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Selma marches, Bloody Sunday mark 50th anniversaries February 21, 2015

Posted by Tracy in : Civil Rights, Civil Rights travel , trackback

Marchers walking in the rain in Montgomery during the Selma to Montgomery March (Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Marchers walking in the rain in Montgomery during the Selma to Montgomery March (Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History)

My latest for USA Today, and one I really enjoyed doing. The best part was interviewing two heroes of the Civil Rights movement – Vera Booker and Gwen Patton, who put their bodies on the line time after time. Sad that 50 years later, people are still having to fight for the same things. But it feels good to take a moment, anyway, to appreciate the progress that’s been made.

by Tracy L. Barnett, Special for USA TODAY

Vera Jenkins Booker was the night supervisor on duty at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, Ala., the night Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper who followed him into a restaurant and shot him at close range as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather. The date was Feb. 18, 1965, and as those who have seen the movie Selma already know, it was the first in a chain of events that would focus the eyes of the world on the brutality of racism. The 26-year-old Baptist deacon was among those marching in the tiny town of Marion in protest of the discriminatory voter registration practices of the day; he had tried unsuccessfully to register for four years, and the struggle eventually cost him his life.

“He was in so much pain, and when I pulled up the shirt, that was when I saw a piece of gut the size of a small grapefruit,” Booker recalls. She tended the wound as they waited for the doctor. “I said, ‘You gonna be all right,’ and he kinda calmed down.”

She cared for him throughout the week, and through two surgeries. “He told me he was home from the service, and he said to me, ‘I got a little girl, and I’m going to marry her mother.’ I said, ‘That’s the thing to do, marry that little girl.’ I was sure he was going to live.”

His death eight days later was the match that ignited an already smoldering civil rights movement, kindling Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery marches, a summer of nonstop protest around the country, and in August, the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Those marches are the focus of an ambitious series of anniversary events in Selma and Montgomery that have already begun. At their peak, on the March 7 anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appearance; other big names to help mark the event include Bernice King, who will be reading her father’s seminal “How long? Not long” speech from the statehouse steps on March 25 in Montgomery, at the same time and spot as her father did.

The complicated history has led organizers to cluster the events around three important events: Bloody Sunday, when the marchers first tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge and were beaten back; Turnback Tuesday, two days later, when they tried again, met the police and kneeled to pray; and the week of March 20-25, when a court order and the U.S. National Guard made a successful march possible. There’s lots going on in both places throughout the months of February and March, but highlights are clustered in Selma around March 7th, and in Montgomery around March 20-25. For a complete lineup of events, see their respective websites: http://selma50iwasthere.com and http://dreammarcheson.com.

Organizers are overwhelmed with information requests and hotels are filling up fast, so travelers who wish to make a pilgrimage to the area to immerse themselves in the events will want to book their hotels now. Some may prefer to wait until the hubbub passes to take in the history, which is easy to do along the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which includes an excellent interpretive center and traces the route taken by the marchers, including markers for the campgrounds.

This trail is “holy ground for the Civil Rights Movement,” said travel writer Larry Bleiberg, who has created a detailed guide to important historic sites on his website, Civil Rights Travel. Montgomery was ground zero not only for the voting rights movement, he points out; it was here that Rosa Parks kicked off the movement a decade earlier.

“Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is something every American needs to do; it literally puts you in the footsteps of history,” he said. “When you get to the crest you have to look ahead and imagine what it would be like to face police with dogs and masks and teargas. I don’t know how many of us would be brave enough to walk into that but there were people who were.”

But what really makes the place special for a visitor is the people, he said. “You can’t go to the Alamo and talk to someone who fought at the siege; you can’t go to Gettysburg and talk to someone who fought in the Civil War. But you can go to these places and talk to people who were part of a heroic movement. There’s still people who were foot soldiers, leaders, people who took part. It’s so hard to find heroes in this world that we’re in – and I think these people were heroes.”

People like Dr. Gwen Patton, a diminutive woman of 72 with a razor-sharp analysis, who describes herself as an archivist-activist. Organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others, she began helping with the voting rights movement at the age of 8. It was around then that her grandparents turned their home into a citizenship school and began teaching neighbors how to pass the literacy test. Beginning as a child, she also worked alongside Rufus Lewis, whom she calls the Father of the Voting Rights Movement, until his death at 93.

“Just to have the courage to go down to register to vote was a feat in itself, because you knew you were going to be insulted if not assaulted,” she said. “The registrar’s office would have a sign out that said out to lunch – and they really were! – and there were only two days you could go down and register. It was so arbitrary and so mean.”

She was on the front lines of those marches, and she’s quick to point out that the movement began long before Selma and continues to this day. “This should not be a celebration; it should be an observance of what happened in ’65 –and that which preceded it to make it possible, and that which happened afterward to carry it forward.”

Like Patton, Dr. Howard Robinson, archivist at Alabama State University’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Montgomery, was quick to point out that the battle for voting rights is far from over.

“In 2015 there are still people who are challenging that right –for example the Voter ID laws and other strategies to reduce the number of people who are able to vote in the United States. These are 21st century tactics to reduce the opportunities for people to participate in the political process, and attacks on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“What I think this celebration is, more than being able to celebrate a past accomplishment, is a reminder that we are really have to be vigilant about the right to vote that was established a half century ago.”

If you go:

Lodging options are filling up fast in Selma and Montgomery, so if you want to attend the anniversary events, make your reservations fast. If you can’t get a room and the priority is to be closer to the action, try the Auburn/Opelika area or Greenville. If the objective is to visit Civil Rights destinations, Birmingham and Atlanta can also be a good alternative.

Good resources to help you plan your tour include:

For an overview of Civil Rights sites in the region and around the country: www.civilrightstravel.com;

For coming anniversary events, from the Montgomery perspective: http://dreammarcheson.com

And from the Selma perspective:http://selma50iwasthere.com

Respective chambers of commerce: http://visitingmontgomery.com; http://selmaalabama.com


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