Selma to Montgomery: Marching and Public Memory Landscapes in Alabama

Montgomery Alabama has had an interesting history with the Selma to Montgomery march. From the beginning, the capital city of Alabama opposed any efforts to further civil rights. Governor Wallace stopped the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1966. On this date, Alabama state troopers waited for marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge with tear gas and billy clubs. Though this altercation resulted in the hospitalization of over fifty marchers, organizers planned another march to Montgomery on March 9th, which was forced back at the same bridge. The final March began on March 21st, 1965 and successfully reached Montgomery thanks to protection from federal troops. Many scholars argued that these marches directly contributed to the success of the voting rights act on August 6 of the same year. The march also left a physical legacy on the lands between Selma and Montgomery. For some residents of area, the route remains an important part of history, for perhaps too many it is simply an hours’ long drive into (or out of) the city.

Since the march itself, many organizations have used the legacy left by civil rights activists to advance their own agendas. On August 9, 1979, the Klu Klux Klan planned a march which would retrace the route of civil rights activists in an effort to demonstrate their power. Because the Klan did not secure a parade permit, Montgomery police arrested at least 130 Klansmen when they arrived in the capital.

By 1985, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned another march for the historic route. While leaders clearly intended this march to commemorate the original one, they also had their own agenda. According to Joseph Lowery, then president of the SCLC and leader of the commemorative march, the intention was to bring attention to “unemployment, world peace, justice, and the liberation of South Africa.” This time governor George Wallace did not oppose the march.

More commemorative celebrations occurred only five years later, on the twenty fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1990. Representative and civil rights marcher John Lewis took advantage of this opportunity to introduce legislation that began the process of creating a national heritage trail out of the area. His efforts were successful, and today the National Parks Service facilitates the preservation of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

However, just because something is actively being preserved does not mean that its place in history is fixed. The trail itself exists in multiple counties, each with their own interpretive centers, historic sites, and visitor bureaus. The ways that these cities, especially the city of Montgomery promote their portion of the trail greatly influences its use and level of preservation. In Montgomery, the portion of the trail which runs from the last campsite to the capitol building occupies space in the historically African American west side of the city. Montgomery’s reluctance to invest in this part of town is evidenced in its efforts to promote and preserve the trail itself. 

March 21st, 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the march. For this anniversary, the city of Montgomery’s Downtown Business Association hosted a free walking tour of the already established “Civil History Tour” which follows a path including sites from the Civil War and the civil rights movement. At the same time, the National Parks Service hosted a “walking classroom,” which allowed participants to explore the trail in its entirety. 

These anniversary celebrations, and each new event contributes to the history of this trail, creating new meaning for stakeholders. I intend to examine how the trail is maintained and interpreted by Montgomery’s visitor’s bureau, and National Parks Services, and why the preservation of this specific space is so important. I will attempt to do this using a series of blog posts on WordPress. Each of these posts will be linked to a specific location on the trail, and will examine a specific part of the trail’s history, its preservation, and at least one image of what the physical land looks like presently.

If you would like more information on any of the events referenced in this post, feel free to comment, and I will reply with my sources.

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