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Wally on Wheels:  Wabash College Immersion Trip 2017

Selma and Montgomery, AL

Jacques Boulais ‘19, Niki Kazahaya ‘18, Rodolfo Solís ‘18, Arlen Taliaferro ‘20

With the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, all Americans, regardless of race, were granted the ability to vote. However, while blacks were legally entitled to vote, other barriers, primarily Jim Crow laws, achieved the disenfranchisement of blacks by mandating poll taxes, requiring literacy assessments, among other arbitrary practices. For one activist we met, Diane Harris, this would motivate her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

With the growing momentum of the CRM in the 1960s, activists began shifting their attention to voter inequalities. One prominent event was the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Following the final march, President Johnson would introduce a bill that ultimately became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One pivotal landmark behind the marches was the Historic Brown Chapel AME Church where we began our day in Selma. This church would not only be the starting location for the marches but was also an important safe-haven and gathering spot for activists. An overarching theme in MUS-204 has been the importance of music, particularly gospel, in promoting unity and boosting morale. This was evident when we ended our conversations with Diane Harris by interlocking arms and singing gospels.

Guided by Diane Harris, we walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday. In rows of two, we travelled along the same path that so many monumental figures walked before us, leaders like John Lewis, Dr. King, and Amelia Boynton. However, while this community served a pivotal role in the CRM, it was concerning to see the lack of embrace by its residents. Almost every historical marker near Brown Chapel had been defaced. Furthermore, many historical markers were recently erected, highlighting the community’s hesitation to acknowledge its past.

After exploring Selma, we drove to Montgomery. On our way, we made a brief stop to the Lowndes County Interpretive Center in Haynesville. We concluded the day by touring the Civil Rights Memorial housed in the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other historic landmarks in Montgomery, such as the Alabama State Capital where the Selma to Montgomery marches ended.

Brown Chapel AME Church

During our trip to Selma, Alabama, we visited the Brown Chapel AME Church where we were able to learn about the history of the movement and the chapel, and unite as one as we sang along to the words of a famous gospel – “We Shall Overcome”. This church served as both a place of worship and a headquarters, as CRM activists learned about the word of God, sang gospels and spirituals, and strategized their next move. Brown Chapel was the starting point in 1965 for the Selma to Montgomery marches, and on March 7, 1965, the Brown Chapel also served refuge for hundreds of activists who attempted to escape the terrors brought about by Alabama’s law enforcement.

Dianne Harris

In Selma, Alabama, we were able to meet Dianne Harris, a CRM foot soldier. She shared how she became involved in the movement, about her experience meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent figures (i.e. John Lewis), and her experience as a foot soldier. As a 14-year-old, Dianne and her 12-year-old brother sacrificed their school time and, most importantly, their lives because they hoped to see their mother vote one day.

Edmund Pettus Bridge

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL holds significance to the CRM because of the marches that took place prior to and on Bloody Sunday, Turn Back Tuesday, and the largest march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Walking down the Pettus Bridge was both disturbing and educating as we were able to vividly envision hundreds of innocent people running towards safety as tear gas travelled through the air and policemen fiercely rode their horses down the bridge beating anyone and everyone who they were able to get their hands on.

The Civil Rights Memorial, located in Montgomery, AL, is a circular granite table that contains the names of the 40 reported “martyrs” of the CRM, many of which who are excluded in the traditional narrative of the CRM. It is designed in a way that the granite resembles a clock, alluding to the years of hardships and adversity that African-Americans have had to overcome and endure. As an homage to the 40 martyrs, water gently pours over their names and Dr. King’s famous words: “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”