Selma: Base Airmen take trip to history



by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs


2/25/2011 - SELMA, Ala. -- Members of the Maxwell-Gunter community followed the steps of civil rights leaders during a trip to Selma Feb. 8 for African-American Heritage Month.

The group visited the Lowndes Interpretive Center, the National Voting Rights Museum and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"I didn't have to cross (the bridge), but I thank God for those who did," said Janet Speers, who organized the trip for the African-American Heritage Committee.

The Lowndes Interpretive Center, the first stop on the trip, features a video presentation and museum outlining the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the triumphs of the Selma to Montgomery March. The museum is part of the National Park Service and the National Historic Trail.

The center was built on the site of a tent city, where thousands of African-Americans lived after losing their jobs and homes during the struggle for voting rights. The National Voting Rights Museum is near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the attacks on Bloody Sunday began.

Bloody Sunday

Though blacks had the right to vote in 1965, registration was not an easy task.

"The Southern states found ways around the law," said Theresa Hill, an interpretive park ranger at the center. "It was next to impossible."

Organizations such as the Dallas County Voters League in Selma, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee and Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference stepped in to help.

In early 1965, groups around Alabama marched in protest, despite ordinances banning demonstrations. Tensions escalated during a Feb. 18 march. State troopers shot and killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson while he tried to defend his mother and grandfather.

On March 7, 400 people in Selma organized for a memorial march from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to Montgomery, but Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his troopers blocked their route over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"People described it as a sea of blue," Ms. Hill said. The posse attacked the marchers with cattle prods, billy clubs and tear gas.

"They beat them all the way back to Brown Chapel," she said.

Timothy Mays was carrying an American flag when he was beaten by a trooper. The flag is on display in the interpretive center.

The media filmed the scene, later known as Bloody Sunday, and broadcasted the images across the country.

A 54-mile march

The violence did not suppress the civil rights movement. It made the struggle stronger.

Backed by the sympathy of the nation, Dr. King invited the country to participate in a march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery, but the federal district court issued an injunction against it.

By mid-March President Lyndon B. Johnson called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and lifted the injunction against the march.

With opposition still fierce, he ordered protection for the marchers. Gov. George Wallace refused. The president nationalized 1,900 National Guard troops and 2,000 soldiers to accompany the group to Montgomery.

The march started March 21 at the Brown Chapel and crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. More than 3,000 people walked 12 miles a day and spent four nights sleeping in campsites along Highway 80.

The crowd grew as the march approached Montgomery.

"Twenty-five thousand people marched to the steps of the Capitol," Ms. Hill said. "Wallace watched from the window. He wouldn't even come out."

Dr. King said March 25 on the steps of the state Capitol: "But all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, 'We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around.'"

One step forward, one back

Their message was heard. On Aug. 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory practices.

"There were those who said that this is a many-sided and very complex problem," President Johnson said at the Act's signing. "But however viewed, the denial of the right to vote is still a deadly wrong, and the time for injustice has gone."

This was not the end of the struggles near Selma. Many blacks were kicked out of their homes and fired from their jobs after registering to vote or participating in the march.

Poverty was so rampant, a tent city grew on Highway 80, where the interpretive center is today. For more than two years, blacks lived in this community without running water and electricity.

Not forgotten

Since 1993, the National Voting Rights Museum has been collecting more than a thousand oral histories and photos from the march. The museum also holds a Foot Soldiers Hall of Fame, featuring the footprints of the marchers.

The museum is a monument to the people who participated in and what they contributed to the cause, said Sam Walker, museum consultant and tour guide. He urged the group from Maxwell-Gunter to not forget what happened in Selma. He pointed out the window and said, "Black people lay on this highway, bleeding all over."

The legal system has not forgotten the struggles in Selma.

In November 2010, James Bonard Fowler, a former state trooper, pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jackson, 45 years after Bloody Sunday. He is serving a six-month sentence.

For more information, visit http://www.nvrm.org/ or www.nps.gov.