The tribute paid to the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march from Selma was a momentous event for the state of Alabama.
President Barack Obama visited the city and helped honor the work and struggles of the activists fighting for equal civil and voting rights. Many Troy University students, faculty and staff also were a part of that historic celebration.
While many visited Selma on March 7 to hear President Barack Obama speak, the Office of Student Services organized two buses to take students to Selma on March 8.
“Being it the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the bridge crossing, we wanted to be involved in the process of providing transportation for our students to experience that moment,” said Derrick Brewster, assistant dean of student services.
According to Selma police reports, an estimated 70,000 people were in the city on March 8. Forty-six Troy University students, faculty and staff were among the crowd that filled U.S. Route 80.
Students were able to cross the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge just as Martin Luther King Jr. and other marchers had 50 years ago, as did President Obama the day before.
The president spoke on the issue of race relations, saying that things have changed since the time when protesters were met with violence.
“It was an amazing experience being able to hear the president of the United States, especially in a state like Alabama that doesn’t often get presidential visits,” said Maranda Mitchell, a senior political science major from Jasper.
Mitchell said that she had to arrive early in the morning to stand in line, even though the president wasn’t scheduled to speak until 1:30 p.m.
“It was interesting to hear why everyone had come that day and see all of the historical buildings in Selma,” she said. “And once we were in the area to hear the speech, there was such a sense of excitement and unity amongst the crowd.”
The march across the bridge began at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the same place it originated 50 years prior. Troy University students walked several miles down Martin Luther King Street, onto U.S. Route 80, and over the Alabama River.
Other attendees included Selma residents, students, civil rights activists, protest groups, city officials and others who were simply taking in the moment of being surrounded by history and by thousands of people.
Several protesters, calling for police reform and less criminalization of young African-Americans, could also be seen. Several parties demanded immigration reform; others, women’s rights.
Many signs and shirts championed the common phrases associated with current racial issues, such as “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” or “Black lives matter.”
Not all protesters marched across the bridge. Many gathered signatures on the street among the crowds and street vendors.
Many of Troy’s international students, who despite not having grown up hearing stories of racism in the American South, also eagerly participated in Selma.
Tra Vu, a freshman marketing major from Hanoi, Vietnam, said that walking through the bridge with hundreds of people was an “unforgettable memory.” She also found the trip a learning opportunity about different facets of the civil rights movement.
“I was impressed by many women in white dresses and shoes,” Vu said. “Later, I figured out that it was similar to the book ‘The Help,’ like it was their uniform when they worked as the help. So they dressed up like that to memorialize this occasion.”
For American students like Mitchell, the Selma march still holds a lot of relevance, as race issues are still relevant despite the progress made.
“I believe one of the speakers said we need to get on the bridge, cross the bridge and continue doing the work,” she said.
Despite the continuing problems, Mitchell said that she gained a sense of pride for her home state because, although Selma is a small town, it played a significant role in the progress of the civil rights movement.
Brewster said that he thought students were able to gain a lot of knowledge in terms of history and to learn what each individual needs to “put in to get to where we want to be.”
He also said that the personal experience of being in Selma with his wife and son was great for him. “And just to see that many people within that one location was pretty awesome,” he said.