Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
by Marilyn Jones Stamps
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
Along the Trail, beginning in Selma, you are invited to go back in time nearly 50 years and become an eyewitness to history. Visit an interpretive center and a voting rights museum to hear the stories behind the historic 1965 voting rights marches. Cross the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, following in the path of foot soldiers along U.S. Hwy. 80 to a place called “Tent City” in Lowndes County. From there, continue to Montgomery, stopping at the City of St. Jude, the Rosa Parks Museum and other sites before arriving at the Alabama State Capitol. Stand at the base of the Capitol steps where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied a crowd of more 25,000 with his “How Long…Not Long” speech on March 25, 1965 and laid the demands of black Alabamians at the doorstep of Gov. George C. Wallace, the most powerful political figure in state government at the time.
When planning your visit to the Trail, allow sufficient time to stop and see the sites, cross the bridge, and learn more about the century-long struggle for civil and voting rights that ultimately led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To begin your tour, start at the Selma Interpretive Center (2 Broad St.; 334-872-0509). Strategically located at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the center serves as an introduction to the National Historic Trail that also includes an interpretive site in Lowndes County, near White Hall, and a proposed site on the campus of Alabama State University in Montgomery. The center features brochures, videos, exhibits and a small bookstore for you to explore.
As you stroll through the three-story building, you will hear stories of courage, hate, triumph, fear and hope that undergirded a journey of a hundred years by African Americans to gain the right to vote.
Explore the History of the Marches
On March 7, 1965, during the first of three events now collectively called the Selma to Montgomery marches, some 600 protesters, including men, women and children, set out on a march from Selma to Montgomery. Just after crossing the Pettus Bridge, they were trampled, brutally assaulted with billy clubs, and tear-gassed by heavily armed state troopers and deputies, all with photographers and journalists looking on.
The marchers were protesting for voting rights in Dallas County and marching to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Army veteran, Baptist church deacon and civil rights activists, who had been shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother and grandfather at a demonstration in nearby Marion.
During the first attempted Selma to Montgomery march, which has become historically known as “Bloody Sunday,” ABC television interrupted a Nazi war crimes documentary to show footage of the violence taking place on the outskirts of Selma as marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge. Within 48 hours, demonstrations in support of the marchers were taking place in 80 cities around the country.
The second march, called the “Ministers’ March,” galvanized thousands of religious leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who had been called to Selma to assist with the demonstrations. This march occurred on March 9, 1965 on what is referred to as “Turnaround Tuesday.” It resulted in 2,500 protesters turning around after crossing the Pettus Bridge. Jim MacDonell, one of the participating ministers, described the event as “ominous.”
“We walked across the bridge and over the top of the bridge and down the other side. As we came down the highway, we looked across the highway, and there as far as we could see were flashing lights and police cars and helmeted troopers carrying shotguns blocking the way,” MacDonell said.
Tour the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute
From the Interpretive Center, you are encouraged to walk across the now-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (6 U.S. Hwy. 80E; 334-526-4340),where you will learn more about the marches and the unfair treatment of blacks in Dallas County in terms of voting and civil rights.
The main gallery of the museum features the Footprints Hall of Fame with footprints of voting rights marchers forming a continuous theme throughout the facility. Standing in front of the museum’s “whites only” water fountain exhibit, try and imagine what it must have been like to be forbidden by law from enjoying a sip of water from the fountain because of the color of your skin. Other exhibits include a voting booth and a jail cell. There are eight other galleries in the museum, including the Church Gallery, Legal Gallery and the Obama Gallery.
Several outside murals painted on garage shop doors show a triumphant end to the struggle for the right to vote in America. One of the murals depicts President Barack Obama with a caption that reads “Hands that picked cotton picked a president.” Mr. Obama’s inauguration as America’s first black president on January 20, 2009 was a defining moment in the long race for civil rights, both in the U.S. and around the world.
While touring Selma, you’ll want to also visit the Slavery and Civil War Museum (1410 Water Ave.; 334-526-4000), a sister facility to the National Voting Rights Museum.
Martin Luther King Jr. Street Historic Walking Tour
From the Voting Rights Museum, go back across the bridge and take the Martin Luther King Jr. Street Historic Walking Tour (800-45-Selma). The tour highlights 20 memorials, churches and wayside exhibits detailing the history of the Voting Rights Movement in Selma. A must-visit is Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church (410 Martin Luther King St.; 334-874-7897).It was the site of early mass meetings during the 1960s voting rights campaign and the staging point for voter registration marches to the Dallas County Courthouse.
The “Bloody Sunday” march originated from the steps of Brown Chapel after a First Sunday communion service. Marchers were forced back to the church from the foot of the Pettus Bridge after many had been beaten, sprayed with tear gas and run down by deputies on horseback. Horses were ridden up the steps of the church as participants tried to seek sanctuary inside. A monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated in front of the church in 1979.
Directly across the street is the housing complex known as the George Washington Carver Homes. Many participants in the march lived here and civil rights workers from out of town lodged here.
Down from Brown Chapel is First Baptist Church, which took the early lead in the civil rights struggles in Dallas County. Members of the congregation allowed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to use the facility as its first organizational base and rallying point when it arrived in Selma in 1963.
Before ending your walking tour, be sure to visit the Old Depot Museum (4 Martin Luther King Jr. St.; 334-874-2197).It features a fine collection of artifacts and memorabilia depicting life in Selma and Dallas County from 1820 to the present, including a component on African American history and culture.
Lowndes County Interpretive Center
From Selma, travel along Hwy. 80 to the Lowndes County Interpretive Center (7002 U.S. Hwy. 80W at mile marker 106; 334-877-1983),located near the site of “Tent City” approximately midway between Selma and Montgomery. Tents were set up at the site after many families who registered to vote were evicted from the land they worked as tenant farmers as a result. Tent City housed up to 20 families in two years until they were able to get back on their feet and find employment.
Timothy Mays, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker in Lowndes County, assisted Tent City inhabitants with meals and other needs. Mays became famous to the world on March 7, 1965 during “Bloody Sunday,” when he set out along with other marchers during the first attempt to march to Montgomery. A state trooper clubbed and knocked down Mays, who was carrying an American flag. Mays didn’t drop the flag but held onto it as a symbol of the injustice he and others had endured for the cause of freedom.
Inside the Interpretive Center, you can view a 30-minute historic video. Wander through the displays that include the flag carried by Mays and touch and feel the interactive exhibits. Before departing, be sure and purchase a piece of history at the gift shop. You can select from books, posters and memorabilia relating to the marches, including a video documentary of events.
Other Sites Along the Trail
Continue along U.S. Hwy. 80 to Montgomery, stopping along the way to visit Trail markers, such as the one that marks the spot where Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Michigan, was killed. Luizzo was one of the people transporting marchers from Montgomery to Selma after the rally at the State Capitol on March 25, 1965. Accompanied by a young African-American man, she had returned to Selma, dropped off her passengers and was returning to Montgomery to pick up more marchers when she was spotted by the Ku Klux Klan. Liuzzo was pursued at high speed until she was shot and killed.
Heading toward Montgomery from Selma, the marker is approximately five minutes past the Interpretive Center on the right, just before County Road 97. Look for the sign pointing to Wright Chapel. The church is no longer there, but this is a good place for you to park if you want to get out and take a photograph of the marker.
City of St. Jude and Downtown Attractions
The third and final Selma to Montgomery march began March 16. Protected by 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command, and many FBI agents and federal marshals, the marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and finally at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965.
When you enter Montgomery, continue to follow the Trail signs throughout the city to historic sites such as the City of St. Jude, just off I-65 on West Fairview Avenue. Voting rights marchers camped here and held a “Stars for Freedom” rally on the St. Jude campus before their arrival at the Capitol.
In downtown Montgomery, you’ll want to visit the Rosa Parks Museum & Library and Children’s Wing (252 Montgomery St.; 334-241-8615), located on the very site where Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white passengers on a city bus. A block away is the Freedom Rides Museum at the historic Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station (201 S. Court St.; 334-414-8647), and at the top of Dexter Avenue is the Alabama State Capitol (600 Dexter Ave.; 334-242-7100), where the final and successful Selma to Montgomery march ended.
Just west of the Capitol is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.; 334-263-3970), the only church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor. A block behind the church is the Civil Rights Memorial Center (400 Washington Ave.; 334-956-8439) which honors the 40 martyrs who died during the civil rights struggles between 1954 and 1968.
Two of the newest and most popular Montgomery civil rights attractions are the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the nation’s black lynching victims, and its Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (115 Coosa St.; 334-386-9100), which shows how the vestiges of the cancer of slavery still infect modern America. The New York Times called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (417 Caroline St.; 334-386-9100), a memorial like no other, and hundreds of thousands of visitors have felt its impact since it opened in April 2018. The memorial, created on a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, has been called one of the most emotionally powerful in the country.
At Alabama State University, a short drive away, is another recent civil rights attraction. The Montgomery Interpretive Center (1521 Harris Way; 334-293-0596 or 334-293-0597) opened in 2021 and tells the story of the final leg of the Selma to Montgomery march, student involvement in the Voting Rights Movement, and the rally at the City of St. Jude the night before marchers made their way to the Capitol.
Also on campus are the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture (915 S. Jackson St.; 334-229-4876) which documents the Civil Rights Movement and Montgomery’s role in it, and the former home of civil rights pioneer Ralph David Abernathy.
Where To Stay and Eat
In Selma, enjoy modern luxury at one of Alabama’s oldest hotels stay, the recently renovated St. James Hotel, Selma. The 183-year-old Selma landmark, which includes Jesse James as one of its former guests, had a $5 million facelift that transformed the 52-room hotel into part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection.
In Montgomery, stay at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center, a Four-Diamond hotel decorated with works by internationally known Alabama artist Nall and one of the most luxurious spas in the state.
For other lodging and dining options in Selma or Montgomery, visit www.SelmaAlabama.com or www.visitingmontgomery.com.
The Bridge Crossing Jubilee
Held the first full weekend of March, the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee (334-526-2626), hosted by the National Voting Rights Museum, is a commemoration of the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma to Montgomery marches, as well as a celebration of the right to vote. Activities include a pageant, a dance, women and youth conferences, a parade, the Jubilee, interfaith service and the National Voting Rights Hall of Fame induction. The Jubilee weekend draws more than 50,000 visitors each year from all walks of life and provides an unparalleled opportunity to foster knowledge and understanding of the ongoing struggle to eliminate discrimination.