Selma and Civil Rights
Mark Rathbone examines the importance of one Alabama town’s contribution to the civil rights movement.
If you drive into Selma, Alabama, from the north along Highway 20 and follow Broad Street past the gas stations, chain burger restaurants and shops which make up the townscape of so many similar towns in the United States, you will see looming in front of you the girders of a bridge which takes the road across the Alabama River onto Route 80 towards the state capital Montgomery. It is not beautiful, its utilitarian grey-painted steel structure towering over the road, but it is a site full of historical resonance, for this, as large letters on the bridge girders remind us, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a structure familiar from many historic photos of the civil rights movement.
Here on 7 March 1965 an event happened which was to change the face of America for ever. Led by Rev Hosea Williams and John Lewis, 600 civil rights marchers set out from the Brown Chapel Church, which served as the local headquarters of the civil rights movement, to march to Montgomery, 55 miles away, to protest against the persistent denial of voting rights to African Americans in Selma. They got as far as crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge when their path was blocked by state troopers, under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark. He told them that the march was illegal and gave them two minutes to disperse.