You’ve seen the film, now visit the set
Thanks to the power of Oprah and Hollywood, Selma, Ala., and its inspiring role in the Civil Rights Movement is back on the nation’s mind, getting the attention it deserves on the 50th anniversary of the famed Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery.
While critics have noted historical inaccuracies in the Oscar-nominated film, the overall story is accurate. The violence in Selma, indeed shocked the nation, and led Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
For any Civil Rights traveler, Selma is a must-stop to understanding the movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitors can find their way to many of the places that played such a central role in the protest. However, the film simplified history, combining stories and placing them all in Selma for dramatic purposes.
For example, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the young man shot in a restaurant, was actually killed 30 miles away in Marion, Alabama. Indeed, it was his murder six weeks before the march that galvanized the protest.
It’s also worth noting that this was very familiar territory to King and his wife. Coretta Scott grew up in nearby Marion, where the two were wed.
All these sites are easily visited.
But the first challenge is getting to Selma, a small central Alabama town, which even now feels isolated, miles from any interstate. It’s a good two-hours’ drive from Birmingham, or nearly an hour from Montgomery. From Atlanta, allow three.
But once here, you’ll find yourself in the center of the movement.
The the most striking sight is the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Even if you’ve never set foot in Alabama before, the span will look eerily familiar from news coverage and documentaries.
It’s such an important landmark that the Selma film crew came to town to stage the crucial bridge crossing scene, while most the rest of the movie was made in Georgia.
Every Selma visitor has an obligation to cross the bridge, which I once called the most beautiful place in America. The experience is deeply moving, having the power to literally put you in the footsteps of the protesters. When you reach the top, pause. Look across the river and imagine you’re facing a phalanx of law officers with riot gear and billy clubs, whips, horses and tear gas.
Ask yourself, what would I have done?
Once you cross the bridge, stop at the National Voting Rights Museum located near the area where the Bloody Sunday violence took place. The museum includes pictures taken at the protest, and exhibits chronicling the history of race relations in Alabama.
If you find the Klan robes unsettling, imagine what it would be like to see them in the middle of the night. Make sure to cross the street to visit the Civil Rights Memorial Park, where monuments remember the protesters, and trails lead through woods with Spanish moss.
Other city sites include:
Dallas County Courthouse where Sheriff Jim Clark ruled the town, The building was a flashpoint because it was here that African-Americans were consistently refused the right to register to vote.
The Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, a starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches.
And the nearby First Baptist Church, the headquarters for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
From Selma, it’s easy and inspiring to follow the path of the march along U.S. 80. The route, a National Scenic Byway, is well marked. There are pull-offs for the various camp sites, where the marchers overnighted on their 54-mile journey. With little development save historic markers, it’s a struggle to imagine the mixture of triumph and fear marchers would have felt staying here.
At the trail’s halfway point, make sure to stop at the moving National Park Service Lowndes County Visitors’ Center. Not only are there exhibits and a film, but this is also the site of Tent City, where black sharecroppers who were kicked off their land in punishment for their activism, lived in temporary housing after the march. It’s also where the Black Panther Party developed.
Other stops include the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex, where marchers and thousands of others gathered for a celebratory concert the night before the march’s triumphant entrance to Montgomery.
Two other important stops:
Just east of the Interpretive Center, look for an historic marker noting where Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo, who was depicted in the film, was killed by Ku Klux Klan members as she was driving marchers between Montgomery and Selma.
Also, take a six-mile detour off the highway on AL 97 to the town of Hayneville. This is where Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student from New England was killed in August 1965. He had come to join the march, and stayed to help register voters. Five months after Bloody Sunday, he was killed. In 1991, he was canonized by the Episcopal Church.
Drive 30 miles north on AL 45 to Marion to visit the grave of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Although the film showed his death during the Selma marches, it was actually his killing six weeks earlier that prompted the marches in the first place. He was shot by a state trooper in February, 1965, as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather. His grave is about five miles east of town off Highway 14.
And some say the film downplayed Coretta Scott King’‘s role in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s worth noting she had deep roots in Central Alabama, which becomes clear when you visit her home and a memorial.
From Marion, head north on Coretta Scott King Memorial Highway (AL 29). You’ll see a statue in front of a church, next to her family home where the young Martin King married the Alabama beauty he had met while attending divinity school in Boston.
The Alabama Tourism Department offers a free app to guide travelers on the Alabama Civil Rights Trail.
A must-carry list for any Heart of Dixie road trip.
You’ll find many major motel chains in Selma.
Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites A clean well-maintained hotel. Wireless Internet and complimentary breakfast.
2000 Lincoln Drive, Selma, 334/874-1000. TripAdvisor average rate: $110
Bridge Tenders House A historic B&B on the banks of the Alabama River near the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 2 Lafayette Park, Selma, 334/875-5517. Rates from: $80
A local down-home favorite. Try the biscuits and gravy, and the peach cobbler. 1114 Selma Avenue, 334/875-5933.
Steaks and European-inspired dishes in a faux English pub. Try the New York strip steak. 509 Mangum Avenue, Selma. 334/875-1390.