Voices from the past speak in Selma

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The “Voices of Civil Rights Bus Tour” rolled into Selma on Monday looking for the unsung heroes and heroines of the Voting Rights Movement in the area.

“We’re trying to reach those civil rights activists who weren’t recognized and who might not realize they have a story to tell. We hope that they’ll take this opportunity to become a part of recorded history so future generations might hear their stories,” said Ruth Rambo, AARP Alabama associate state director who is in charge of the tour in Alabama.

The organizers of the 70-day, 22-state, 35-city tour are collecting the stories of the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement and Selma is a field ripe for the harvest.

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The tour commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act passed in July 1964 and was kicked off on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 3. The tour will end in mid-October in Las Vegas.

According to materials prepared by the project, stories are being collected from those who worked to secure civil rights before, during the ’50s and ’60s, and since.

Not only are African-Americans being sought, but also Native Americans, Asian-Americans, women and others – all those participating in the movement for civil and human rights down to the present.

A group of professional journalists and videographers are receiving the stories using video, audio, computers and hand-written accounts. Individuals may also write their own accounts and type them into a computer and send them directly to the project’s Web site www.voicesofcivilrights.org. Seven journalists were on the bus when it reached Selma on Monday.

Nearly 2,000

stories have been submitted thus far and all stories received are archived in original form, digitally duplicated and stored electronically.

When complete, the collection of previously unpublished accounts will be housed permanently in the Library of Congress.

The project is sponsored by AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Library of Congress. Also participating is The History Channel which plans to air a documentary

on Voices of Civil Rights in February 2005.

The large bus carrying journalists and others was at the foot of the Pettus Bridge in the Voting Rights Memorial Park from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday.

Rambo and Joan Carter, Alabama AARP director, were present and spoke to those gathered. Also speaking were Mayor James Perkins Jr.; the Rev. F.D. Reese, one of “The Courageous Eight” who were principal

leaders in the Selma Voting Rights Movement; Lydia Chapman of Radio Station WBFZ 105.3; Joann Bland, executive director of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute; Theresa Burroughs, head of the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro;

the Rev. James Jackson, pastor of Brown Chapel AME Church; and Lawrence F. Huggins, who was a leader in organizing Selma teachers for voting rights.

Carter said that the group was hoping to interview 15-20 Selmians who had been part of the Voting Rights Movement.

Perkins briefly welcomed those gathered for the Selma stop, and expressed his strong support for the bus tour and the gathering of stories.

Bland noted that the National Voting Rights Museum has been conducting an oral history effort since the 1980s and considers itself “a foot soldier museum.”

Reese spoke extensively about events leading up to the invitation to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to Selma to support the movement for Voting Rights. Reese was president both of the Dallas County Voters Leagues and the Selma Teachers Association at the time. He followed with a vivid account of the “Bloody Sunday” march and the march to Montgomery in March 1965, culminating in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965.

Chapman, calling herself a “card-carrying member of the Hip-Hop Generation,” spoke of the importance of the older generation of activists telling their stories to young people, many of whom know nothing about the struggles.

Burroughs told her story as a young woman who attended the annual meeting of the Hale County Historical Society. That event led to a confrontation with the president who said to her, “Black folk need to tell their own story,” when she questioned him as to why no African-Americans were mentioned in his history of the county.

That became the theme for her life work – the building of a museum, she said.

Jackson was a student at Selma University at the time and spoke of his and fellow students’ decision to get involved and some of their activities, saying how he could never have dreamed he would someday be pastor of Brown Chapel church.

Huggins, who has been a volunteer at the Voting Rights Museum for many years now, told of his being put off a bus in North Carolina, while trying to return to college in Washington, D.C. That became his moment of recognition which led to his resolve later to become deeply involved in the teachers’ movement to support voting rights.

While the dramatic incidents on the bridge and elsewhere where certainly important, he reminded those gathered, the local

focus was always the courthouse and the board of registrars. “Our main goal was to get voters registered,” he said.

The project has inspired national TV and radio specials, museum exhibits, community events and the book “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience” (Sterling, 2004) by journalist Juan Williams.

The tour passed through Birmingham on Saturday and Montgomery on Sunday, and is headed for Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 19.

For more information about the Voices of Civil Rights project call 1-866-542-8167.