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Hiking With History: A Pilgrimage Along the Selma to Montgomery Trail

By Joseph Palmer

Feb 25, 2022

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The 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail stretches across central Alabama and marks the route of the original 1965 civil rights march.

Photo by Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

The 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail stretches across central Alabama and marks the route of the original 1965 civil rights march.

What can we learn from retracing the steps of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama? One traveler laces up his boots.

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I’m exactly zero steps into a 54-mile walk, and already I’m dawdling too much, distracted from effective time management by the history around me. Above my head soars Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, a beautiful, twin-towered structure that served as a hub of civil rights activism in the 1960s—Malcolm X delivered one of his final talks here—and now serves as the starting point for Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Even though I won’t technically begin my walk until the next morning, I already feel I’m on a religious pilgrimage.

I studied human rights and, ever since, have venerated the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. It is this reverence that marks the 54-mile route that thousands of nonviolent civil rights protestors, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in 1965. Established by Congress in 1996, the trail also connects sites, including Brown Chapel, crucial to the lives of Dr. King and other secular saints of the Civil Rights Movement. From the church, I’ll follow the path—which isn’t a hiking trail but rather the rural, four-lane Highway 80 that protestors walked—ending in Montgomery, Alabama, the state’s capitol.

While the original participants took five days to complete the walk (attracting more media coverage, and marchers, each day), life demands that I complete the journey in two. I plan to walk 27 miles per day, catching rides back to Selma at night, as many of the 1965 marchers did, and picking up my trail the following morning. I’ve packed lightly, leaning into the journey’s pilgrimage potential by downloading civil rights speeches and memoirs of iconic leaders. As I make my solo march, I want their powerful words ringing in my ears.

The St. James Hotel was built in 1837 on the banks of the Alabama River.

I’ve selected the St. James Hotel, a balcony-frocked historic hotel on the city’s waterfront, as my home base for the weekend. The hotel, I discover, is not the only attractive part of Selma. If not for its violent history, I might instead be absorbed by Selma’s small-town architectural charm. The town is curled on the north shore of a bend in the Alabama River, and its main street holds midcentury buildings, striped awnings, and vintage signs that suggest an America that never existed except in popular nostalgia and the paintings by Norman Rockwell. It’s not all quaint charisma, of course. I also spot Baby Yoda car decals, flags advertising CBD oil, and the other hallmarks of 2020s American culture. Still, there exists a certain pre-strip-mall appeal.

Wandering among the streets, churches, and civic buildings that served as the daily settings for Selma’s prolonged struggle for equality, I’m reminded of the everyday oppressions that preceded the march. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, equal voting rights continued to elude many Black Americans in towns and cities that had previously propped up legalized segregation. Black citizens were prevented from registering by white officials using such suppression  tactics as “literacy tests” with questions like “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” (Such “tests” were almost never proctored to white applicants.) Even worse, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante injustice groups sometimes threatened potential voters’ lives.

To draw national attention to the problems, civil rights activists from around the country joined those in Selma for a march to the capitol in Montgomery. Their first attempt, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, ended at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when state troopers and a posse of deputized civilians attacked the 600-strong crowd of nonviolent marchers with electric cattle prods and tear gas. Photographs from this “Bloody Sunday” outraged the nation. Marchers made a second attempt on Tuesday, March 9, but they, too, turned around at the bridge, this time without bloodshed. Finally, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, on March 21, more than 3,000 marchers left Selma and would go on to successfully complete the five-day march to Montgomery.

George Sallie, now 92, was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. His cap hides a scar on his forehead from that day, still clearly visible more than 50 years later. He often comes to the bridge to pray for those who attacked him and his fellow marchers.

A few hours after my visit to Brown Chapel, I meet Columbus Mitchell, who often offers lectures about Selma’s civil rights history. Two of his uncles were at the bridge on Bloody Sunday, and Mitchell himself was an extra in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film on the subject, Selma. While we’re chatting, an older man falls to his knees at the bridge’s entrance. I ask Mitchell if we should go help.

“He’s OK,” Mitchell confirms. I then notice that the man’s left knee is resting on top of a small pink towel. He hasn’t fallen, but rather is kneeling. “He’s praying,” Mitchell shares. “He is always praying at the bridge . . . he was there on Bloody Sunday.”

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A few minutes later, Mitchell introduces me to him. Nonagenarian Mr. George Sallie reveals that he had been praying for those who had attacked him and his fellow protestors on March 7, 1965. To feel so compassionate toward one’s assailant is an unknown talent to me—it seems to create a superpower out of forgiveness. Mr. Sallie points out a favored verse from his clearly frequently thumbed Bible. It reads “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Even to this irreligious observer, Mr. Sallie’s act of grace and forgiveness is overpowering.

As I walk back to my hotel, I consider what Mr. Sallie had said. His story, the story of the Selma march, is relevant to people the world over. The Selma march is not an isolated event in a single country’s history—it is an integral link in a global chain of action catalyzed in the 19th century with Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, carried on through Tolstoy’s late-life epiphanies on “nonresistance,” put into practice as the Gandhian interpretation of ahimsa during the Indian independence movement, honed during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and integral to the success of the late Archbishop Tutu’s contributions to the anti-apartheid movement. It’s a sequence of events that defined the 20th century as much as any war.

Even though he lived in the public eye for decades, the events on that day figured so prominently in the life of Congressman John Lewis that Bloody Sunday is the very first image in his trilogy of autobiographical graphic novels.

It’s 6:15 a.m. and still dark when I set out the following morning. My conversations with Mr. Sallie and Mitchell still occupy my thoughts, setting a reverence within me as I begin to walk. It’s January, so the temperature hovers around freezing and the wind is already chapping my face. (After two days of walking, my neck and face will be rosy with windburn.) Fortunately, Selma, again, distracts me from the elements. Turning once more onto the main street, I glimpse the graceful arches that bookend the bridge at the end of town, finding them beautiful until I remember that they’re supporting the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Named after a Ku Klux Klan leader (the irony is lost on no one), the bridge represents one of the most instantly recognizable sites (and sights) of the entire Civil Rights Movement. Standing on that bridge in the dawn-gray silence of the early morning, I think of Congressman John Lewis, who was a 25-year-old student activist in 1965—and carried scars from Bloody Sunday for the rest of his life.

Shortly after I cross the river, there is little but farms and forest. It seems a good time to queue up Dr. King’s early speeches. Listening to him, I’m repeatedly reminded of that undefined truism in which, because you’ve always known a thing to be true, you sometimes forget how true it really is. I’ve always known that “Dr. King is a great speaker,” but listening to him now, I realize how truly phenomenal his speeches are, filled with rhythm and pleasing repetition.

As I approach the campsite where some of the original marchers stayed the first night, Dr. King converts a common observation into a beautiful phrase: Instead of saying that refusing to stand up for what is right makes a person die a little inside, he proclaims that “the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.” Dr. King’s words become my favorite companions throughout the trip.

As the miles pass and the sun climbs higher in the sky, I realize that one benefit of walking beside a highway is that the road becomes a place unto itself. During the breaks from traffic noise, which are common and occasionally long, I hear nature peek through. Bullfrogs croak and owls hoot. I see flocks of finches, a murmuration of starlings, and many packs of feral dogs of varying degrees of friendliness. It’s not all hidden pockets of pristine nature, of course—never far are the menagerie of roadkill and beer bottles ubiquitous to American highways (most common are armadillos and Michelob Ultra, respectively).

Still, it is frequently pleasant, despite the occasional awkwardness. I’m not used to walking along rural highways and find aspects of it challenging. For example, for roughly eight miles, I walk pitched at a 30-degree angle, my left leg lower on the highway’s steep shoulder than my right leg. It feels unnatural to walk this way, a theory confirmed by the strangely shaped blisters I develop.

Eight hours and 21 miles after I start, I glimpse the Lowndes Interpretive Center, near to where the original marchers camped on the second night of the march. I realize that I’ve walked farther than I ever have before in a single day and feel embarrassingly proud—until I encounter the museum’s life-size statue of one-legged activist Jim Letherer, who covered the march’s entire 54 miles on crutches.

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The center presents multiple issues that occasionally get lost when discussing the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, like the rise of tent cities (informal settlements for those forced off their land after registering to vote). It also highlights how voting rights were even more restricted in Lowndes than in Selma. Organizer Kwame Ture, born Stokely Carmichael, who moved to the county after participating in the marches, observed that “Lowndes was a truly totalitarian society—the epitome of the tight, insulated police state.”

Back on the trail, I’m emotionally drained yet physically refreshed. Historian Peniel E. Joseph’s biography, Stokely, acts as an absorbing audiobook companion. As I make my way toward mile marker 110—my end point for the day—I learn that Ture’s time in Lowndes County strongly influenced his later work. For example, frustrated with the options available, he cofounded an independent political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Party the summer after the Selma march. The organization’s symbol? A black panther. By 1966 they were calling themselves the Black Panther Party.

In Montgomery, a memorial to the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery

The second day passes by much as the first. I spend the morning walking in the widest highway median I’ve ever seen, a humanmade meadow in the tarmac, surrounded woods and farmland. Fifteen miles in, however, my spirits flag (a combination of swollen feet and increasing suburbia). Thankfully, just nine miles from the end of the walk, I enter Montgomery, and feel invigorated.

I pass the site where Rosa Parks’ arrest jumpstarted the Civil Rights Movement. To the right, two blocks off the trail, is the old Greyhound station where John Lewis and other Freedom Riders were beaten unconscious by a mob for trying to integrate interstate buses. Roughly 53 miles in, I circle a roundabout and look up Dexter Avenue toward the Alabama State Capitol on its hilltop perch. As if by design, the Greek revival building’s dome and columns are bathed in the orange and purple glows of a setting sun.

If John Lewis dominated my attention in Selma and Kwame Ture was on my mind in Lowndes County, then Dr. King obsesses me as I approach the trail’s end. I’m in the neighborhood where the pastor lived as a twenty-something transplant from Atlanta, and where he developed into a world-renowned, Nobel Peace Prize–winning advocate for the power of nonviolence in the face of violence. Though I’m surrounded by reminders of his lofty achievements, such as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King served as minister, I also enjoy encountering quotidian aspects of his life. Just before his church, I pass a restaurant where he often stopped for hot dogs. I’m tempted to stop too, but the sun is beginning to set, and I need to finish my journey.

Two blocks past Dr. King’s former church, I finally reach the Alabama State Capitol. With 54 miles and decades of history behind me, I sit on the Capitol steps and listen to the speech he delivered on the march’s final day in 1965. “In a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested,” he says. The speech famously crescendos with Dr. King proclaiming to the 25,000 marchers in attendance that it wouldn’t be long until equal voting rights became a reality because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I listen to the speech twice as the sun finishes setting.

Fewer than five months after Dr. King spoke from those steps, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law; among other provisions, it allowed the federal government to intervene in states that were preventing Black Americans from registering to vote. This was far from some theoretical legal protection—everything changed with this law. The difference is encapsulated by this observation from historian James Cobb: About a week after the Voting Rights Act entered law, federal voting examiners in Selma registered 381 new Black voters in a single day—more than had been registered in the same county over the previous 65 years. Change had come.

How to do this walk

The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is managed by the National Park Service, which offers short guided walks and tours. Signs mark the 54-mile route, allowing travelers to walk portions of the trail, or alll of it, on their own. Travelers walking the trail have a decision to make. They can arrange for lodging near to the midpoint (there’s a hunting lodge about 20 miles in, just off the highway, as well as multiple campsites) or arrange for transportation to collect them in the evening and return them to the same spot the next morning. 

Every year, national civil rights leaders lead marches to memorialize the 1965 events. From March 6 through March 11, 2022, on the 57th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, several organizations will host events and walks, open to all. 

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