On March 7, 1965, 600 people headed east out of Selma, Ala., to demand equal voting rights for African Americans. They didn't get far—only six blocks—to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, state and local law enforcement attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (now a congressman from Georgia), was among them and suffered a cracked skull. The marchers were driven back into Selma. From then on, the incident was called “Bloody Sunday.”
Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a symbolic march to the Pettus bridge. Then, on March 21, about 3,200 people set out from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to demand voting rights. By the time they reached Montgomery on March 25, there were 25,000 of them. Less than five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I joined a road trip to commemorate the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," civil rights martyrs, and the series of Selma-to-Montgomery Marches. Called the Evelyn Gibson Lowery Civil Rights Heritage Tour, it was hosted by the wife of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chairman emeritus, Rev. Joseph Lowery. Winnie Mandela, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis and actor Terrence Howard were among those who joined the commemoration.
This is a diary of my journey to Selma.
Saturday, March 6, 2010, 7:20 a.m.
It is a cool, quiet March morning, and the sun is rising over Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. But Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe says the sky was dark the other times she met the buses for the annual civil rights tour sponsored by SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. (W.O.M.E.N. stands for Women's Organizational Movement for Equality Now.) We're panicking inside a taxi outside the group's headquarters in a neighborhood that includes the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church. We learn the buses left almost an hour ago.
Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, left, Sally Liuzzo-Prado (speaking) and Evelyn Lowery at Viola Liuzzo monument in Lowndes County, Ala. (Melanie Eversley)
I am with Liuzzo Lilleboe and her sister, Sally Liuzzo-Prado, the daughters of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman murdered in 1965 by the Ku Klux Klan outside of Selma, Ala., because of her involvement in civil rights activities. We're frazzled, but I think to myself that when obstacles fall in your way, you must be headed in the right direction.
A couple taking the tour in their own truck drive us to Birmingham and unite us with the group.
During breakfast at a restaurant outside the city, SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., Inc. director Evelyn Gibson Lowery, a smartly dressed woman with chestnut-colored hair, describes the indignities of Jim Crow segregation laws. She and her husband, Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights icon who offered the benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration—once lived in Birmingham, Ala.
"They used to always call it Bombingham because they bombed the cities," Lowery says.
Annetta Nunn sings "Amazing Grace" acapella, and I learn that until she retired in 2008, she was Birmingham's first woman chief of police. Today, she is a court advocate for domestic violence victims through the YWCA of Central Alabama and a gospel CD she recorded benefits the organization.
"Seeing all these civil rights leaders that you've only read about in books or seen in movie clips is wonderful," says Nunn, 51. "They laid the groundwork, and I always try to do my best."
The bus rolls down quiet roads lined with tall pine trees and rust-colored soil. Evelyn Lowery is going through with the tour even though her 88-year-old husband is home recuperating from a blood clot in his lung. One of the key volunteers, a woman who seems to never stop moving, is Ruby Shinhoster, the widow of activist and NAACP acting director Earl Shinhoster. At each stop, we meet an African-American woman in a leadership role. The Liuzzo sisters are carrying the message for their mother.
While we ride, we watch a documentary about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. I learn Parks had a history with the bus driver who ordered her to give up her seat. In a previous incident, she warned him, "You better not hit me."
The tour stops at 13 monuments to civil rights leaders and martyrs. Shortly after leaving a wreath at the monument to Coretta Scott King in front of her home church in Heiberger, Ala., and after someone notes the marker had bullet holes, we head to nearby Marion. This was the home of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death spurred the decision to march for voting rights in Selma. Jackson was shot in 1965 by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful protest of the jailing of civil rights worker James Orange. Jackson died eight days later.
At Zion Methodist Church, Willie Nell Avery describes the harshness of life for African Americans back then. She took a voter-registration test and repeatedly tried to get the results from the registration office.
"They knew my walk, and before I would even get to the door, they'd say, 'we haven't graded yours yet,' " remembers Avery, 72, in a voice that makes you want to listen.
The African Americans in the area began to have marches and sit-ins. Today, Avery is one of three voting registrars in Perry County, Ala.
"I'm begging you today, children, to stand up for freedom, to stand up for justice and please register to vote."
Jesse Jackson, Faya Rose Toure and Winnie Mandela march through Selma. (Melanie Eversley)
In Lowndes County, Ala., along Route 80, we pull up to the monument to Viola Liuzzo. The stone marker sits on a hill inside a gate because people desecrated it over the years.
In the crowd, I see Lucy Vaughner, the widow of Willie Vaughner, who had been the second African-American sheriff here in Lowndes County until his death in 2007. Willie Vaughner paid out of his own pocket for a light to be installed and maintained near the marker to deter vandals. Lucy Vaughner pays for the light now. I'd met her a couple of nights ago during a visit with Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe.
Sally Liuzzo-Prado tells the crowd she was 6 when her mother was murdered.
"She would do anything to make me laugh," Liuzzo-Prado remembers. "On Easter, she would make a magic trail of sparkle dust from my bed to wherever she hid the Easter basket."
Says Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe: "The most important thing out of all of this is if we don't vote, we let everybody who we've seen yesterday and today die."
The Lowndes County Interpretive Center is a museum describing life along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in the times before the 1965 marches. Some who tried to register to vote were evicted from their homes and had to live in an area that was called "tent city." Shanequa Odom of Columbus, Ga., says the tour has made her decide she must stop telling herself she's too busy to work for human rights.
"It just makes you think we really all have to start looking at the bigger picture and just do more," says Odom, 32.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at the end of the Selma march. Lewis had his skull cracked during the initial "Bloody Sunday" march in 1965. Now, he leads tours of Congress members and others through civil rights sites in the South. (Melanie Eversley)
In Selma, there is the usual chaos that takes place during the annual commemoration of the "Bloody Sunday" march that ended in bloodshed at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Jesse Jackson is here, as is actor Terrence Howard and a collection of U.S. Congress members. In front of Brown Chapel AME Church, I run into George Sallie, one of the original marchers from "Bloody Sunday" and a Selma resident who I've written about. He turns 81 in a few days. He tells me with a grin that he's going to be honored as a "foot soldier" later.
A car pulls up to the front of the crowd, and Winnie Mandela gets out. There is a hush. She's wearing large sunglasses, and it's difficult to see her eyes. She locks arms with Jesse Jackson and with Faya Rose Toure, president of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, and the crowd begins walking.
SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., Inc. volunteer Eloise Tolbert is stepping a little gingerly because she had a hip replacement last year.
"I'm a teacher, and I believe in children learning about their history," says Tolbert, 77, of College Park, Ga. "That was one of the reasons that I joined SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., and I've been able to really learn a lot myself."
Ruby Shinhoster, an SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., Inc. volunteer, has been working hard the entire weekend, making sure people are on the buses they've been assigned, handing out prepackaged meals and making sure things run smoothly. On the way back to Atlanta, the bus stops along Interstate 85 at the spot where Earl Shinhoster died in a car accident. Ruby Shinhoster and her sister-in-law, Deborah Shinhoster Richards, get off the bus to leave flowers at the monument. They ask others to stay on the bus because the grade is steep, and they don't want anyone getting hurt.
Once she gets back on the bus, Ruby Shinhoster stays busy—even busier than before—taking the microphone to explain again that the grade was too steep for the group to attempt, and then passing out sandwiches and snacks. She does not stop moving. I've been trying to borrow some of her time, and she says this would be a good time to chat. She sits down next to me as night comes and the bus approaches Atlanta.
Shinhoster became active with the SCLC after her husband died, and she says it was a natural progression because she was a corrections counselor. She said she hopes that organizations and individuals think about sponsoring children on the tour. She said she wants the young people to feel good about themselves.
"I just hope that they learn what our role has been through history," she says. "I want them to see that we are a strong group of people. I think people feel renewed once they learn we are a strong group of people."
Melanie Eversley is a rewrite reporter for USA Today who has covered politics and race for the Detroit Free Press, and politics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.