SELMA, Ala. — I was only after a map when I stopped at the interpretive center near the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in this Southern city that figured so prominently in the struggle for civil rights. But I came away with a strong reminder that history is truly personal.
Henry Allen, the city’s retired fire chief (and its first African-American firefighter), was happy to give me a map and lots of handouts about the historic 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery that is being commemorated this weekend (and already celebrated in the film “Selma”). But ultimately, it was Allen’s own memories that spoke volumes.
“We were a chosen generation,” he said, recalling how he and other students in his all-black high school began agitating for voting rights in 1963. “We didn’t realize what we were doing, but we took it on ourselves. Martin Luther King [Jr.] came in 1965 to bring media and intensify the movement. But we were already getting arrested.”
The fact that Allen and others like him are still alive to tell the tale is a big part of what makes a visit to some of the touchstones of the Civil Rights Movement so compelling, such a lesson in living history.
Map in hand, I quickly located the 1908 twin-towered Brown Chapel AME Church a few blocks away. The first African Methodist Episcopal church in the state, it became a gathering place for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the voting rights movement. On March 8, 1965, King took to the pulpit to declare that “there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they are worth dying for.”
During the voting rights campaign, King stayed at the home of Dr. Sullivan Jackson and his wife, Richie Jean, at 1416 Lapsley St . Despite the bomb and death threats at the time, their daughter Jawana — then a child — has fond memories of “Uncle Martin” reading her stories, eating her mother’s cabbage, and stretching out on the bed as he talked on the phone for hours with President Lyndon B. Johnson. A plaque on the front porch commemorates this safe haven that the younger Jackson is turning into a museum.
But Selma’s iconic site is the graceful steel arch bridge over the Alabama River. Constructed in 1940, it was named for Edmund Pettus, a Confederate brigadier general, US senator, and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The bridge that memorialized an ardent segregationist has become a symbol of the struggle for civil rights.
As I strolled through Selma’s downtown (where banners proclaim “Historic Places-Social Graces”) and across the Pettus bridge on a sunny afternoon, it was hard to imagine the violence and quiet courage that played out here. But on March 7, 1965, some 600 peaceful demonstrators marching over the bridge were met with brutal police force that shocked the country and galvanized the voting rights movement. Two weeks after that “Bloody Sunday,” more than 3,000 people followed King and other civil rights leaders across the bridge to begin their historic march to the capital, Montgomery. Less than five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By car, the 54-mile journey along US Route 80 from Selma to Montgomery is a piece of cake. But it was a different story for the marchers who endured cold and rain and slept in tents for four nights. Nonetheless, by the time they reached Montgomery on March 25 and marched up to the Capitol, their ranks had swelled to 25,000 .
The 1851 Greek Revival style Capitol is one of the stops on the new Civil Heritage Trail that traces city history from the Civil War to civil rights. The building, in fact, embraces them both. Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as first president of the Confederate States of America here in 1861 and the stately structure became the first Capitol of the new government.
Just over a century later, King reclaimed the building for the Civil Rights Movement. In his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps, King noted that “Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age-old oppressors.”
He was referring, of course, to the Montgomery bus boycott. I had to walk only a few blocks to Court Square to see the plaque that marks the spot where, on Dec. 1, 1955, a typical evening commute sparked the boycott. A video presentation at the Rosa Parks Library & Museum tells the story of Parks’s refusal to relinquish her seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest. A replica public bus, period photos, and newspaper coverage detail the 381-day boycott that ended when the US Supreme Court declared segregation on public transportation unconstitutional.
King directed the boycott from his office on the lower level of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. He was the 20th pastor of the church that was organized in 1877 and held its early worship services in a former slave trader’s pen. The sanctuary in today’s red brick building, one block from the Capitol, opened in 1889 and retains the original pews and the pulpit where King preached.
Retired teacher Marguerite Foley joined the Dexter Avenue church when King was pastor and has never forgotten the strength and cadence of his speech. “I haven’t heard anybody to compare him with,” she said. “He had something to say that you wanted to hear. He was down-to-earth. He was just with you.”
Foley, who was a member of the Young Matrons group established by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, now gives tours at the Dexter Parsonage Museum. The white clapboard, two-bedroom house where King and his family lived has been restored to that time and furnished with many family pieces. Walking with Foley through the house is like seeing it through the eyes of an old family friend. She pointed to the dining table where King discussed strategy with other civil rights leaders and to the family’s record player. “Reverend King had quite a knowledge of jazz music,” she said.
Kitchen shelves hold the family’s turquoise Melmac dinnerware. Foley grew hushed as she recounted the night when King came into this room to warm up some coffee and faced his fears for his family and himself. “He didn’t feel he could continue as a leader. He prayed out loud, talking to God. He felt he heard a voice telling him to stand up for justice, truth, righteousness,” she said. “We don’t know where we would be if he had given up.”
Patricia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.