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Travels of history

Frommer’s, an international travel guide, has named The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail one of the “Top 12 Destinations in the World.”

It is one of only three locations in the U.S. on the list.

“What happened here in Selma in 1965 not only changed Alabama and changed the United States, it really changed the world,” said Alabama Sen. Hank Sanders.

On March 21, 1965, non-violent protestors marched along a 54-mile stretch of road to bring the issue of voting rights to the forefront of the American conscience.

It was their second attempt to march the route that begins on the cracked asphalt outside Brown Chapel AME Church in east Selma and ends at the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Just 14 days earlier, they were beaten and turned back at the south side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by armed police officers.

In 1996, Congress established The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail to commemorate the people, events and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March.

“I think it’s particularly important to be recognized for this,” Sanders said. “Because it’s truly something that people all over the world want to come to and see, and be inspired by and learn from. It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Selma-Dallas County Tourism Director Candace Johnson said the historic trail allows visitors to trace the path of history.

“It’s still one of the places where you can walk the streets where history was made,” Johnson said. “It’s going to bring people from all over; people that normally wouldn’t come to Selma are going to see us listed on that top site and plan their vacations around it.”

Selma Historic Preservation/Revitalization Coordinator Patty Sexton also said the recognition would increase the number of tourists to the area.

“You can’t pay for this kind of publicity,” she said.

Alabama Tourism Bureau Media Relations Director Edith Parten said this recognition could not have come at a better time. The Alabama Tourism Bureau will launch a campaign in 2009 to celebrate Alabama history.

“It is not only part of Alabama’s history, but it’s part of the nation’s history as well,” Parten said. “We just hope it will draw tourists to Alabama to experience their history, as well as our state’s history.”

Tourists can visit civil rights sites such as Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, The Lowndes County Interpretive Center, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and the Rosa Parks Museum as they drive along U.S. Highway 80 through Dallas, Lowndes and Montgomery counties.

The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is the only trail in the country also designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration.

Lauri Cothran, president of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, said the dual designation means more funding for the trail, but it also means more red tape.

“The benefit far outweighs the additional steps you sometimes have to go through,” she said.

There are plans to build two more Interpretive Centers along the historic trail, one in Selma and one in Montgomery.

The Interpretive Centers will contain photographs and memorabilia from the Civil Rights Movement, and they will provide hands-on educational opportunities for students in the Black Belt and across the state, much like the one that opened in 2006 in Lowndes County, Parten said.

“It’s a strong teaching tool,” Parten said. “It’s an education destination, an educational trail, so students that students, the younger generation can learn about that era.”

Sanders said The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is unique because tourists can meet people at the monuments and museums who actually marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into a wall of police officers armed with billy clubs and tear gas.

“It’s not just what you see, but there are people there who participated in the Civil Rights Movement talking with them,” he said. “It’s not easy to get that when you go to museums. I think that’s something great.”