A Journey Along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

A. J. Samuels

In 1965, three demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders concluded in one of the most relevant achievements in social legislation of 20th century: the USA Voting Rights Act, which granted the legal right to vote for all Americans. The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail commemorates the events, people and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama and stands as a milestone for freedom and equality.

The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was established by US Congress in 1996, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, to commemorate the events, people and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama. This march was one of the most significant civil rights protests in the USA history and represented a final push to the decades-long voting rights crusade, as it helped to bring the issue to the forefront of the United States’ political agenda, serving as the major catalyst for the approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, only five months after the march.
Selma to Montgomery marchers woke the nation’s consciousness about the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, and the accomplishment of the passage of the Voting Rights Act granted the legal right to vote for all Americans, changing history and political life of the South and the United States as a whole.

This huge step towards human rights and modern civil rights has its roots in the historic events that originated in Selma as a consequence of the death of the pacifist protester Jimmie Lee Jackson in February, during a night-time demonstration. Jackson’s death inspired the Civil Rights leaders to march from Selma to Montgomery to meet Alabama Governor George C. Wallace on March 7, 1965. This day came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ as more than 600 non-violent marchers were forcibly stopped by law enforcement officers when they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River; they were tear-gassed and beaten with clubs, leaving many of them bloodied and severely injured. The news media broadcast the attack of the Alabama State troopers on the peaceful activists, and the images shocked the world.
The non-belligerent means of the marchers won broad support for their cause and a second march took place on March 9, a day that would become known as ‘Turnaround Tuesday’. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led about 2,500 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a short prayer session before turning back around, as they were prevented from marching to Montgomery by a court order.

Thousands of protesters from across the country and all races arrived to Selma to join the activists. On March 21, two weeks after ‘Bloody Sunday’, the third and definitive march took place from Selma to Montgomery – this time with state and federal law enforcement protection granted by Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., who ruled that the protesters had a right to peacefully assemble and march. This subsequent five-day demonstration followed the US Highway 80 to Montgomery and concluded near the Alabama State Capitol building on March 25.

During the route, the protesters camped along the way and gathered with notable speakers and famous entertainers such as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte or Peter, Paul & Mary. When the marchers reached the state capitol building in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue, the crowd numbered 25,000 people and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous How Long, Not Long speech, with Governor Wallace listening, even though he did not meet the civil rights leaders as they had hoped.

Today, Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is a component of the National Trails System, administered by the National Park Service, which pursues the aim to recreate, interpret and protect historic and nationally significant routes. This 54-mile trail is the shortest National Historic Trail and follows the 1965 Voting Rights March, beginning at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and travelling along US Highway 80 in Dallas County. It continues through Lowndes County and Montgomery County, ending at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.
The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail currently consists of two of the three planned National Park Service interpretive centres along the trail route. The first one is the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, located midway between Selma and Montgomery in White Hall since 2006, where visitors can hear voices of the march and enjoy interactive exhibitions. The second one is the Selma Interpretive Center that opened its doors in 2011 in Selma, serving as the welcome centre to the trail thanks to its location at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and hosts film screenings, exhibitions and a bookstore. The third one is the Montgomery Interpretive Center, which will open at a future date on the campus of Alabama State University.

Apart from the interpretive centers, the trail encourages visitors to drive the historic route, stopping by a wide array of sites of interest. On the one hand, in Selma, visitors can see the National Voting Rights Museum & Park (privately owned), the Slavery & Civil War Museum, the Old Depot Museum, the Smitherman Museum and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They can also join the Martin Luther King Jr. Street Walking Tour, which includes Brown Chapel A.M.E. church, First Baptist Church, George Washington Carver Homes and wayside exhibitions. On the other hand, in Montgomery, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church & parsonage, the Alabama State Capitol, the Civil Rights Monument and the Southern Law Poverty Center are worth a visit.

The identification, preservation and protection of the historic route, the key sites associated with its progress, and the resources that inform the world about the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March of 1965, are the main purposes of this National Historic Trail. It stands proudly as a reminder of the right and responsibility of all Americans to participate fully in the election process and the protection of the right to vote. This historic event, together with its context of the larger human and civil rights movement, represents the triumph of democracy and is considered a milestone in the American struggle for freedom and equality.

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