There's not as much nature to see in the deep south. One would accordingly expect there to be fewer NPS sites in the area. But one surprising thing I've learned is the breadth of historical sites that the NPS protects. A lot of these are in the south.
Despite its wondrous waters, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas seemed to emphasize the social history of the region--the story of the shifting relationship humans have had with the land, rather than just the land itself. And yesterday, I'd seen Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which preserved the symbolism of the locus of our first effort to integrate public schools post-Brown.
Today would be the third in a string of days seeing such historical sites. Finally making it into Alabama, I ran part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which memorializes the 54-mile march made in 1965 by 4,000 African Americans who were fighting for the right to vote.
I was grateful to have had the opportunity to catch up with my good friend, Nathan B., who had hosted me the night before in Jackson, Mississippi. I was perhaps even more grateful for the chance to see Manny, who missed me just as much as I'd missed him. Nathan was off to work before I woke up, and instead I woke up to see Manny staring at me, and then playing with my phone and laptop.
I hit the road at 9:30 a.m., which was far later than I'd hoped to hit the road (self-discipline goes down the drain when I'm staying with friends in cities). I followed a truck that reminded me of my friend (his last name is prominently displayed), and made the push for Selma.
I could easily tell when I'd made it to Selma. The Edmund Pettus Bridge--that symbol of the civil rights era--was right there in front of me. It was a picture-perfect day. Hot and humid, but glorious nonetheless.
As usual, I made my way to the NPS visitor center in downtown Selma. It had only been built a couple years ago, and was still a work in progress, but I was able to find the answer to a question I'd had for the past few days: how much of a trail was the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail? The Ranger confirmed one of my fears: there was no actual "trail"--the National Historic Trail was simply U.S. Route 80. And that highway, I learned, had no sidewalk and practically no shoulder. This made me a bit nervous, but I wasn't about to do something different. I set out to run on the National Historic Trail.
I began at the Brown Chapel AME Church. This is where the marchers began. But it was more than that; for a period of time, this church served as the homebase for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In front of the chapel were various markers dedicated to Dr. MLK. I explored the site, checked all my gear, and set off to run towards Montgomery.
A mile into my run, I was on the Selma side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Bridge, and the gentle Alabama River flowing beneath it, seemed exceptionally serene. Who would've thought that this was the site of "Bloody Sunday" almost exactly 50 years ago? As I reflected on that history, I crossed the bridge.
On the other side, I recognized the location where the stand-off between marchers and police turned violent. Too much blood had been spilled here on March 7, 1965.
There were more plaques and memorials on this side of the bridge. I also saw Selma's welcome sign.
One wouldn't really be able to tell from the surroundings the history of the place. It all felt a little bit drab, as if someone had done a half-assed job of memorializing what had happened here.
And then I began the real run. I was on U.S. 80, and I was headed to "Campsite 1", the farm where the marchers ended the first of their five days of marching. I wish I could say it was an uplifting, energizing run. In reality, I was kind of scared for my life. The road had no sidewalk, and practically no shoulder. And the cars were whizzing by at 60 miles per hour. Any time I saw a car in the outside lane, I stepped off the foot-wide shoulder and onto the bumpy thick grass. While running, I tried to imagine the courage it took for those marchers to begin--let alone complete--that march. Those marchers had far scarier things to confront than speeding cars.
After about 90 minutes, I made it to Campsite 1. I'd covered the distance the marchers had covered in their first day. But now I had to turn around and head back (I didn't have the time or the support crew to do the full 54-mile run to Montgomery).
Even though the sun was setting, the heat and humidity seemed only to get worse. I'd underestimated the weather, and had completely drained my Camelbak. On the way back, I'd have my own (hydration) struggle. The last 2-3 miles back into Selma involved cramping, and the onset of lightheadedness. But I eventually made it back. I passed by what appeared to be a student mural of some kind, with a message that I couldn't agree with more.
As I crossed back over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, I looked back one last time.
By now, the sun was really about to set. The serenity of the Alabama created a mirror that amplified the beauty of this day's sunset.
As I returned to Selma, the Bridge glowed red as the setting sun's rays hit it from a very low angle. It was beautiful.
I was absolutely parched, and absolutely famished. Thankfully, I was off to meet (and stay with) another law school classmate, Jeanne S., this time in Montgomery. I hustled into town, where we (including another law school classmate, Jonathan A.) caught up over pizza and beers. Both Jeanne and Jon were working at the Equal Justice Initiative, one of the most important civil rights organizations of our time.
Running the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail today wasn't the most exciting or scenic experience, but it was one of the more meaningful. And it was great to be able to talk about that experience with two classmates who were continuing to fight the good fight--day in, day out. Physically, I was sapped; mentally, I was rejuvenated.