The Civil Rights Trail, Part 1: Selma to Montgomery

As I’ve been asked what it’s like to take a trip of this magnitude, one of the answers that pops into my mind is “life changing.”  Not in a ‘find yourself’ kind of way; with almost 55 years of living an eclectic array of life experiences, I don’t consider myself lost, or confused about who I am.  I have identified many of my strengths over a lifetime, and have discovered as many weaknesses.  Fortunately, I have learned that many of my weaknesses can be strengthened; a fact reinforced by this journey.  As I have discovered how one-dimensional my knowledge of American history has been, it has spurred me to seek out varying perspectives of events I thought I knew.  Basically, to learn the other sides of the story.  These different viewpoints are not changing history for me, rather, they are augmenting the single, incomplete version I learned in school and unquestioningly considered as whole throughout my life.  A career marked by science and leadership has taught me how critical self-awareness and learning agility are – things I continue to struggle with, and work on. 

And so, with the intention to strengthen my weakness in knowledge of multi-dimensional American history, I embarked on a journey to explore some of the most iconic historical sites on the United States Civil Rights Trail.  It is not a ‘trail’ in the sense of a single path to be followed, rather it is a collection of over 100 locations, spread out over 15 states, that were instrumental to the Civil Rights Movement in some way.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had already visited some of these sites earlier in my trip, like the “Old Courthouse” in St. Louis, MO (blog post HERE) and on a previous outing, like the International Civil Rights Center & Museum (Woolworth’s) in Greensboro, NC (blog post HERE).  

I started my multi-day journey in Alabama, where I picked up the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.  Established by Congress in 1996, this historic trail (and National Scenic Byway/All-American Road) traces the 54-mile route of the 1965 Voting Rights March led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Click HERE for the trailer of a great movie from 2014 titled simply ‘Selma’ about the march.   

The march in 1965 was a culmination of over a hundred years of African Americans fighting for the right to vote.
The march’s first attempt was on March 7th, 1965 became known as “Bloody Sunday.” In a unified act of nonviolence, around 600 marchers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met with violence; Alabama State Troopers, many on horseback, beat the marchers with whips, nightsticks, rubber tubes, and sprayed them with teargas.

The 54-mile trail follows the historic march by beginning at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma and crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As they crossed the bridge, the nonviolent marchers were stopped and beaten by Alabama State troopers in what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” on March 7th, 1965. Two to three thousand outraged protesters from around the country joined the marchers for a subsequent five-day march (the third attempt) that began in Selma on March 21st, 1965, this time protected by 1,900 federalized Alabama National Guardsman, about 2,000 soldiers, and dozens of FBI agents and federal marshals, sent by President Lyndon B. Johnson (NPS brochure).

National Voting Rights Museum and Institute sits on the south bank of the Alabama River, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the site of “Bloody Sunday.” This exhibit depicted how arbitrary and subjective voting literacy tests were – some even asking how many jellybeans were in the jar you see on the counter. At another voting rights exhibit, later in my trip, I took an actual voter literacy test that included “civics” and literacy (i.e., intelligence) questions, only administered in primarily African American districts… and I failed miserably. Click HERE to take an early 1960s Louisiana State Literacy Test (click HERE for origins of the test). Good luck :-/

So, why Selma for the march?  In 1961, only 156 of 15,000 voting aged African Americans were registered to vote in Dallas County, home of Selma, due to sham literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation.  When African Americans went to the courthouse to register, they were harassed and attacked by the county sheriff and his deputies.  Dr. King and fellow organizers sought to bring publicity to the fact that people were literally dying for the right to vote, by marching from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery.  It wasn’t until images of peaceful protesters (that included clergy, grandmothers, and young adults), being beaten bloody by law enforcement, were televised into white American homes that the depth of hatred for, and violence against, African Americans wanting to vote could no longer be denied.  Even that wasn’t enough however, as it took the beating death of an activist white minister named James Reeb by segregationists, days later, before the civil rights movement became an American issue, and not just an African American one.

As I set out on what is now US-80, the logistical realities of a 54-mile march by unarmed civilians amongst a hostile dominant population became apparent to me.  Though roughly 2,000 marchers had started, that number was reduced to around 300 where the road narrowed in order to better protect them from retaliation.  Most of this core group marched all 54 miles, stopping at four campsites on farms owned by people friendly to the movement along the way.  Tents, bathrooms, food and medical care were provided by organizers on the route. This core group of marchers joined roughly 25,000 protesters when they arrived at Montgomery on March 25th. I pulled into the Lowndes Interpretive Center, near the site of the second campsite, just as the storm clouds that had been threatening my ride all morning released a torrential downpour.    

Exhibit at the Lowndes Interpretive Center depicting the diversity of marchers that set out from Selma. The interpretive center carries the story of the Civil Rights movement beyond the march. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, White landowners retaliated against Black tenet farmers who participated in voting actions (e.g., registering, voting, or engaging in voting rights activities) by evicting them from the lands where they had lived and worked for decades. To keep families together, a “tent city” was established by activists on the site of what is now the Lowndes Interpretive Center. Residents were often harassed and shot at, but they persevered for almost two years while they searched for new jobs and permanent housing. -NPS website

By the time the rain had finally let up a bit, I had finished viewing the exhibits and even purchased a couple of books from the gift shop, which the site manager graciously mailed back to NC for me.  In full raingear, I continued along the trail, through the showers, all the way to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.

There are no words to describe the experience of the Legacy Museum. Every American, in my humble opinion, should be required to visit this institution as part of their American History education. From the transatlantic and domestic slave trades, to Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the incarceration culture of the U.S., the museum includes multimedia exhibits and narratives that bring this history to life in a highly researched, yet personal way.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka Lynching Memorial, “was conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.” The memorial includes 800 six-foot monuments (one for each county in the U.S. where a racial lynching took place), that includes thousands of names of lynching victims. -Equal Justice Initiative website

I had only made it half-way through the memorial when it had to be evacuated for lightning strikes (it’s outdoors).  Relieved that my ride back to the Legacy Museum was via shuttle bus, and not my motorcycle, I found a seat and started to process all that I had seen and learned.

Alabama sunset.


Next up…Rosa Parks and Tuskegee.

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