Don’t go to Selma, Alabama on a Sunday afternoon.
The small town of about 20,000 residents is shut tight but that’s when I arrived after a full day at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. I didn’t have to fight for a parking space downtown.
I was here to visit the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, commemorating the 1965 historic 54-mile walk to demand equal voting rights for African-Americans. The actual trail is on US 80, now a four-lane divided highway. However, I wanted to do it right, by starting at the beginning.
I walked to the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal, the start of the Selma to Montgomery march. It’s still an active church across the street from a housing project. Children were playing ball and rode bikes on the quiet street.
Monday morning, I showed up at the Interpretive Center, a storefront just before the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the building opened up. The ranger was eager to tell the story of the iconic civil rights march from here to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital.
Just as fascinating is the story of Henry Allen, who did part of the march, when he was in high school. Now, after a long career as a fire fighter and the first African-American firechief in Selma, Allen works as a park volunteer and a tour guide.
Allen explained that African-Americans had been systematically denied the right to vote by imposing literacy tests, poll taxes, and plain old-fashioned intimidation. Selma also had an identifiable enemy in county sheriff Jim Clark. He was violent but predictable. In a weird way, the effort needed the sheriff to get national attention. The Dallas County Voters League had added a few voters by holding classes but the bulk of the Black population was still disenfranchised.
The march also needed Martin Luther King, who brought media and money. Bernard Lafayette, a long-time organizer of SNCC – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – came to Selma. They looked at voting as a basic right.
Sheriff Clark and his men thwarted several early attempts at assembling and marching. On March 7, known as Bloody Sunday, marchers walked slowly up to the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. A sea of state troopers blocked the road. When the marchers didn’t move, the troopers hit them with their nightsticks and kicked them. They released tear gas and chased the marchers through the streets of Selma. This was on national TV and the spotlight was on Selma.
Finally, a judge allowed the march. President Johnson nationalized Alabama guardsmen and dispatched more protection for the potentially thousands that were going to walk to Montgomery.
“There were a lot of youth and college students, Henry recalls. “They didn’t have jobs on the line and were a critical factor in the movement.”
The March started on Sunday March 21, 1965 from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. From the many photos in the interpretative center, you can see that marchers wore their best clothes. Men had on suits and ties, and leather dress shoes. Women were in dresses and sandals. They walked three abreast in one lane, keeping the other lane clear for traffic on US 80.
“Reverend King didn’t walk the whole time,” Henry said. “He came in and out of the march.”
In Lowndes County, where the road narrowed to two lanes, only 300 people were allowed to continue the march. The guardsmen didn’t think they could protect more marchers. When the road widened again, more marchers came by bus, ending at Camp 4, at a Catholic Church in Montgomery. That’s when the stars came out including Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte. The next day, they marched the four miles to the state capitol. Over 25,000 gathered to listen to speeches and sing, “We shall overcome.” President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. They were never able to meet with Governor Wallace.
The March had four stops. After the Selma interpretive center, I drove slowly on US 80, stopping where the marchers had camped for the night.
Sympathetic and courageous Black farmers had offered their land for the night. Organizers provided food and tents for the marchers. One man stands out in every photo and website dealing with the march. He’s a burly middle-aged white man from Michigan, who walked the whole way on crutches because he only had one leg.
On the park website, Lynda Lowery, a marcher remembers him.
There was a guy named Jim Letterer. Jim was a white guy with one leg (from Michigan). He walked on crutches all the way from Selma to Montgomery. He carried a flag sometimes and I am in some of the pictures with him now. But Jim said before he let anything happen to me, he would lay down and die. But the fact that this man would die for me, and he didn’t even know my name kind of thing, you know. He was there; he would die for me. That made me go all the way from Selma to Montgomery.
The Lowndes Interpretive Center sits about halfway on the route along with the site of a tent city. At the time, white landowners had evicted black tenant farmers from their land because they registered to vote or helped others register. Some African-American families had no place to go but SNCC erected a tent city for families. A few stayed as long as two years.
Congress designated the historic trail in 1996. The Lowndes Interpretive Center opened in 2006 and the Selma interpretive center in 2011.
But now the rest of the story.
In 2011, the Alabama state legislature passed a voter id law. Effective June 2014, every voter needs a photo ID. If you have a driver’s license, that’s your identification – no problem.
However, if you’re not a driver, you can show several other documents. If not, you can get a nondriver ID. However, how do you prove who you are to get an ID that shows who you are? You can go around in circles, trying to decipher this 17-page document. And how do you get this pamphlet if you don’t have access to the web? Most nondrivers are not going to persevere.
“Is that a step backwards?” I asked Allen.
“It’s not just an African-American issue,” Allen said. “It will hurt the old, poor and young who are less likely to drive.”