SELMA, Ala. (WSFA) - Two Auburn University professors are working to preserve the historical significance of the area near Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 event that became known around the world as “Bloody Sunday.”
Professors Richard Burt and Keith Hébert have started a passion project to save what they consider to be “one of the most important historic sites in the United States.” The project focuses not on the bridge itself, but the area encompassing some 300 yards of space just before it.
Today, the area just before you drive or walk over the Alabama River via the world famous bridge looks much different than it did 56 years ago. Once a bustling area of town commerce, it fell on hard times decades ago and, in many instances, the buildings are now boarded up or vacant.
It was in this area, not on the bridge, where the fight for freedom came to actual blows on March 7, 1965.
“When most people think about Bloody Sunday, they think about the bridge, but the actual conflict didn’t occur on the bridge,” explained Burt, the McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction at Auburn University. “I don’t know if visitors who drive by there really get the historic significance of this.”
Burt’s passions turned to action back in 2016 when he, along with his team, began sifting through historical photos and video footage from that fateful day. That progressed into use of photogrammetry software, laser scanners, and even drones to map the area.
Like detectives recreating a crime scene from long ago, Burt’s team has recorded many details about the area in front of the bridge on that day. Those include where marchers, Alabama State Troopers, and spectators were standing. They’ve determined details about the businesses in the now-dilapidated buildings, even the location and position of news vehicles covering the historic event.
The results? They’ve developed schematics and computerized plans of the area as a way of preserving what Hébert refers to as “Ground Zero for the civil rights movement.”
“I think the power of this project is that it started off using science on the survey and architecture side and is moving to the historical aspect going forward,” Burt explained. That’s evidenced by Hébert’s involvement starting in 2017.
A member of the Auburn University Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts, Hébert adds another level of depth to the project, the human element.
“People still come to Selma to look at the bridge and the monument and reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” he explained, “and the bridge is an excellent metaphor for that.”
Now, the team wants to raise funds to move into the next phase of their research, the task of locating and identifying, by name, the hundreds of people in the crowds that day.
“We don’t believe there’s a definitive list of marchers that matches marchers’ names to the photographs and where they were on Bloody Sunday,” Burt stated. “So, we’ve started that process.”
While it’s true that prominent figures are known to history, men like John Lewis, who was beaten but later became a powerful congressman, there are many ordinary people who decided to march that day but whose names are not etched in history books.
The ultimate goal is to “give names to the nameless,” according to Burt.
The project they’ve managed to complete so far has come through extensive work with the Alabama Department of Archives and History, other historians, as well as media outlets and researchers.
“In some ways we’ve come a long way since 1965 in Selma,” Hébert explained, “but in other ways, we still have a long way to go.” He added, “I’ve learned something every time I’ve come to Selma about humanity and civil rights and things like that. And so, it’s good to be out in the community.”