Debra Barnes Wilson was 8 on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. She and her grandmother, Julia Barnes, joined the voting rights marchers, filing in at the back of the column, but turned back because the elder, an asthmatic, grew short of breath.
The girl’s grandmother, who raised her, lived in George Washington Carver Homes, across the street from the Brown Chapel AME Church, where marchers congregated before heading across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into what late civil rights icon John Lewis called a “sea of blue” — a phalanx of state troopers standing ready to brutalize the peaceful demonstrators.
She remembers the screaming and smell of tear gas as people ran back to the church seeking safety from the police. Many in the housing project — including her grandmother, no stranger to caring for freedom fighters — opened their doors to provide refuge.
Barnes Wilson didn’t realize it at the time, but she recalls seeing a bloodied Lewis, who had suffered a fractured skull and other injuries, loaded into a vehicle outside the church.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I was witnessing, but when I see old footage I have a flashback,” she told CNN. “I remember watching them bring that man out and put him in a station wagon because there was only one Black ambulance and … they were piling folks on top of each other to get to the hospital.”
It was actually a hearse, not a station wagon, and Sunday marks 56 years since the watershed civil rights moment. Barnes Wilson can be forgiven for faltering on the specifics, but she certainly remembers how Selma shaped her life and why the day is one of the most important in American history.
So when Barnes Wilson saw a story about Auburn University seeking to identify the 600 or so marchers who bravely joined Lewis that day — while working to restore dignity to the acres where they were beaten and tear gassed for demanding equality — she reached out to associate history professor Keith Hébert.
“I read an article stating that you and a colleague were trying to locate participants of Bloody Sunday,” she wrote in her email. “My maternal grandmothers and I participated in the March. … I will never forget the sights and sounds of the horrible day.”
A sacred place crumbles as decades pass
The story of Bloody Sunday has been told again and again. There are scads of recountings in textbooks and other tomes, oral histories, documentaries and even a big screen retelling packed with Hollywood stars.
Despite these remembrances, there are gaps, namely when it comes to understanding where the melee unfolded and who exactly took part.
“Till they get to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I don’t think (commuters) realize they just passed through where one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement took place,” Hébert said.
About six years ago, Danielle Willkens and Junshan Liu were doing work in Hale County for Auburn’s off-campus build-design program, Rural Studio. As they made the three-hour drive back and forth to Auburn, they’d pass through Selma.
Everyone knows the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River. Named for a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and the last Confederate general to serve in the Senate, it’s an integral part of the story, but it isn’t where the bulk of the conflagration occurred.
That began along a commercial stretch of highway about 300 yards south of the river, after protesters had marched through downtown Selma and crossed the bridge.
The area is today home to “intangible, quotidian stuff that would probably go unrecognized,” said Willkens, now an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s school of architecture. Once you pass the muted one-story National Voting Rights Museum and Institute and a sign pointing you to the historic trail off Highway 80, the area is, well, sadly unremarkable.
There’s a package store, a body shop and a curb market, but most of the stretch feels industrial and forgotten, as evidenced by the abandoned buildings with skeletal signs out front. What’s worse, Willkens and Lin noticed that each time they passed through en route to Auburn or Hale County, “things were noticeably deteriorating,” Willkens said.
There would be more broken windows in buildings. Facades were crumbling. Fasciae were falling apart.
“On the south side of the bridge, there is a mural to Bloody Sunday marchers, and we just kind of noticed that part of it was starting to come down,” she said. “Seeing this stuff right before your eyes put it in full focus.”
A scene is remade and lost voices summoned
Richard Burt, head of Auburn’s McWhorter School of Building Science, had noticed the same thing, so when Willkens suggested doing some survey work, he was game.
“I was kind of shocked by what I saw as well,” he said. “It’s an internationally significant historic site, and it’s not being treated as such.”
They decided to digitally re-create the area using images from the day, which in themselves were an unprecedented forebear to today’s thorough video- and photographic documentation of events, whether it’s George Floyd’s killing or the Capitol insurrection.
“The media exposed this horrific event to an American audience in a real, unedited, raw sort of way that really helped raise awareness,” Hébert said, noting that there is little photographic evidence of a similar march about two weeks prior in Marion, Alabama.
Burt and his team in 2016 began working on a 3D scan of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and surrounding area, using digital photogrammetry to find buildings that were there in 1965 and using utility poles, buildings, billboards, automobiles and other elements captured in the imagery to plot where people were and how they moved through the site. Burt had done similar work at Pointe du Hoc in France, where US Army Rangers scaled a cliff during the World War II invasion of Normandy. He considers Pointe du Hoc and Selma comparable battlefields.
The end goal was not only to memorialize the area but also to provide a teaching tool that would “allow you to step back in time and see what it was like,” Willkens said.
As part of that effort, Burt wanted, too, to commemorate the marchers. He, of course, knew Bloody Sunday presented a who’s who of the civil rights movement. In addition to Lewis, civil rights lions Amelia Boynton, Bob Mants, Albert Turner and Hosea Williams helped lead the march, but Burt wondered about the regular folks — seamstresses and brick factory workers who literally risked everything to take a stand that day.
He told one of his researchers, “Find me the list of all the marchers who were there on Bloody Sunday so I can start piecing this together.”
A search ensues for forgotten heroes
There was no list. There were the famous photos captured by James Barker, Spider Martin and Charles Moore, along with FBI photos. Reports from the bureau also included a list of people who were taken to the hospital.
Yet for all their courage and all the stories told of their heroism, most of the 600 or so demonstrators who walked undaunted into that sea of vicious law enforcement on March 7, 1965, remain unnamed, unheralded.
“We are not aware of there being a definitive list of who marched on Bloody Sunday,” Burt said.
Enter Hébert. The former Georgia state historian saw the immense value in identifying and commemorating those who were “really risking their livelihood, their whole place in the community by engaging in this,” he said, adding that his role in the project is to drill down to the “microscopic level, what neighborhoods they lived in. Where did they work? Were they from out of town, from other Black Belt areas?”
The group has teamed up with other educators, including a Selma high school teacher, and with Alabama State, a historically Black university in Montgomery.
In addition to scouring photos in hopes of determining who is this person walking by the Glass House restaurant or who is in this group being beaten in front of Haisten’s Mattress & Awning Co., the researchers also want to map their individual marches and retreats.
“Once we identify a name and the story behind them, we can track movements from Brown Chapel to the bridge to the other side to the state troopers and then the aftermath,” Hébert said. “Boil it down to the individual experience and commemorate the individuals … 600 men, women and children who participated in that march knowing full well the likelihood of what was about to happen.”
Hébert has added the effort to the curriculum. Some of his history students this fall will head to Selma for what he is calling “harvest days.” They’ll spend their time harvesting history in the hallowed hamlet of 18,000 people.
A daughter of Selma connects to her past
Once the pandemic passes, Burt hopes to get to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to collect more FBI photos and to the University of Texas’ Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which houses work by photographers Martin and Moore.
“The end goal of it all is to provide a much richer story of what happened there that day,” Hébert said. “It’s much more than just the bridge, right?”
Barnes Wilson certainly thinks so. Now 64, she finds herself sitting down with her grandchildren and recounting her experiences. The events of the last year, including Floyd’s killing and the racial reckoning that followed, have left her disheartened at times.
“It’s like we’ve taken 10 steps backward. I’ve been sort of disillusioned, but being part of turning Georgia blue has lifted my spirits somewhat,” said Barnes Wilson, who now lives in Covington, outside Atlanta.
She worked as a poll worker last year in honor of her Aunt Shirley, who she said “stayed in jail” as a result of her activism. Barnes, despite her asthma, also fought hard for African Americans, she said.
Her grandmother, who passed in 2008, provided safe spaces for civil rights warriors traveling to Selma. Many were afraid to patronize local restaurants and hotels, but Barnes always had dinner for them and a place to rest their heads.
The 64-year-old recalls her grandmother once nursing three Canadian ministers, who were suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis, back to health, as they feared going to the local hospital because they were part of the movement.
Barnes Wilson and her grandmother left Selma for Boston in 1969, but she will never forget her days in south-central Alabama. Inspired by her aunt, grandmother and others in her family, she engaged in her own neighborhood activism as a young woman in Boston, she said.
Recently, she was going through a box of her grandmother’s things and found the young-adult book, “Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior,” which brought back memories of her childhood, when she used to play with Sheyann Webb, who is now known as MLK’s “smallest freedom fighter” and coauthor of “Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days.”
When Barnes Wilson read the online article about Auburn University’s work in Selma, she knew she had to do what she could to fill in any gaps and ensure the story was told — and told well.
“Because it made such an impact on our people. I look at the doors it opened for my grandchildren,” she said. “Selma made me the woman that I am.”