February has come and gone — so has Martin Luther King Day, the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X and all of Black History Month. Even as we look back on February, we can look forward to another milestone date. March 7 marks the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March.
Sunday, March 7, 1965, would come to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
That’s because a band of some 600 marchers gathered in Selma, Ala., proceeded down Broad Street — the heart of Selma’s commercial district — and ascended the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were marching east from Selma, over the Alabama River and on to Montgomery, all in pursuit of their right to vote.
What greeted them on the other side of the lazy, muddy Alabama River was nothing short of hellish. A brigade of lawmen and clouds of tear gas sent them back across the bridge — back to the relative safety of Selma.
Growing up I knew the Edmund Pettus Bridge only as the structure carrying Highway 80 east from Selma through river port towns like Benton and White Hall, through the fertile Alabama Black Belt region on to Montgomery. It was an integral part of the countless weekend trips I made as a child to my grandparents’ home. It was just a way to get from here to there. Just a bridge, unimpressive to a boy who grew up on the Gulf Coast where suspension bridges, drawbridges and tunnels seemed much more impressive ways to cross much more impressive rivers.
The older I got, though, the more impressive the bridge seemed as my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles told me the role the bridge played in that tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era. It was written in the streets of Selma and won on the wayside of Highway 80.
It wasn’t until March 21 that some 6,000 marchers set out from Selma. They’d march east on Highway 80. By the time they finally reached Montgomery their numbers had swelled to more than 20,000.
But March 1965 is not just the anniversary of activism and altruism, but of actions and results.
President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act on March 15, 1965. The federal government estimates that within four years of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black voter registration had more than doubled.
In 1996, the National Park Service consecrated the ground those marchers hallowed so many years before.
The Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail commemorates the long walk to Montgomery. Highway 80 is now a modern four-lane highway between Selma and Montgomery. But now traffic whizzing back and forth is reminded of the significance of its chosen route. Large signs mark important stops and overnight campsites along the marchers’ way.
Today the National Park Service is kicking off a week of celebrations centered around Highway 80 and its significance to the Civil Rights Movement. As part of the jubilant celebration, marchers will reenact the historic trek. They’ll gather in Selma, proceed down Broad Street — still the heart of Selma’s commercial district — and ascend the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
What will greet them on the other side of that lazy, meandering, muddy river won’t be tear gas, billy clubs or angry state troopers. What will greet them is an understanding that there are many miles to go.
Martin Bartlett Daily Mississippian, University of Mississippi.