MONTGOMERY, Alabama — With the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march coming up next year, the National Park Service has chosen Alabama State University as one of the locations for exhibits honoring the historic 1965 march and its impact on American government.
The park service and university President Gwendolyn Boyd signed a memorandum of understanding Monday for the construction of an interpretive center on a grassy lawn next to the university's new football stadium.
"The purpose of this edifice is to tell the Montgomery story of the historic march and, indeed, of the noble and peaceful quest and campaign for voting rights and equal justice under the law," Boyd said.
On March 7, 1965, marchers set out from Selma to seek voting rights for disenfranchised blacks. The marchers were beaten by law enforcement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in what became known as "Bloody Sunday." The beatings outraged the nation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil leaders went to Selma and began the march again, this time with federal protection. About 25,000 marchers arrived at the state Capitol in downtown Montgomery on March 25, 1965. The march led Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern polling places to blacks and ultimately ended all-white governments in the South.
In 1996, Congress approved the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail and authorized three interpretive centers. Centers are already open in Selma, where the march began, and in White Hall, the halfway point of the 54-mile trail. The White Hall center gets about 10,000 visitors annually and the Selma center about 6,000, park service officials said.
Several sites in Montgomery competed for the final center, including the City of Saint Jude, the Roman Catholic campus where many marchers spent the night before finishing the march at the state Capitol on March 25, 1965. Officials said community support and resources led to the selection of Alabama State.
Gwendolyn Patton, who was one of the marchers 50 years ago, said she supported the selection because many Alabama State students and faculty participated in the march and provided housing for marchers.
Boyd said the university is receiving $2 million in federal funds to build the center, and Trail Superintendent Sandra Taylor said the park service will supply about $3 million in exhibits. Groundbreaking is scheduled for September on a facility that will be at least 15,000 square feet, and completion is expected in about 18 months. Park service officials said an interpretive center is different from a museum because it sets the stage for people to see historic sites and is not the end destination for tourists.
While the center at Alabama State won't be ready for the 50th anniversary of the march, it will join a corridor of historic attractions on or near the Alabama State campus, including the home of civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, the home of entertainer Nat King Cole, and the parsonage where Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956.