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US Cities Protect Civil Rights Heritage to Increase Tourism

This weekend, President Barack Obama will visit Selma, Alabama, to mark the 50th anniversary of a day known as “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, police officers brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators in Selma. The protesters were part of a campaign to get voting rights for African-Americans.

The incident in Selma led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act removed legal barriers that prevented many African-Americans from voting. The 2014 Hollywood film Selma is about the events of 50 years ago.

The movie is a sign of renewed interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. For years, parts of the southern United States had trouble dealing with the past.

Now, many southern communities are coming to terms with their history. They have taken steps to recognize what happened with hopes of appealing to visitors from across the country and from overseas. Many towns, including Selma, are adding historical markers, building museums, and fixing up churches that were part of the civil rights movement.

The images of police beating back peaceful voting rights protesters brought the world’s attention to Selma, Alabama in March of 1965.

Days after Bloody Sunday, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands in a historic voting rights march.

Lee Sentell directs Alabama's Tourism department. He says he hopes that tourists can learn more about the civil rights struggles and the people who were a part of the movement.

"Our job is to make sure that people learn about the story beyond just the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King made a lot of great speeches, because there were ordinary people who had a lot to lose, whether their jobs or their lives, and they demonstrated to make change come to the south, and the country and the world. “

Fred Gray is a civil rights lawyer. He recently spoke to tourists about the events of 50 years ago.

"After they were beaten back on Bloody Sunday they called me and I went over that same night."

Fred Gray and his wife founded a small museum in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1997. Now, it is one of several organizations in Alabama that provide people a look into the fight against racial discrimination. Mr. Gray says he hopes the state will create and maintain more civil rights landmarks.

"The state of Alabama, and particularly the department of tourism, now recognizes the fact that civil rights is an engine for economic growth and development. They see that people are interested, and that we need to preserve that history, and by preserving it and people coming in, it generates tourism."

William Bell is the mayor of the city of Birmingham, Alabama. He says over 200,000 people visit civil rights attractions in the city each year.

"I think, by looking at our civil rights history, it attracted people to come in and see not only the way we were but the way we are and the way we want to be; (it) will give us the financial support to really make sure that our cities grow and prosper."

Melissa Gray brought her family to Selma from Georgia. She says it’s important for people to understand history to avoid repeating history.

"Well, I think if we don't understand our history we may definitely repeat our history. It is so important for our children who do not have to deal with the struggle that my predecessors, and siblings and my parents had to deal with."

In Selma, residents are embracing this increase in civil rights tourism. They hope it will improve the struggling economy, provide more jobs, and help the city.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

VOA reporter Chris Simkins produced this story during a recent visit to Selma, Alabama. Ashley Thompson wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

historicadj. having great and lasting importance

landmarkn. a building or place that was important in history

preserve – v. to protect; to keep something in good condition

embrace – v. to accept

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