Selma’s Violent March Into History
Only 54 miles separate Selma and Montgomery, but that span helped changed history. The march to Montgomery is now preserved as a National Historic Trail, complete markers and memorials.
The demonstrators brought national attention to voting restrictions in Selma, and reporters from around the globe documented their progress toward Montgomery. The violent reaction they provoked quickly led Congress to pass the National Voting Rights Act in 1965. The drive literally puts you in the footsteps of the protest marchers.
Taking the route east from Selma, you cross the Pettus bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings, and continue east on U.S. Highway 80, once known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the Confederate President.
Only a few miles outside of town, drivers see a sign marking the first campsite where marchers spent the night. It’s so close because it was late in the day that marchers – under federal protection — finally left Selma on March 21, 1965.
Exit the highway to the right, and then take a quick left to see the privately owned David Hall Farm. Although you can’t visit, it does put you in the actual footsteps of the protesters.
The next stop is the excellent Lowndes County Interpretive Center – a must-visit to truly understand the significance of the route. The National Park Service site, (shown below) has a design inspired by Selma’s Brown Chapel AME Church. It welcomes visitors with an introductory film. It sets the scene for the march, and interactive exhibits help put you at the scene of Bloody Sunday, and then on the historic five-day journey to the state capital. Visitors learn that the catalyst for the march was the murder of protester Jimmie Lee Jackson in distant Marion, Alabama. (The city is Coretta Scott King’s hometown, and the place where she and Martin Luther King Jr. were married.)
The visitors center is built at the site of Tent City. This was the home of area sharecroppers, who were kicked out of their homes when they tried to register to vote. Shortly after leaving the center, another road sign notes the second campsite, the Rosie Steele Farm.
Mile Marker 111 on the left side of the highway marks a memorial to Viola Liuzzo. (Some maps incorrectly show this on the south side of the highway). The white Detroit mother of five was a volunteer, helping shuttle marchers up and down the highway. She was shot while driving a station wagon. Four Ku Klux Klan members from the Birmingham area were soon arrested for the murder. One of the alleged killers was an FBI informant.
A detour to Hayneville, south on County Road 97, leads to a memorial at the Lowndes County Courthouse, which remembers the murder of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student. Daniels died while defending a black teenaged girl, who was threatened by a state highway department worker. The worker pointed a shotgun at the girl, Daniels pushed her down and he was shot point-blank. Daniels is considered a martyr by the Episcopal church. Take County Road 21 back to Highway 80.
To see the third campsite, you must backtrack a few miles west (to the left) to the Robert Gardner Farm. Then take a U-turn and continue East toward Montgomery.
Marchers spent the last night on the outskirts of Montgomery at the City of Saint Jude, a Catholic institution. This was a scene of celebration, where Hollywood stars and entertainers, performed for the protesters. Those on state included Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Dick Gregory, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Alan King, Johnny Mathis, Julius “Nipsey” Russell, Pete Seeger, Shelley Winters, and Peter, Paul and Mary.