Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, 600 marchers protesting for voting equality left the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma headed for the state capitol in Montgomery. Before they had even left town, the peaceful marchers were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with police beatings and tear gas.
That violence, which was televised across the nation and dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” only served to strengthen the movement’s non-violent call for civil rights, however. Two weeks later, on March 21, about 3,200 marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set out again from the chapel, across the bridge and down U.S. 80. By the time they reached the capitol, they were 25,000 strong and King gave a speech to the crowd and nation, averring: “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, 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.’ ” In August, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Today many of the nation’s leaders—including President Obama and his family—activists, and celebrities are in Selma attending various activities taking place in memory of the historic event.
It might seem odd to consider a walk down a highway in Alabama among the world’s greatest hikes—but few marches have had such a profound influence on a nation and the power of the powerless to effect meaningful and lasting change in the world. That victory did not come easy.
Hiking along a highway is not necessarily pleasant, but considering the weight of history here, it is quite powerful. And there’s more than asphalt—stop in the Southern towns of Casey and Lowndesboro for local cooking or simply enjoy the farmland that usually is a blur through the car window. Markers along the trail indicate the 1965 campsites, including the city of St. Jude historic district where musicians including Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, and Peter, Paul and Mary performed for the marchers. Another memorial honors Viola Liuzzo, a mother and voting rights advocate from Michigan, who came to Alabama to help after being horrified by the events of Bloody Sunday. Members of the Klu Klux Klan shot her while she was driving marchers back along the trail the night of March 25, 1965.
Best For: Anyone interested in American history and civil rights who probably prefers to drive and walk only short distances.
Round Trip: Following the March 1965 civil rights march along U.S. Highway 80, the route travels 54 miles from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. The original march took place over five days and is now the Selma to Montgomery National Scenic Trail.
When to Go: The original march took place in March so reenacting the walk at that time heightens the sense of the historical moment. Plus, it’s a pleasant time of year in the South.
Short Cut: Most visitors drive this trail, getting out out various interpretive sites along the way. One meaningful short walk could be the six blocks from the Brown Chapel to the Pettus Bridge.
Insider Tip: Many groups will symbolically re-walk the march. This may be the safest way to do it as well as a way to feel what it was like to walk it with a big group.