The story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches has been documented countless times. What hasn't been explored with the same scope is the effect these momentous events had on townspeople living in Selma during that period. Growing up, my mom shipped me to Selma every summer to stay with my grandmother, Bernice McMillian, choosing the familiar streets of where she grew up instead of letting me run wild in Chicago. It's as big a part of who I am as anything else. In the interest of posterity, I reached out to people who were around during the events of that month.
So today, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the third, and final, march—over 7,000 people embarked on a five-day journey from Selma to Montgomery—let us not forget Dr. Martin Luther King's stirring words as he stood in front of Alabama's state capitol building:
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Bennie Ruth Crenshaw, 72, Selma City Councilwoman/ Activist: I haven't seen Selma. People ask, did you see the movie? I say, I don't need to, I lived it. Really, I haven't seen it because being involved in it was a lot to go through. Some things have changed, but most haven't. To understand that day and the marches before it, you have to understand what lead up to it. I was a senior in high school and had already been to jail a few times because of protests. People don't understand that it was the children that kicked off the movement—the younger people—because we got fed up with the poor treatment that we saw our parents and our teachers going through.
I had a little tight regiment of friends and we decided to integrate a lunch counter. We then went to jail. The thing was, they locked up the kids first. See, that got the parents involved and angry, because the police were putting kids in jail for marching. We went to jail, then the parents panicked and then said enough was enough. That led to the mass meetings at places like First Baptist Church and Brown Chapel. That's when the movement really started.
Joseph Smith, 62: Resident of Selma: People get it confused. There's an idea that there was only one march to Montgomery and that it was successful. In actuality, the third attempt was the only successful one. Bloody Sunday was the first one.
Rose Wilkins, 62, Educational Consultant: We lived in Alberta, AL [an unincorporated community that's part of Wilcox County, about 40 minutes from Selma] in March, then moved to Selma that May. We had a lot of family there, a lot of cousins. My stepfather told us about what happened after he married my mother. The movement started in the churches. People would meet at Brown Chapel or First Baptist or West Trinity to plan marches. The word got out and what started happening was that the white foremen for the factories around town would start driving by churches and making note of who's car was parked out front. If your car was at the church when a meeting was going on, you might show up the next day and not have a job anymore. My stepdad was active, taking part in marches and used to have cars park at his place in the back so people couldn't get in trouble with work. The marches were small at first but people started going to jail for protesting. It all came to a head with Bloody Sunday and the first march.
Smith: I was 12 years old. We lived on Franklin Street and since we were so close [note: Franklin street is about three blocks from the Edmund Pettus bridge] we saw all of the commotion going on. I asked my mom if I could go and march and she said no, I couldn't go by myself and I couldn't go to Montgomery. Sunday morning, I ventured over to the main street to watch and I ran into my cousin. He was older and marching so I went to ask my mom if I could march with him. She said yes, but only to cross the bridge and get home. We wanted to be part of history. My cousins agreed to get me home in a taxi. We were kind of in the middle of the procession, more like the back quarter of the group. We didn't even make it to the bridge before the entire wall of people stopped. We didn't know what was going on in front. You know how in a big group people start talking a lot and the noise builds? It was like that. We started seeing state troopers and then the crowd got louder and louder.
Crenshaw: I was actually in jail the night before Bloody Sunday for protesting. We were in jail about two weeks, in a prison camp about 10 miles from Selma. The judge knew we were troublemakers and made sure to put us in the worst possible conditions. On the night before the march, they let a bunch of us go home because we were underage. They sent a bus, but I ended up missing it and they didn't call your parents or anything. So I started walking back to Selma alongside the highway in the middle of the night. I went home and got in the bed. My mother didn't want me to march on Bloody Sunday—remember I had been in jail for weeks and had been home not even a day yet—and she told me to stay in bed. My sisters and aunt all went to march but they told me I had to stay at home. I started watching television and all of a sudden, Selma was on the news and it was horrible. They were these big white clouds; turns out it was tear gas.
Smith: We started seeing people in front of us start running in different directions. We saw all this white smoke. It was tear gas. It then got so loud and there were screams. The line dispersed, and everyone started running and screaming. So we started running.
Wilkins: I was a kid watching this all unfold, watching this massacre—remember, they broadcasted Bloody Sunday on television, so you saw all of it—watching people get trampled and wondering if we even knew the whole story. You heard the screams, you saw the smoke from the tear gas. We had so many family members there and it wasn't like we could text them or something. Everyone was scared.
Crenshaw: With all that tear gas and everything going on, I got worried about my sisters. So I got up and ran to the bridge. I will never truly believe what I saw when I got there. The men on horses beating men, beating women, if they saw a child they were trampling children with the horses!
Smith: All of a sudden, you hear all these sirens. Then all these ambulances started showing up to take people to the hospital. Remember, I'm a kid! I'm watching people get beaten with billy clubs and getting trampled by horses. Men, women, children, everyone. I remember seeing all these white shirts—at the time, the fashion for men was to wear white dress shirts—and everyone was so bloody. All those white shirts stained with blood.
Crenshaw: There was a barricade set up and I ducked underneath it into the group of people marching towards the beginning of the bridge. Basically, if you were black and on that bridge in any point, they were truly running you over. I ducked off to the side but a state trooper on a horse absolutely beat down this man who was trying to get away from the crowd. I couldn't find my sisters. I ran back to Brown Chapel to ask about them.
Smith: We just kept running, and all I could think was, "I just want to go home." A lot of people ended up going to Brown Chapel because that's where a lot of people were congregating.
Crenshaw: I got there and someone told me my sister had an asthma attack so they were at Good Samaritan Hospital. I went back outside and, God help me, the police started riding down the street. This wasn't the bridge, people weren't marching. They were running people off of their porches. Just wiping people out. A state trooper rode into the church on a horse! At that point, I knew they really just wanted us dead, they wanted to kill us.
Smith: That night, it was quiet. People didn't know what to do. Some people didn't want to talk about it. There was the fear of the unknown—would the KKK show up to our homes?—then the next day was a Monday. It's funny. Can you imagine all of that happening and then having to go to work the next day?
Wilkins: Here's the thing: There were so many people that joined up for the third march. We have a general idea of who was at the successful march but we don't truly know what happened to everyone from the first two. With all of that beatings and all of that going on, was everyone accounted for? It's not like they did a head count beforehand. That bridge only has a small railing and no real barrier to the water. Do we even know if anyone fell into the river? That bothers me to this day.
After the worldwide coverage of the events of Bloody Sunday, all eyes were on Selma. Demonstrations in support of the protesters raged in dozens of cities across the country, including New York City. A second attempt to march, now led by Dr. King, was thwarted by state troopers, fortunately with no casualties this time.
Smith: There was a second attempt that didn't pan out as well. Dr. King went on the news and said there would be another march attempt. That one had a lot more people. It was exciting. You knew this was going to be a historical moment.
Crenshaw: The men in the church and in the neighborhood were angry and frustrated after Bloody Sunday. They wanted to get guns and retaliate. I distinctly remember a person from the SNCC calming people after the second failed march and he kept saying, "You can't kill an elephant with a toothpick! If you get your guns, they're going to kill you. It's not the way. Please make no mistake, they will kill you."
The third march was a success. On March 21st, 1965, the group, now backed with the support of the United States government and President Lyndon B. Johnson, set off on their 50 mile journey, camping at night alongside the highway. Thousands met them at the capital, leading to a worldwide outpouring of support. The Voter's Right Amendment was passed that August. The citizens of Selma who lived through that time have a sense of pride in their place in history.
Crenshaw: We had a purpose so I knew I couldn't fear anything. I've been cattle-prodded, I've been beaten, called all kinds of names, but our purpose kept us going. We couldn't stop! I still haven't. When I graduated from college, I wanted to go back to Selma. I wanted the kids to learn to love themselves the way we learned to love ourselves during the movement. We started a program where we taught young black children, especially little black girls to live purpose-driven lives. We taught them it's ok to be black. It's ok to love your blackness. If you don't, who's going to do it for you? At the same time, have respect for everyone. Don't hate anyone and respect everyone, but love yourself first.
I got on the city council in Selma and have been there for 30 years. That's the thing about what we did back then: It's about being right, not being popular. You have to trust yourself. You're not going to be popular, because you took a position that isn't the norm. Even now in city council, I still get called outspoken. It's all good with me though.
[Image via Getty]