As she walked across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Linda Van Hart of Westminster said, she could not hold back her tears.
For Van Hart, who was in the fourth day of a tour of civil rights landmarks led by Bernard LaFayette Jr., a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, the walk brought to life the events of March 7, 1965.
On that day, known as "Bloody Sunday," civil rights activists, or freedom marchers, tried to walk across the bridge - and were beaten back by angry people and armed Alabama state troopers. The marchers had planned to walk to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest the treatment of blacks when they tried to register to vote.
"Bloody Sunday gathered the attention of the nation to the atrocities in its heart," said Van Hart, a 54-year-old Western Maryland College art professor. "I cried because I was walking with Bernard and I was thinking of what it was like for him, as a young man working for voting rights in this town."
The bridge was the last stop of the Historical Civil Rights Tour of the South that Van Hart and four others from Western Maryland College joined the weekend of Jan. 5.
They saw the Birmingham, Ala., church where four young black girls were killed in a fire bombing. They visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where King, whose birth is commemorated today, his father and brother preached. They sat at lunch counters once marked "whites only" in Nashville, Tenn., and they stopped at the museum in Montgomery that honors Rosa Parks, who was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.
Before walking the four-lane concrete bridge, the tour participants visited Marie Foster, a Bloody Sunday marcher. Foster invited them into her home, recounted her role in the events, and showed the group a bright orange vest she wore that day to make herself more visible.
The vest is covered in signatures of famous black activists, among them King, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and Julian Bond. Over the years, many other people have added their names, including President Clinton.
As a 21-year-old student, tour leader LaFayette took a room in Foster's home and helped organize events in Selma. He often leads the historic tours, encouraging people to walk the bridge in silence, holding the hand of a stranger.
"You can almost feel what the people went through," said LaFayette. "This bridge is symbolic of the changes that took place. When we press the top, we feel it is a new day and things will never be the same again."
Power of living history
Such tours provide participants with a living history, said Taylor Branch of Baltimore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian and author. He marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery last year with a group of high school and college students.
"There is power in the phrase `living history' and being in somebody else's shoes, even in different circumstances," Branch said. "The experience connects back to a time of miraculous purpose, when ordinary citizens - people with no access to power - changed history. It was profoundly satisfying to cover that ground."
Western Maryland included the $400 tour, run by DDK Tours of Decatur, Ga., in "Nonviolence: Idealism and Practicality," a course the college is offering during the holiday semester break. Instructors Charles E. Collyer and his wife, Pamela H. Zappardino, of Uniontown expected the tour to give students a first-hand look at sites that brought national attention to the civil rights movement.
"We saw places where major things happened," said Rob Caswell, a 19-year-old Western Maryland College sophomore from Germantown. "We met people who are the civil rights movement, whose lives have been spent doing this work, people who are really this country's history. Things changed because ordinary people exercised what democracy is all about."
Said Van Hart, "As informed as we think we are from a scholarly point of view, I learned that it is arrogant to think we understand. I had epiphanies of enlightenment mixed with tinges of horror. Much of this struggle was about getting the right to vote in the face of brutal beatings and atrocities."
`Create justice for all'
LaFayette, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, asks tour participants to talk openly with those they meet who made history. Many of those visited along the tour were close to King, who led the civil rights movement.
After Bloody Sunday, King put out a call to ministers across the nation, asking them to travel to Selma for another march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, thousands led by King marched peacefully across the bridge and on to Montgomery.
One of last week's participants, 77-year-old Frank Wright of Westminster, returned with a message he said he would not find in the history books.
"Don't say that you feel guilty about what has happened; that's a waste of time," he said. "Do something for these people who are still struggling. This is our national problem. We must create justice for all."