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[AL] Civil Rights Trail

Last sites purchased for Civil Rights Trail centers

News staff writer

MONTGOMERY - The last remaining sites have been purchased and contractors are being selected to build the first of three interactive and welcome centers on the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights Trail.

The trail, haunted by revenue shortfalls, infighting and legislative hurdles, is finally on the fast track after seven years of planning and work.

"This is something of international significance," said Lee Warner, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission. "The concern is not that it gets done immediately, but that it get done."

Visitors can see little more than historic markers alongside the roadways today. But interactive sites, exhibits and welcome centers will mark the voting rights marchers' route in about two years.

Planners have received $8.1 million in federal money and $3 million from the state for the project, but they are still seeking grants and donations.

In 1996, Congress designated a 54-mile stretch from Selma to Montgomery as the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights Trail. Beginning at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, the trail picks up U.S. 80 just outside Selma and winds through Lowndes County and into Montgomery's westside. It ends at the Alabama Capitol.

The trail traces the history-altering 1965 march for voting rights. The march was the impetus to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made it easier for blacks to register and vote.

Supporters of the project want it to move faster so interested people won't become discouraged and visitors will have reasons to come and stay awhile. But such projects are notoriously slow, said Catherine Farmer Light, National Park Service superintendent. The National Park Service is responsible for developing the exhibits and interactive centers along the trail.

"A lot of trails over the country have no real hope of coming on line this quickly. Some others have no hope at all," Light said. "In the park service world, it takes 30-plus years to even start thinking about seeing an interpretive center."

These centers will allow visitors to see, hear and react to events that took place at various locations.

Property has been bought in Lowndes County for the first interpretive center near a site called Tent City. Black sharecroppers erected tents there and lived after white landowners threw them off their land for attempting to vote. That center is expected to open in 2005.

In Montgomery, a piece of St. Jude Catholic Church's campus has been purchased for an interactive and welcome center to be built near the area where thousands of marchers camped out the night before heading to the Capitol. Negotiations are under way for a site in Selma.

A third interpretive center is planned in Selma. Two stations with bathrooms and snack areas and 54 wayside exhibits also are planned.

Like the march:

Organizers say getting the project to this point has been reminiscent of the march: tiring and long.

Black legislators fought over the years to keep money in the state budgets for the project. Some accused the state Department of Transportation, the pipeline for the federal money, of holding the money too long; and some original members of the planning team have pulled out, saying politics had taken over.

Riley Lewis Jr. said the desires of the people were ignored in Montgomery, where communities near the trail voted to place an interpretive and welcome center at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, where organizational meetings for the Montgomery Improvement Association were held. The association launched the bus boycott.

Instead of the crumbling and decaying Mt. Zion, the organizers have chosen the St. Jude campus and surrounding property for the centers, parking and related activities.

"This thing is just a mess really," Lewis said. "The old Ellis Seafood restaurant where the interpretive center is to go is not on the trail."

Lewis is threatening legal action to stop St. Jude from being used.

Light, of the National Park Service, said Mt. Zion was the second choice for the centers after St. Jude officials refused to sell their land. St. Jude reconsidered, and plans proceeded for that site.

"Mt. Zion will be mentioned. It is historic. But it is not a site the Park Service will put a whole lot of resources into," Light said.

The trail was hit by controversy before the first sign ever went up. Some legislators complained that state DOT had hired no black contractors for the project. After some political pressure, a black-owned architectural firm was hired.

After several months, it left with little notice. "That held things up a lot," said Alfedo Acoff, scenic byways coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

Other delays came about as new governors took office and changed department heads.

"It has gone slower than we all thought," said Joe D. Wilkerson, state administrator for the Federal Highway Administration. "When you change state administrations, things slow down. We think we've got it on track now. It's a worthy project. Good for the state and good for the nation."

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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