The interdisciplinary tandem mobilizes a group of Auburn Honorary College students to help extend the reach of the project to the social media arena, and they established a Facebook page where visitors can connect and help identify walkers who participated in one of the defining moments in civil rights history – Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, in Selma.
That day, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and a group of about 600 protesters were confronted by Alabama state soldiers armed with tear gas and metal batons as they began a march for the tie to Montgomery. The nation watched in horror that night on ABC as protesters were pummeled by law enforcement in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” an event that would serve as a catalyst for Americans to across the country to rally behind the civil rights movement like never before.
The researchers hope the public can help distinguish the identities of the brave men and women who took part in the march that day.
“Social media platforms such as Facebook provide public historians with invaluable tools for connecting with multigenerational audiences across a large geographic area,” said Hébert. “We have received critical information from former Bloody Sunday infantrymen and their relatives near and far as we build a comprehensive database of the names and stories of these protesters. Our Honors College students gain experience communicating with diverse audiences as we all come together to collect and celebrate the heroic sacrifices these infantrymen made at Selma on March 7, 1965. These learning opportunities will bode well for their future career endeavors as they help America build a diverse, inclusive and equitable society.
In addition, Burt and Hébert received considerable support from the community of Selma, particularly the Selma City Council and Selma High School. City council members were briefed on the Auburn-led project at a recent meeting and pledged their support and resources to help the business succeed.
“In fact, putting names on these faces is a game changer,” Selma City Council Chairman Billy Young said. “We are extremely excited to record history in this way, because for so long these men and women who have done so much have never had their name. It means a lot to Auburn and all the students and everyone to come together for this project.
“This project brings us back to the forefront of the struggle for social justice taking place in Selma, and to identify these people in this way is a great tribute to Selma. We are enthusiastic and very proud of the work that is being done, and seeing everything unfolding this way makes the City Council even more satisfied with our support and makes us want to support it even more.
The project will also be promoted by posters at Selma Dallas County Public Library, and photos from that fateful day will be on display at a November photography festival in Selma thanks to the efforts of Bloody Sunday walker JoAnn Bland, who self-identified in one of the historic images.
“I think it’s amazing, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” Bland said of the project. “It was the first time I saw a photo of myself, and I don’t think ordinary infantrymen are recognized for what we have done. Our kids know Dr King and John Lewis, but they don’t realize that ordinary people like me fought and didn’t give up.
“It brings pictures to life when you know [people’s] names, and these are images that must have captions and must have names listed with them. So many people have been left out, and a lot of people here have the blood of these history makers running through their veins and they should know it. “
Albert Turner Jr.—President of the Perry County Commission whose father, Albert Turner Sr., helped organize the march in 1965 — applauded the team’s efforts.
“I think this will be the most accurate depiction of Bloody Sunday that has ever been documented,” Turner said. “It will speak to the hearts of those who were there on Bloody Sunday, the march that changed America. The civil rights movement was built by ordinary people who felt the sting of segregation and being treated like second-class citizens, and these are the people who came together on Bloody Sunday, which was the most revolutionary act of defiance since the Civil War.
“I think this project will help give Perry County the national recognition it deserves for its role in founding Bloody Sunday, and over 50% of the walkers were from Perry County. This Auburn University-led project will help testify to Perry County and its dominant role in Bloody Sunday. “
Selma High School teacher Veronica Pitts even hired her AP history class to help move the project forward, particularly working on the social media component and enlisting family members to help identify the Bloody Sunday walkers. Pitts was first introduced to the cause of identifying walkers while working for the National Park Service before becoming a teacher. This project is therefore an opportunity to revive a passionate project from its past.
“I’m thrilled to be able to share this project with my class,” said Pitts, a Selma High School alumnus who has nearly 30 students in her class. “The most important thing was to try to convince them to ask some of their grandparents to help us in this process to identify some of these infantrymen. When this opportunity presented itself, it made my heart cry because I had the opportunity to return to a job that I had done nine or 11 years ago.
“We’re excited to get the ball rolling and see how much we can do this semester and the rest of this year. “
Burt, who also set up a study room that students can use for the project at Dudley Commons on campus, and Hébert were energized and greatly appreciated the wave of support the research firm has garnered this year.
“The project is really starting to take shape now,” said Burt, president of the McWhorter Endowed Chair and director of the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, who worked for years surveying and mapping the area where the historic confrontation occurred. “We have set up a study room in the exhibition space of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction at Dudley Hall. The space is open during normal working hours, and people are free to come and visit to see how the project is progressing.
The project recently received another boost when it was chosen to receive a grant of nearly $ 190,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH, to support a pair of weeklong workshops to include 72 K-12 educators in field studies that focus on the importance of Selma in the early days of the civil rights movement. These workshops will be led by Hébert and his colleague from the Department of History Elie Gaddis, and their team members also understand Junshan Liu, CADC, Leslie Cordie, College of Education, and Danielle Willkens from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the team is also working with professors from Alabama State University.
The overriding hope for the project is to identify as many Bloody Sunday participants as possible and, therefore, perhaps better understand the crucial civil rights event while elevating Selma’s status as a historic site.
“Our project highlights the need for additional historical research and documentation for one of the most famous moments in American history,” Hébert said. “Taking a fresh look at Bloody Sunday, our research uncovered rich details about the unfolding of the march that previous historians have overlooked. We intend to help those in Selma who want to do more to preserve and interpret the historic landscapes linked to this founding event.
“Today, the site of the historic conflict is in urgent need of historical preservation and interpretation. Hopefully we can form a coalition to save this historic site before it’s too late.