Only 54 miles separate Selma and Montgomery, but that span changed history. A five-day protest march to Montgomery in March 1965 riveted the nation, and attracted protesters from across the globe.
When the marchers finally finished at the Alabama State Capitol, thousands gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. declare victory in his “How Long? Not Long” speech. The world was put on notice that the push for voting rights could not be ignored. And within a few months the U.S. Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
The marchers’ route is now preserved as the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail, complete with markers, visitors centers and memorials. With little development save historic markers, it’s a struggle to imagine the mixture of triumph and fear marchers would have felt staying here. But this guide will make the story come alive.
It focuses on the trail itself and the sites between Selma and Montgomery, which mostly follows U.S. Highway 80. You can drive the route in just over an hour without stops, but to make the most of your visit, plan on two to three hours for the trip.
The trail begins at the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma and ends at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. A few miles away, the Montgomery Interpretive Center on the Alabama State University campus offers more information.
Along the way, you can visit camp sites where the marchers overnighted, a visitors center and historic markers. We also suggest a detour to Hayneville, site of the killing of an Episcopal seminary student.
Although it’s tempting to walk the route, unfortunately, it’s not advised due to unsafe walking conditions along busy Highway U.S. 80, and the lack of services. Cyclists, though might want to check with the Montgomery Bicycle Club, which sponsors an annual bike ride along the trail every winter.
I like following the marchers’ route from Selma east to Montgomery, but many travelers will be starting from the east and coming the other way. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be covering the same path the marchers followed, and seeing the same scenery.
|If you’re traveling to Atlanta, and want to see Alabama’s most important civil rights sites, you can see them all in a day on a unique package tour. A marathon 12-hour tour with a driver/guide will visit the landmarks in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Tuskegee.|
Starting in Selma
The events leading up to the march are covered in our Selma guide. But it’s important to understand the context for this historic protest.
The march was more than a month in the making, beginning with the state police murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a local resident and protester in nearby Marion, in February. That’s what first led to a call for a march to Montgomery.
The march likely would not be remembered today if not for “Bloody Sunday,” the televised beatings, tear-gassing and attacks on marchers by white law enforcement officers on March 7. When those images flashed around the world, protesters and religious leaders began to descend on Selma to support the cause.
When the protest was finally allowed to proceed by U.S. federal judge Frank Johnson on March 17, the world was watching. And thousands of protesters began the journey on the morning of Sunday March 21.
For travelers starting in Selma, you cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings, and continue east on U.S. Highway 80, once known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the Confederate President.
Only a few miles outside of town, you’ll notice see a sign marking the first campsite where marchers spent the night. It’s not far from town because it wasn’t until late in the day that marchers – under the protection of federal officers and national guard troops — finally left the city.
Exit the highway to the right, and then take a quick left to see the privately owned David Hall Farm. Although you can’t visit, it does put you in the actual footsteps of the protesters.
Memorials, exhibits, and the Black Panther Party
The next stop is the excellent Lowndes County Interpretive Center – a must-visit to truly understand the significance of the route. The National Park Service site (shown below) has a design inspired by Selma’s Brown Chapel AME Church, where the march began. The center welcomes visitors with an introductory film and sets the scene for the march.
Interactive exhibits help put you at the scene of Bloody Sunday, and then on the historic five-day journey to the state capital.
The visitors center is built at the site of Tent City. This was the home of area sharecroppers, who were kicked out of their homes when they tried to register to vote.
Indeed, Lowndes County was a center of African-American activism, and became the home of a political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), which adopted a black panther as its symbol. Its advocacy for Black power influenced activists in Oakland, California, who adopted the logo for their new organization, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Shortly after leaving the center, another road sign notes the second campsite, the Rosie Steele Farm. The property belonged to a Black woman, who let the marchers spend the night. There’s no exhibit other than the sign.
Mile Marker 111 on the north side of the highway (the left if you’re driving to Montgomery) marks a memorial to Viola Liuzzo. (Some maps incorrectly show this on the south side of the highway).
The white Detroit mother of five was a volunteer, helping shuttle marchers up and down the highway. She was shot while driving a station wagon. Four Ku Klux Klan members from the Birmingham area were soon arrested for the murder. One of the alleged killers was an FBI informant.
A detour to Hayneville, south on County Road 97, leads to a memorial at the Lowndes County Courthouse, honoring Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student. Daniels died in August 1965, months after the march was over. He was defending a Black teenage girl, who was threatened by a state highway department worker. The worker pointed a shotgun at the girl, and when Daniels pushed her down to safety, he was shot point-blank. Daniels is considered a martyr by the Episcopal church, and is remembered as a civil rights hero by his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
After Hayneville, you can take County Road 21 back to Highway 80 to continue to Montgomery.
To see the third campsite, you must backtrack a few miles west (to the left) to the Robert Gardner Farm. It doesn’t have exhibits, but is marked with a sign. Then, you’ll take a U-turn to continue east toward Montgomery.
A concert at St. Jude
Marchers spent the last night on the outskirts of Montgomery at the City of Saint Jude, a Catholic institution, which housed the first integrated hospital in the southeastern United States. King knew the place well. His two oldest children had been born here years earlier.
During the march, the campus was the only place the thousands of marchers could camp in safety in urban Montgomery. The night was a scene of celebration, where Hollywood stars and entertainers, performed for the protesters in what was called the Stars for Freedom concert.
Those on stage included Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Dick Gregory, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Julius “Nipsey” Russell, Pete Seeger, Shelley Winters, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
A victory lap in Montgomery
There’s much to savor about that last day’s march into the former capital of the Confederacy.
For King, this was a homecoming to the place where he began his battle for civil rights a decade earlier with the bus boycott. The speech he gave on the grounds of the state capitol was one of the best of his career.
Then end your trip at Alabama State University, home to the National Park Service Montgomery Interpretive Center. As it notes, many of the foot soldiers in Alabama’s civil rights protests came from its Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
You’ll learn more at the adjacent Levi-Watkins Learning Center, which has several civil rights exhibits. King spent his first night in Montgomery on the campus, and used its library to complete his Ph.D.
If you are traveling with a group in Selma, consider hiring local guide Joanne Bland, who participated in the Bloody Sunday march. Her account of that horrifying day is riveting, and makes the history come alive. And Terry Chestnut’s tours frequently meet with local officials and former foot soldiers.
Or you might enjoy a three-day tour that visits Montgomery, Selma and Tuskegee.
Local tour guide Joanne Bland
And if you’re in Atlanta, and want to visit Alabama’s civil rights sites, you can take a 12-hour tour with transportation that will take in key landmarks in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Tuskegee.
The Coffee Shoppe This once-segregated diner is now Black-owned. (Its always busy drive-through was once used to serve African-Americans, who weren’t allowed inside.) Conveniently located a short walk from the Pettus Bridge, it’s a perfect stop for scones, sandwiches and, of course, coffee.
Downtowner A down-home favorite. Try the biscuits and gravy, and the peach cobbler. Open for breakfast and lunch, 1114 Selma Avenue, 334/875-5933
Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot Classic Southern favorites, where mac and cheese counts as a vegetable. 2115 Minter Ave. 334/874-4478
Tally-Ho An old-school steakhouse. 509 Mangum Avenue, Selma. 334/875-1390
Selma is a small town, and if you’re staying overnight, it’s important to book ahead. Except for the St. James, most its offerings are chain motels, which cluster along Highland Avenue (US 80), about two miles from the Pettus Bridge. Here are your best options:
The St. James Hotel This historic inn has by far the best location overlooking the Alabama River, and has just re-opened after a spiffy upgrade. If your budget allows, you won’t regret it. Book here.
Hampton Inn Selma A top-rated property with pool and free breakfast.
Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Located next to the Hampton and at a similar price point, you’ll find a pool and smoke-free rooms.
Quality Inn Selma A little less fancy, but still offers more than the basics, with a gym, pool and business center.
Comfort Inn Like the Quality Inn, you’ll get the basics, but still a clean, well-managed place to spend the night.
Great Selma AirBnB options
Although the hotel scene isn’t inspiring, Selma does have a nice collection of AirBnbs in a century-old renovated downtown building.
The five light-filled Woolworth Lofts are the most stylish places to stay in the city, with preserved stained-glass window accents, Keurig coffee makers, and coffee table books highlighting the region. The only drawback is the flight of stairs which would pose a challenge to travelers using a wheelchair.
Also, consider the Bridge Tender House, an 1884 Victorian one-bedroom cottage that literally overlooks the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Montgomery and Birmingham lodging
Many travelers find it easiest to stay in Montgomery or Birmingham, and then visit Selma while they’re traveling between those two cities. Here are some hotel options in those cities.
About an hour away, Montgomery is a great bet for lodging, especially since you’ll probably be visiting the city anyway. But lodging can be tight here during special events and when the Alabama legislature’s in session. Here are a few options:
Lodging can be tight here during special events and when the Alabama legislature’s in session.
Renaissance Montgomery It’s one of the city’s newest, busiest and biggest hotels, and most comfortable. Near the riverfront park and convention center, and walking distance to most sites. 201 Tallapoosa Street, Montgomery, 334/481-5000.
Red Bluff Cottage Bed and Breakfast For real Southern hospitality, try something homier. This five bedroom B&B features antiques and wireless Internet. 551 Clay Street, Montgomery, 334/264-0056.
Dwella at Kress on Dexter A newly opened condo hotel within walking distance of the major civil rights sites.
Literature lovers, English majors and fans of The Great Gatsby can sleep in the former home of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Two AirBnBs, located in the home Fitzgerald shared with his wife in 1931-32, include a record player with jazz albums and a sun porch overlooking the city’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood. Check out the Zelda Suite and the Scott Suite, which include a record player with jazz albums and a sun porch overlooking the city’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood.
The state’s largest city can see traffic backups at rush hour, so allow about two hours for travel between Selma and Birmingham. Here are some good options:
Elyton Hotel This newly renovated hotel occupies a former bank building, and has quickly become one of the city’s top places to stay. Its rooftop bar is a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
The Tutwiler – Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham-Downtown Don’t be fooled by the chain affiliation, this is a Birmingham institution, refurbished and updated for guests. Don’t miss the free chocolate chip cookies at night.
Aloft Birmingham Soho Square Technically located “over the mountain” in the city of Homewood, this trendy chain offers basic, but stylish amenities.
One of the newest area lodgings, The Valley Hotel in Homewood, has a terrace bar, restaurants and public art.
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