Movie about civil rights will draw visitors to Selma
History was made 50 years ago.
Now, the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, are being remembered, just as they are each year. But this year, a new movie is also telling the story. So the city is expecting thousands of visitors.
Visitors can still walk across the bridge. It's where voting rights marchers were beaten in 1965. They can also see the churches where protests were organized.
"There are certain place names in American history where significant, history-making events took place. Like Gettysburg, Valley Forge and Vicksburg," said Lee Sentell. He is tourism director for Alabama. "And I think because of this film, Selma becomes one of the place names that stands as a significant milestone in American history."
Oprah Winfrey, other actors from "Selma" and hundreds more marched to the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge this year. They marched on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. An even larger event is expected to attract more than 40,000 people in Selma on March 5-9. The annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee will include a walk across the bridge. That will occur March 8.
The event will mark the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday." Law enforcement used billy clubs and tear gas to rout marchers intent on walking 50 miles to Montgomery. It happened on March 7, 1965. The marchers were seeking the right for blacks to register to vote. A new march, led by Martin Luther King Jr., began March 21, 1965. It arrived in Montgomery on March 25. By that time, the crowd had grown to 25,000. Montgomery is the state capital of Alabama.
Those events and others helped lead to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law opened Southern votng places, or polls, to millions of blacks. It ended all-white rule in the South.
Today, the bridge and downtown business district in Selma look much as they did in 1965. But there are some differences. Many storefronts are empty. Government buildings are occupied largely by African-American officials.
Attractions related to the protests are all within walking distance of the bridge. They include the First Baptist Church. Many protests were organized there. And Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where marchers congregated before going to the bridge. It's also where they sought safety after being beaten.
Near the bridge, there is a free tour of an interpretative center built by the National Park Service. The center offers photographs of the events. It also has emotional video interviews with people who were on both sides of the issues.
Nearby is the Ancient Africa, Enslavement and Civil War Museum. Visitors can see how slaves were captured, sold and exploited. There's a depiction of what it was like to be on a slave ship bound for America.
"You have to know about slavery to know why we didn't have the right to vote," said Faya Rose Toure. She is one of the museum's founders.
Then tourists can retrace history. They can walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side is a park and the National Voting Rights Museum. The museum artifacts include surveillance photos taken by state police. One feature that stands out is the white plaster footprints of the largely unknown participants in the march.
"Everybody has seen pictures of Dr. King leading the march. Those people behind him are what we are focusing on," historian Sam Walker said.
Other sites include the Greyhound bus station. It's where Freedom Riders seeking to integrate interstate transportation were beaten by a white mob in 1961. There's a museum commemorating Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that King led. in 1955. And the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King served as pastor. He later moved to Atlanta to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Alabama's governor is Robert Bentley. He said the movie and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act are opportunities to relive history. And to see how Alabama has changed.
"Alabama is a different place than it was 50 years ago. We need to always remember our history. But we can't live in the past," he said.
Critical thinking challenge: Why is Selma likely to attract more visitors in March than it did for Martin Luther King's birthday?