African-American Landmarks: Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

    African-American Landmarks: Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

     Part of our African-American Landmarks & Destinations Family Travel Series

     By Kimberly Dijkstra


    The March


    In 1965, the historic Voting Rights March took place in Alabama. It began on March 7th, with approximately 600 nonviolent protesters, mostly African-American, intending to march 54 miles from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma to the capital city of Montgomery. They sought to pay tribute to Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed at a previous peaceful demonstration, and to advance voting rights. 


    At the nearby Edmund Pettus Bridge, the group was met by law enforcement officers who ordered them to disperse, then violently attacked the crowd with nightsticks and tear gas. Civil rights activist John Lewis suffered a skull fracture, 14-year-old Lynda Blackmon Lowery was brutally beaten by a police officer, and by the end, 17 marchers were hospitalized and another 50 treated for injuries. 

    Disturbing images captured by the media were published and broadcast around the country, and around the world, stoking outrage, as well as widespread sympathy and support for the civil rights movement. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday.” 

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable organizers called for a second march to be held on March 9, a day dubbed “Turnaround Tuesday.” When state troopers blocked the path of approximately 1,500 protesters, organizers decided not to risk another violent confrontation and led the group in prayer instead. However, Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was later beaten with clubs by members of the KKK and he died from his injuries.

    His death sparked an even bigger reaction from the nation. Civil rights protestors sought protection for a third march and a judge restrained state and county law enforcement officers from interfering this time. The official Selma to Montgomery March began on March 21st, with nearly 8,000 peaceful demonstrators from around the country. Most were African-Amercian, but white, Asian, and Latino people participated as well, including spiritual leaders of multiple religions. 

    By the end of the multi-day march, the crowd had grown to nearly 25,000. They reached the Montgomery capitol building on March 25th, where Dr. King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech, one of his most popular and inspirational. He declared the African-American fight for freedom and equality would be realized soon. 

    “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

    These events had a direct impact on the course of American History. The civil rights bill introduced by Governor George Wallace was passed and signed into law by President Johnson on August 6th, 1965. 

    A leader of the movement for his whole life, Congressman John Lewis introduced a bill in 1993 to designate the route between Selma and Montgomery as a national historic trail. In 1996, it was authorized by Congress, formalizing the route’s protected status and commemorating the people who risked their lives to obtain equal rights under the law.





    Walking the Trail


    The best way to learn about our heritage, both the ugly parts and the triumphs, is to walk in the footsteps of our predecessors and visit the places where they made history. 

    Located at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Selma Interpretive Center serves as a welcome center for visitors. It contains three floors of exhibits that tell the story of the civil rights movement and a bookstore.  

    Monuments dedicated to leaders of the movement are on display at the Voting Rights Monument and Park, which includes wooded areas covered in Spanish moss and trails down to the Alabama River. Nearby, the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute displays memorabilia honoring the struggle to attain voting rights. 

    A bust of Dr. King in front of the Brown Chapel AME Church commemorates his involvement in the civil rights movement. Tours can be scheduled to learn more about the role the church played in Selma history.

    The Selma & Dallas County Chamber of Commerce schedules walking tours of the city, which can be found on the events calendar, or you can organize your own by visiting the many historic landmarks in the area, including the First Baptist Church and the Old Depot Museum.

    The National Parks Service recommends that visitors drive between sites on the trail because of the long distance and highway conditions. 

    Located midway between Selma and Montgomery, the Lowndes Interpretive Center in White Hall features a film called “Never Lose Sight of Freedom,” audio recordings from the march, and interactive exhibits. 

    The Montgomery Interpretive Center, the third and final visitor center, opened in 2020 on the campus of Alabama State University in Montgomery. At each center, kids can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet and complete activities that help youngsters understand the history of the march. 

    While in Montgomery, visit the Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Alabama State Capitol, and the Southern Law Poverty Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. Also, stop by the Montgomery Visitor Center located in Union Station and rent an MP3 player providing a self-guided walking or driving tour of Montgomery’s Civil Rights sites, created by Alabama Public Television. The audio guide features voices of key people and their unique stories and it will transport you to this important era in history.


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