The civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 are seen today as landmark moments in the nation’s history. Many of the images created during the heat of that month’s confrontations have become iconic representations of turmoil and triumph. (For more on this, see our blog post “Teaching Selma: A Civil Rights Struggle in Primary Sources.”)
Today, however, we look back at that March over a gulf of fifty years, bringing to bear different perspectives than those who first documented the marches. The later recollections of participants in the Selma events, as well as the memorials created by succeeding generations, also serve as primary sources, and allow students to examine the ways in which historic events are remembered.
For many of the longtime activists who fought for full citizenship for African Americans, the work in Selma was one dramatic part of a years-long endeavor.
The Civil Rights History Project brings together video interviews with participants in the civil rights movement, including veterans of the events in Selma.
The accounts provided by organizers and participants add depth and complexity to the story, allowing today’s listeners to discover the many different organizations and efforts that intersected at the marches, as well as sharing personal perspectives on the impact of the marches on the longer civil rights struggle.
The communities in which these battles were fought also commemorate the people and events of March 1965 in their own ways, as scenes of violence become sites of recollection and pilgrimage. Today, the route that the marchers fought to walk along is a National Historic Trail. The Edmund Pettus Bridge and has hosted anniversary marches by veterans of the movement. Downtown Montgomery is now home to a civil rights memorial center that includes tributes to activists who gave their lives during the struggle.
The story of Selma is one that has been told and retold in many different ways and at many different times, from the flashpoints of confrontation to years of reflection and revision. You might ask students to explore the ways in which time, place, and point of view can affect the ways in which the story has changed.
- What can you learn about Selma from listening to an account told by a participant that you might not learn from other primary sources, such as photos, letters, or news accounts?
- What freedom struggles of your own lifetime might someday be remembered, revisited, and commemorated the way Selma is today? How might perceptions of those struggles change between the time in which they occur and later generations?
Please share any insights your students have into the events in Selma in the comments.