A Monument to Freedom


One month from today is the fiftieth anniversary of a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement—the assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Nearly two years ago, my husband took me on a surprise trip to Alabama. After an evening at the Monroeville Courthouse watching a local production of To Kill a Mockingbird, we headed north toward Montgomery. At Exit 167 on Interstate 65, we turned west on U.S. Highway 80, the route marchers took from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery—a 54-mile trek along the highway.

Once off the exit, I was struck by a National Park Service sign that announced the “Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail.” This was it. The road those courageous men, women, and

children had hiked, risking all. I was overwhelmed and moved to tears—tears that fell intermittently during the entire drive to Selma.

As the trip progressed, my husband, Wendy, and I speculated on what such a long walk (it took five days) would be like. We had only a month earlier entered the Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10K in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though I was a walker, the 6.2 miles generated painful shin splints. How did these people do it?

“They were in their church clothes,” Wendy said. “And dress shoes.”

Shoes worn by Juanita T. Williams
during the Selma to Montgomery March
Oh, my Lord. We wore comfortable clothes and shoes designed for optimum support on a walk only a fraction of the distance. They wore wingtips. Juanita T. Williams, activist, donated her leather loafers to the Smithsonian Institute. The blisters and open sores must have been agonizing.

After driving nearly an hour, my breath caught in my throat. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. The site of such brutality that the rest of the nation could no longer turn away in apathy.

We parked the car and, hand in hand, began to walk across the landmark as my emotions again simmered to the surface.

The bridge’s sidewalk was surprisingly narrow. A thin metal rail provided the only barrier between me and the swirling waters of the Alabama River. My moderate fear of bridges kicked in and I insisted on walking on the road side. However, there was no shoulder between it and the cars, and my husband worried I would be struck by a passing vehicle. They were moving at a pretty good clip. Finally, we compromised with me walking behind him, a foot or so away from the road, as we continued to hold hands.

“How did they fit on this sidewalk?” I asked.

Reviewing the films with that in mind, I saw that they walked in twos, careful not to step into the road. I know they wanted to follow all laws, hoping to prevent excuses, it turns out, the authorities did not need.

We reached the end of the bridge. The National Park Service website describes what happened there in 1965.

“As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, they were met by a column of State Troopers and local volunteer officers of the local sheriff’s department who blocked their path.

The non-violent protesters were told by Maj. John Cloud that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the Law Enforcement Officers with nightsticks and teargas. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media; however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time.”
Reproduction of MLK’s
Birmingham jail cell

What was then Haisten’s Mattress and Awning Company is now the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Its collections feature the history of the nonviolence movement as a whole, including the works of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. A replica of Martin Luther King’s cell in the Birmingham jail moved us, but what struck us most was the exhibit that ran throughout the museum. The footprints of Foot Soldiers for the movement.

Shoes of civil rights workers
Not only were shoes featured at this museum, but also at the Martin Luther King Visitor Center in Atlanta. It’s a powerful metaphor. It took the baby steps and grand strides of thousands of people to cross that bridge and lead the rest of us to the freedom King dreamed about.

Two weeks following Bloody Sunday there were not 600 marchers ready to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were 25,000. And with a court order, they completed that march to Montgomery—five months before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Yes, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a shrine. To determination. To courage. To justice.

And I was humbled to be there.

Photo of shoes from http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=242

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