AUBURN, Ala. (Press Release) – Approaching Selma, Alabama, from the south on Highway 80, the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge looms large on the horizon as travelers begin the incline to cross the Alabama River.
Most drivers may not notice the 300-yard area before the bridge—now a dilapidated row of mostly boarded-up businesses long since shuttered—or even realize they are traveling through a historic site until they happen to catch a glimpse of the modest memorial park located to the bridge’s southeast as they head downtown. Two Auburn University professors—Richard Burt and Keith Hébert—are committed to changing that, as the four-lane roadway that heads toward the bridge was the site of one of the most seminal moments of the history of civil rights.
That was where, on March 7, 1965, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and a group of approximately 600 marchers were confronted by Alabama State Troopers armed with tear gas and metal batons as they began a march for equality toward Montgomery. The nation watched in horror that night on ABC as marchers were pummeled by law enforcement in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” an event that would serve as a catalyst for Americans across the country to rally behind the civil rights movement like never before.
A much larger group of marchers—including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lewis—eventually would complete the roughly 50-mile journey to the state’s capital city on March 24, but Bloody Sunday will remain a pivotal day in the annals of U.S. history. The event contributed greatly to the Voting Rights Act becoming law on Aug. 6 of that year and forever entrenched Selma in the history books.
For Burt—the McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction—that stretch of highway in Selma has sparked a passion project fueled by the desire to know more about what took place on that historic day.
“We consider this one of the most important historic sites in the United States,” Burt said. “When most people think about Bloody Sunday, they think about the bridge, but the actual conflict didn’t occur on the bridge. I don’t know if visitors who drive by there really get the historic significance of this.
“It is not just important to Alabama, it’s important to the whole U.S., and everyone in the world knows about Selma, Alabama. I think this site deserves some attention to tell its story and have its history chronicled in more detail.”
In 2016, Burt and his research team—which included Danielle Willkens, now an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology—began using historical photos and video footage, photogrammetry software, laser scanners, drones and design concepts and technology to survey and map the area where the confrontation occurred. Burt’s team has been able to identify and chart the location of everything from local businesses, vehicles parked on the road and Alabama State Troopers, to the civil rights marchers, spectators and media, including the ABC News van that captured the events as they unfolded.