Tracing the Footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama

March 16, 2012
Mary Claire Schmit Uniting America AmeriCorps Fellow

“But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together…” –Lila Watson

 

It’s hard to believe that it has been almost a week since we returned from Alabama. After growing up and learning about the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Martin Luther King Jr., words cannot do justice in describing what an incredible experience it was to partake in the final two days of the NAACP’s annual 5 day march and rally commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches.This year was special because the NAACP dedicated the second to last day of the march to the fight for immigrant rights in Alabama and the end to HB56, which many have called the harshest anti-immigrant law in the nation. 

 

After a 12 hour overnight bus ride to Alabama last Wednesday, we arrived in Montgomery Thursday morning shortly after the marchers began walking. As our bus pulled up alongside where we were to begin marching on the highway, we were greeted by cheerful people holding signs that read “Keep the Dream Alive”, “I am a Man” and “Repeal HB56” among other things.

 

During our 9 mile walk that day, I had the opportunity to meet people of various ages from all over the country who had come to Alabama to honor the work of activists that came before and continue the struggle for civil rights for African Americans and immigrants. By the end of day one I was exhausted from walking under the Alabama sun for 7 hours but energized by the unity and brotherhood that could be felt in the crowd. That night we met for a rally at St. Jude’s Educational Institute, which is where the 1965 marchers camped before ending the march in downtown Montgomery. Prominent community activists, union leaders, artists and politicians came together to speak of the common struggle that unites African Americans and immigrants. It was really powerful to hear everyone talk about how we are all immigrants and how the color of our skin doesn’t matter in the fight for justice for all. 

 

The next day, the final day of the march, we again met at St. Jude’s Educational Institute and then proceeded to walk through the neighborhoods of Montgomery. It was an amazing feeling to walk through the neighborhoods and see Montgomery's residents wave at us from their porches and children come out of their schools to give us warm welcomes as we passed by. I was overcome by a lot of different emotions as I tried to imagine how the original Civil Rights marchers must have felt walking those same streets almost 50 years prior. 

 

The march ended at the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech in 1965. Before reaching the capitol building, we briefly stopped at the Court Square Fountain, which faces the Capitol building on Dexter Ave. Little did I know how much history was surrounding me at the time, for not only did the fountain where we stopped use to be one of the city’s old slave markets, but across the street was the bench where Rosa Parks boarded the bus, which began the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and right down the street was the Dexter Ave. Church where Martin Luther King Jr. used to be a pastor. 

 

Following the rally at the capitol, a few of us decided to wander around Montgomery. After visiting some of the historic sites like the Dexter Ave. Church, we went to the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial. Seeing the faces and hearing the stories of all those who lost their lives in the struggle for civil rights made me realize how important it is to fight to make sure that history does not repeat itself. 

 

Alabama was an amazing experience for me. While I did not sleep very much, I came back with a renewed spirit. There was something about being surrounded by so many different people from so many different walks of life coming together for something that was bigger than all of us. It didn’t matter your age, what you looked like or where you came from because as one of the speakers at the rally put it, after marching under the Alabama sun all day, we were all colored. In order to change things, we must remember that we are all the same and that our stories and freedom are bound up with each other.