. But for the most part, the racial discrimination suffered by millions of Americans was far removed from my white middle class life, and I was blissfully unaware of the struggle for freedom and equality that we now call the Civil Rights Movement.
I remember hearing about the march from Selma to Montgomery, although in my youth I did not truly understand the magnitude of the effort to bring voting rights to disenfranchised Americans across the South. I knew that in our neck of the woods “Martin Luther King” was a considered a troublemaker, and I clearly remember that my family supported Alabama’s Governor George Wallace for President in both 1968 and 1972.
I would not fully begin to understand what Howard Zinn calls “The People’s History” until many years later as a middle school teacher when I began to teach an annual thematic literary unit on the Civil Rights Movement. Our focus text for the study was an incredible work of nonfiction for young readers entitled A Dream of Freedom by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter. As we immersed ourselves in the narrative, we began to understand the dedication of not only the Movement’s leaders, such as Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but also many previously faceless and nameless individuals who put their lives on the line for freedom.
We read about Emmett Till and Brown vs. Board of Education and Ruby Bridges and The Children’s March in Birmingham, and the indispensable role children played in the Movement. In the Disney movie and later the book Selma, Lord, Selma, we learned how youngsters Sheyann Webb and Rachel West joined the mighty host of racially and religiously integrated freedom fighters in the struggle and epic march from Selma to Montgomery. Especially moving were the stories of Civil Rights martyrs from the Selma Movement such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels, who paid for freedom with their lives.
Imagine my excitement when I was privileged to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop for teachers in Birmingham, Alabama. As a featured part of the week-long Civil Rights program, we would retrace the route of the historic 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
On the day of our arrival, our group of educators met up with Joanne Bland, a Selma native and co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Bland, another child of the Selma Movement who at age eleven was the youngest person to be arrested and jailed during the voting rights demonstrations, would give us a guided tour of the museum and other historical locations in town.
Joanne Bland leads the Voting Rights Museum tour.
Absurd obstacles hindered black voter registration in Dallas County, Alabama.
Artifacts from the March.
Signs of segregation.
Segregation in the armed forces.
Following the museum tour, we headed to Brown Chapel AME Church, the site of Movement meetings and also the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Brown Chapel AME Church
Joanne Bland led us to a sacred spot behind Brown Chapel centered in the public housing area that had been the gathering grounds for the marchers. She asked each member of our group to pick up a stone and hold it in our hand. Every stone would represent someone who participated in the Selma marches. Then Bland went around the group and began recounting moving stories of several Movement marchers.
“And a child shall lead them . . . .”
George Washington Carver Homes, Selma Housing Authority.
First Baptist Church, a planning site of the Selma campaign.
There were three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965:
Bloody Sunday was the first and most infamous attempt on March 7, when 600 unarmed marchers led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis were attacked with nightsticks and tear gas by by a deputized posse and state troopers on foot and horseback. That evening ABC interrupted its network broadcast of the movie Judgement at Nuremberg to air film footage of the Selma attack, allowing viewers to parallel the mistreatment of black Americans with the Jews of Nazi Germany.
On March 9, Dr. King led a growing number of 2500 voting rights advocates in a symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Choosing to honor the court order against marches and hoping to gain protection for the marchers, Dr. King led the marchers back to Brown Chapel. This march became known as Turnaround Tuesday.
The final Selma to Montgomery March began on March 21. Federal Judge Frank Johnson, citing First Amendment rights, had ruled in favor of the Movement and lifted the ban on public marches. When he realized that Governor Wallace had no intention of issuing any order of protection, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent various other troops to protect the marchers along the route.
Broad Street, route of the first and third marches, leads directly to the bridge.
A Walk Across the Edmund Pettus Bridge
For me, the most moving part of our visit to Selma was when we were able to walk in the footsteps of the marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The Alabama River north of the bridge.
The Alabama River south of the bridge.
Looking back toward Selma.
The site of Bloody Sunday.
Walking into the Civil Rights Memorial Park.
Monuments to Movement leaders.
Monument to the Movement’s martyrs.
Mural honoring the Movement martyrs.
Rev. James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson
Jonathan Daniels and Viola Liuzzo
Note: There is something Joanne Bland said at one point during our tour of Selma that has always stuck with me. She pointed through the bus window at a man wearing a plaid shirt who was standing in a used car lot and said, “That’s the man who killed James Reeb.” It is stunning to think that a murderer from 1965 would still be walking freely around town, until you remember that virtually all murderers of civil rights activists were acquitted by white male juries.
The March from Selma to Montgomery spanned five days from March 21-25. On the first day, approximately 8000 marchers followed the 4-lane section of US 80 through Dallas County to the point where the highway narrowed to two lanes at the county line. In deference to Judge Johnson’s ruling, only 300 participants would continue the march through rain and cold and camp overnight at four designated locations while in Lowndes County.
The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Our group boarded the bus and headed east on US Highway 80, a 54-mile stretch of road also known as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. The route officially begins at Brown Chapel in Selma and ends at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Near the midway point in the drive we stopped to visit the Lowndes Interpretive Center, a museum situated near the site of the march’s Tent City, a temporary command post erected to support march participants..
The front exterior is patterned after Brown Chapel AME Church.
The atrium of the LIC reflects the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
March routes in Selma and Montgomery.
The March begins . . . .
The Selma to Montgomery March map and timeline.
Alabama state trooper uniform and riot gear.
State troopers attacked college students at a lesser-known demonstration in Montgomery.
Artifacts from the march.
A Tent City volunteer set-up complete with shotgun and slop jar.
Our next stop was supposed to be the Viola Liuzzo Memorial that marks the spot on Highway 80 where the Michigan housewife and mother of five was gunned down by members of the Ku Klux Klan while transporting 19-year old Leroy Moton back to Selma the evening of the final march to Montgomery. Because we had read her story in class, I was anticipating our visit to the location where this Civil Rights martyr lost her life. Apparently, due to time constraints we had to move on to Montgomery, but when someone pointed it out, I was able to take this blurred shot of the roadside memorial through the bus window.
The Viola Liuzzo Memorial at mile marker 111 marks the spot where she was murdered.
On Wednesday morning, March 24, the marchers crossed into Montgomery County where Highway 80 widened again to four lanes. Marchers of all races and religions and walks of life began pouring in from around the nation. Many actors and recording artists also lent their voices to the cause, performing in a “Stars for Freedom” rally that evening at the City of St. Jude Institute, the march’s final campsite.
By Thursday morning, March 25, the number of marchers had swelled to 25,000, and they completed the last leg of the March from St. Jude to the steps of the Alabama Capitol building.
Marchers filled Dexter Avenue, leading to the steps of the Alabama Capitol.
The Alabama State Capitol.
At the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, Dr. King gave one of his most memorable speeches, encouraging Americans with these enduring words:
“I know you are asking today, How long will it take? . . . How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Following the speech, Dr. King and marchers proceeded up the capitol steps to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace. State troopers blocked the entrance to the Capitol, and the petitioners were informed that the governor was not in. Resolute in their mission, the group waited until one of the governor’s assistants arrived at the door to retrieve the petition.
A statue memorializing President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.
Political ironies abound on the Alabama State Capitol grounds.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is situated one block from the Capitol.
The sacred desk.
The Dexter Parsonage Museum, Dr. King’s home during his tenure as pastor.
On August 6, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Although this was a powerful piece of federal legislation, it did not immediately change the hearts of men. Episcopal seminarian and civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels would be the final martyr of the Selma Movement when he was murdered just two weeks later.
The Selma to Montgomery March illustrated the unity that is possible when Americans support each other in the struggle for equality. As travelers and Citizens of the World we must always remember that we are more alike than different and all members of the same human race. This reality was vividly illustrated to me not too long ago when I received my DNA analysis from Ancestry.com. I had always figured I was an American mutt, and my assumption was verified when the DNA test results revealed that my ethnic origins were Africa, Europe, the Pacific Islands, and West Asia.
My ethnic origins.
2015 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. You can read about many of the various celebrations, reenactments, and other events on the Alabama Tourism page. Oprah’s OWN Network is also remembering the March during the month of January by promoting the release of the motion picture Selma and extending the coverage to social media with the hashtag #Selma50.
So what are your thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March? We would love to hear your memories and reflections in the Comments section below.