I’ve had Selma, Alabama on my list of places to visit for quite some time and was finally able to make the three hour drive from Atlanta in early December. Many of Selma’s Black history sites revolve around the Voter Registration and Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During my trip I was able to visit the Selma Interpretive Center; Ancient Africa, Enslavement, & Civil War Museum; Voting Rights Museum; First Colored Baptist Church; Brown Chapel AME; and Tabernacle Baptist Church. Check out the Noire Histoir YouTube Channel or website to learn about the places I visited.
History of Selma, Alabama
Located on the banks of the Alabama River, Selma was first mapped in 1732 with the name “Ecor Bienville” but the site was not settled until the 1800s. The city was renamed after a poem due to Selma meaning “high seat” or “throne”. Selma’s location on the river made it a stop for steamboats traveling through Alabama and several railroads passed through the city. The ease of transportation resulted in economic growth that made the city a power center in the state.
During the Civil War, the city’s industrial capabilities shifted to producing weapons, ammunition, and ships for the Confederates. The war boom created thousands of jobs but the city’s prominent role in manufacturing supplies also made it a prime target and Selma was eventually attacked by the Union. The city took several years to rebuild but the economy eventually recovered after the war with the population experiencing growth over the next few decades.
In the 1910s the city again experienced hard times when the local cotton crop was attacked by the boll weevil with small farmers being hit especially hard. In 1915, several local banks failed which wreaked economic havoc for many members of the local Black middle-class. As in other areas of the South, Black people were experiencing wide-spread violence. But, the anger and aggression of racists was made even worse by the economic downturn which motivated many Black citizens to join the Great Migration.
Selma, Alabama endured several ups and downs until the Voter Registration Movement and Selma to Montgomery Marches in the 1960s.
Selma Interpretive Center
Spread across three floors, the Selma Interpretive Center focuses on the events surrounding the Selma to Montgomery marches. You enter into the exhibit on the first floor and are greeted by multimedia displays featuring testimonials from people who experienced the marches both as activists and also the opposition. And not just the major well-known civil rights players but regular people as well.
Something that has always struck me is the prominent reference to Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Webb in the story of Selma. I appreciate the effort and the loss of their lives. But there seems to be a common occurrence in these situations where even in a Black movement where Black people are risking their lives many of their stories will go untold while the presence or loss of one White life can dominate the event.
The more I read the more I realize how little I know and how much more there is to learn. I never learned and also didn’t think to find out if some residents were involved with voting rights programs on a sizable scale before the marches. It turns out that the Dallas County voters League (DCVL) had been in existence and working to obtain blacks voting rights since 1933. But things shifted in 1964 when a judge passed an injunction to restrict the gathering of Black people in Dallas County and the arrival of SNCC and the SCLC in town.
The population of Selma, Alabama was majority-Black and it was important to the power structure that White people remain politically dominant. That was the reason for refusing to grant voting rights to Black people. Giving Black people the right to vote would run the risk of them changing the political landscape.
An interesting thing to know is that the use of children in the marches was a strategic move. Adults ran the risk of losing their jobs or possibly facing retaliation. But the children didn’t have jobs or responsibilities to worry about and could always return to school. To be honest my stance on the marches has softened if not changed with the more I read. I still don’t like the idea of children being allowed to march knowing that they’d face violence. Yet, at the same time, it was a desperate move to make things better which included their futures.
Studying the history of Black Americans specifically the Civil Rights Movement teaches you a lot about strategy. It’s like a long very complex game of chess but with actual lives at risk. Sometimes history books (textbooks in particular) can simplify things to the point where they lose context. Securing voting rights was not just about voting but about fair representation of the interests of the Black population. The Black population was the majority in some counties. Restricting voting rights limited Black influence over elected officials, laws, and other legal/political decisions. This helped to keep the White power structure in control while ensuring the continued subjugation of Black people.
There’s a trend throughout Black history of the rights and liberties of Black people being curtailed. Such was the case in 1964 when a judge passed a ruling which prohibited Black people from gathering in groups of three or more or being involved with 40 civil rights leaders who were considered unsavory.
At one point marchers were blocked in and prevented from leaving the area around Brown Chapel. This occurred after they gather to march in protest of the murder of Reverend James Webb. The group was confined within the area for 6 days until a small contingency managed to escape on the fourth day but were confronted by the sheriff’s deputies.
The Selma to Montgomery marches were the result of a chain of events rather than a pre-established plan. It began on January 22nd, 1965 with the Teachers March where 105 Black teachers from Selma planned to march to the Dallas County Courthouse to attempt to register to vote. The march had been organized by Rev. Frederick D Reese who was assaulted when he attempted to enter the building. The teachers made several attempts to enter the courthouse but were repelled by the sheriff. Though unsuccessful the teachers’ effort inspired other groups to organize marches.
Rev. James Orange a member of the SCLC organized a march for mostly students in nearby Perry County. This March also proved unsuccessful and Orange was held in a jail in Marion, Alabama. While under arrest a rumor that Orange would be lynched began to circulate. A meeting was held at a local church where 400 attendees gathered before continuing on a night march to Perry County Jail where Orange was being held.
Alabama State Troopers and onlookers blocked the path of the marchers and they were ordered to disperse. The march has been peaceful but the police began to attack not just the marchers but also members of the media who were present. Some marches were forced back into the church and held captive for 45 minutes. Others (which included Jimmie Lee Jackson) took shelter in nearby Mack’s Cafe. Despite not having a weapon Jackson was followed into the cafe by a State Trooper and was shot while trying to protect his mother and grandfather. He died a few days later from an infection and it was at his memorial service that James Bevel said what would become a call to march from Selma to Montgomery.
Just a few weeks later the first attempt to march took place with John Lewis and Hosea Williams leading 600 Marchers. They were violently pushed back and forced to retreat during what became known as Bloody Sunday. A court order issued the next day put additional marches on hold pending a hearing. That Tuesday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other clergy members as well as regular marchers again crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge but halted at the other side to kneel and pray before turning around.
The murder of a White Minister that evening resulted in President Lyndon Johnson endorsing the march and submitting legislation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The president’s endorsement and the arrival of federal troops cleared a path for another march. This one finally proved successful and resulted in the marchers reaching the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.
Ancient Africa, Enslavement, & Civil War Museum
I appreciate the intent of telling the history of not just Black people in the Americas but also the history of Africa before the slave trade. The museum features three major exhibits. The first exhibit focuses on the history of Ancient Africa and in addition to a timeline uses wood carvings and paintings to help tell the story of the descendants of Africa. The second exhibit I didn’t get but it seemed to be a hall of heroes. The third exhibit was about the Civil War and the racial terror of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan. The experience begins with a brief introduction which I was fortunate to receive from the museum’s historian Sam Walker.
Of the museums I visited in Selma, Alabama this was probably my least favorite but based on reviews other visitors seemed to enjoy it. I get what the museum is trying to do with the topic of Black history but felt the execution was off. This is not the fanciest museum and it doesn’t have to be. Honestly, it was drafty and smelled a bit musty but I don’t know if that’s an intentional part of the experience. The space also felt a bit too big for the content in terms of both quantity and scale. Some of the text items on display had typos and the photos were of poor print quality.
When I first arrived at the museum there was no one there despite it being during their business hours. I knew that I wouldn’t be returning to Selma so I decided to make an effort to see the museum. I visited their website and called one of the numbers listed for making reservations. The lady that I spoke with explained that she was out of town but would arrange for someone to come by and let me in. This wasn’t a really big deal as the museum seems to have a small staff, operates at least partially on donations, and the wait was short. To be most efficient, I would recommend contacting the staff in advance to schedule a visit so you don’t have to wait at all.
It turns out that this is the newer sister museum of the Voting Rights Museum. I don’t know their funding situation but hopefully in time, if more people visit and donate, the museum will be able to upgrade the presentation of the content to match the importance of the message.
Voting Rights Museum
The Voting Rights Museum is just open a few hours per day so I made it my first stop when I got to Selma. I’d checked the website which said that they were open during the week but only open by appointment on the weekend. When I arrived the building was closed and there was a sign which explained they would re-open later in December. I left disappointed but things ended up working out when I met Walker at the other museum and he invited me to return on my way out of town. I was initially put off because the building looks rough from the outside but this is a prime example of not judging a book by its cover because it’s well put together on the inside.
I love photography, especially portraits and photos of moments in time from the past. As Walker explained, one of the museum’s missions is to identify and document the “foot soldiers” of the movement. These are the regular everyday people who participated in the first and third Selma to Montgomery marches. Thus far the museum has conducted over 3,000 interviews with marchers and is also collecting casts of the footprints of participants in the marches.
There is some overlap with the Selma Interpretive Center but while there is some coverage of the Selma to Montgomery marches, the focus is more on the overall push for voting rights. Portraits and profiles of the individual members of The Courageous Eight (participants in the Dallas County Voters League who worked to obtain voting rights for Selma’s Black citizens) dominate one room. A section about women’s suffrage includes a sizeable collection of portraits of various female political figures. Off in a corner, there are exhibits about the protestors who were beaten and jailed, legal representatives who contributed to the fight, and a timeline of voter registration statistics.
First (Colored) Baptist Church
First “Colored” Baptist Church (also referred to as First Baptist Church) was founded by Samuel Phillips, a freed slave, in the 1840s. The physical church was built in 1894 by Dave Benjamin West, a Black architect. Beginning in the early 1960s, the church became a gathering place for members of the Dallas County Voters League. Over the next few years, the church became increasingly involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders of the SCLC and SNCC held mass meetings, classes on non-violence, and speeches.
Brown Chapel AME
Brown Chapel Church was founded in 1866 and joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Conference one or two years later. The current red brick building was designed by A.J. Farley, a Black builder in 1908. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the church served as a location for mass meetings although injunctions had been put in place to stop these gatherings in Black churches. Brown Chapel saw a flurry of activity in 1965 when it hosted meetings for the SCLC, speeches by notable figures, and was the departure site for the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Tabernacle Baptist Church
Organized in 1884, Tabernacle Baptist was intended for the use of the community’s middle-class Black citizens as well as Selma University students and faculty. The historic building was designed in 1922 by a member of the congregation, the Black architect David T. West.
Located at the corner of Minter Ave. and Broad St., the building was designed with entrances facing both streets. At that time, Black people were not allowed to walk or have addresses on Broad Street. As a workaround, West designed two identical grand entrances allowing Black congregants to enter the build with pride.
Several of Selma’s residents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement were also ministers or members of Tabernacle Baptist. The church opened its doors to the Voting and Civil Rights Movement by providing a venue for mass meetings including early events hosted by the SCLC and SNCC.
Visiting Selma, Alabama
When I drove through in December of 2019, a lot of the houses and buildings looked rough. Granted, Selma is an old city so many of the buildings, especially along the main streets are fairly old with some dating as far back as the 1800s. When you drive through some areas there are abandoned and collapsed buildings. Due to the city’s history of several railroads passing through there are railroad tracks and some areas are very industrial. I don’t know what the city looked like in the 1960s and this was my first visit so I don’t have any prior reference for comparisons.
If you choose to visit don’t prejudge the city based on its initial appearance. The people are very nice and friendly and there’s a lot to be gained from experiencing the city and its history. It’s an hour or so from Montgomery and there are about enough Black history sites to visit in a day. With a three- or four-day weekend you’d be able to easily visit Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee.
History of Selma, Alabama
- “History: Explore.” n.d. History | Explore. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.selmaalabama.com/explore/history.html.
- Lewis, Herbert J. 2019. “Selma.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. May 20, 2019. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1635.
Tabernacle Baptist Church
- Brecher, John. 2015. “A Tale of Two Entrances: Selma’s Tabernacle Baptist Church.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group. March 7, 2015. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/selma-50th-anniversary/tale-two-entrances-selmas-tabernacle-baptist-church-n319166.
- “Tabernacle Baptist Church.” n.d. BCRI. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.bcri.org/consortium/tabernacle-baptist-church/.
First Baptist Church
- “First (Colored) Baptist Church.” n.d. BCRI. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.bcri.org/consortium/first-colored-baptist-church/.
- “We Shall Overcome — First Baptist Church.” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al3.htm.
Brown Chapel AME Church
- “Brown Chapel AME Church.” n.d. BCRI. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.bcri.org/consortium/brown-chapel-ame-church/.
- Greer, Caroline. 2019. “Brown Chapel AME Church.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. August 6, 2019. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4123.
- “We Shall Overcome — Brown Chapel AME Church.” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al2.htm.
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