This small historic town on the Alabama River was the scene of one of the last battles of the American Civil War in 1865. Exactly a century later, the mainly Afro-American population were engaged in another battle – for the right to vote. The tension reached fever pitch after a young man called Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed during a protest in nearby Marion. At a service for Jackson, Martin Luther King told the mourners: “Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality. His death must prove that unmerited suffering does not go unredeemed.”
After the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, more than 500 demonstrators gathered in Selma on Sunday 7 March 1965 for a protest march to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. But, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by a large contingent of police and state troopers, who used water cannons and brute force to push them back to the centre of Selma. The day would go down in history as Bloody Sunday. Two days later, this time accompanied by Martin Luther King, 2,500 marchers set off again for Montgomery. They stopped to pray at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and then turned back after being refused permission to march any further.
The march to Montgomery eventually took place two weeks later. It started with several hundred people gathering in Brown Chapel in Selma. More protestors joined the march en route and, three days later, a crowd of more than 25,000 reached the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The march was a success as, several months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Because of the historic significance of the march, the route was re-named the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail. Around halfway along the trail is the Lowndes Interpretive Center.
The march is re-enacted every year in early March, preceded by the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, a commemorative event lasting several days.
You can remember these crucial moments in the history of the American civil rights movement all year round in Selma. There are visitor centers on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In downtown there is the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. On the other side of the Alabama River is the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute. People who witnessed the historic march tell their often emotional stories of those days. One of them is Henry Allen, who later went to Vietnam to fight a completely different battle. Or Joanne Bland from the organization Journeys for the Soul, who shares her memories during a guided tour of Selma.
For more information on visiting Selma: www.selmaalabama.com