I ate lunch at the charmingly renovated riverfront St. James Hotel (1200 Water Avenue, right near the bridge). This place was popular with slaveholders perhaps even with Mr. Howell Rose, who "owned" my great-great-grandfather in nearby Wetumpka, Alabama. I wondered what he'd think of me sitting there now. Or of Selma's African American mayor, James Perkins, Jr.
Day Five: Selma to Lowndes County and Tuskegee, Alabama; return to Atlanta
(U.S. 80 East to U.S. 29 or Interstate 85 North; approximately 210 miles)
The civil rights marchers who walked from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 camped on various black-owned farms, and signs along Highway 80 point them out. But another memory overtakes me along the way. Forty-three miles of this "freedom trail" (so designated by the National Park Service) pass through Lowndes County. During the march, a small group of my fellow SNCC organizers, including Stokely Carmichael, slipped into the area to begin a voter registration campaign. This work resulted in a political party the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and the symbol of that party was a black panther.
Shortly before his death in 1998, Carmichael reflected on the reaction to the panther symbol. "Some thought the symbol might be too aggressive, but when we explained to folks that the panther was powerful but avoided attacking humans unless provoked, they liked that." A volunteer with the group brought that Alabama panther back home to Oakland, California and to the attention of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Soon the Black Panthers were a national presence.
Lowndes County is as rural now as it was then. There are still people living without sewers or septic tanks; a third of the county's 13,500 residents live in mobile homes. "History could very well be our economic lifeline," says Bob Mants, an Atlanta native who came to Lowndes to organize voters nearly 40 years ago and never left. On the campgrounds that civil rights marchers once used, Mants envisions historic tours, hiking and exercise trails, and produce markets for area farmers.
Heading back toward Atlanta, there is time for a quick stop at Tuskegee University founded in 1880 for black students under its first president, Booker T. Washington. Nearby is Moton Field, where the famed black Tuskegee Airmen learned to fly. You are just two hours from Atlanta. Still plenty of time to reflect on freedom and to whisper a prayer of thanks for the people who make it.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., is senior correspondent for All Africa Global Media.