Marching On for Selma

It has not been a banner year for civil rights. Some states have loosened voting rights protections, or infringed upon them. The president and his allies shamelessly stoked an anti-immigrant sentiment. Federal progress on criminal justice reform has stagnated, but organizations like Campaign Zero, Let America Vote and Immigrant Defense Project have led a forceful defense against these encroachments. Their actions continue a tradition of perseverance in the face of bigotry and oppression: a legacy celebrated in an upcoming race in Alabama.

And this time, we’re not talking a political race, but rather, making literal moves by putting foot to actual pavement.

Tomorrow, on March 24th, 53 years after the historic five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, runners and cyclists will attempt to cover the long stretch of highway in the first annual Selma to Montgomery 51-Mile Relay.

The race is hosted by Walk Jog Run Club, a runner’s club based in Anniston, Alabama. The President of WJR Club, Raynard Lawler says, “We wanted to do an event that would honor a significant part of history and allow our participants to take part in the history of our forefathers, while remembering those who died fighting for this cause.”

The relay will trace the original march almost exactly, complete with the same start and end points: from the historic Brown Chapel to the steps of the Alabama State capitol where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Our God Is Marching On!” speech. Team members will run in legs of varying length and elevation, trading off at eight pre-determined checkpoints along the road.

The event has attracted the enthusiastic support of community organizations, corporate partners, and city and county officials throughout the route. Organizing the relay took two years of thoughtful planning, but Lawler credits the club’s commitment to building authentic relationships with local people with what really got the event off the ground.

“Our organization started about eight years ago with just a couple of members. We participated in a few exercise boot-camps together and then started running,” Lawler explains. “We want to bring a lifestyle of health and fitness to a diverse group of people at all levels.”

When WJR Club looked into organizing races of their own, Lawler wanted to do something meaningful. Two years ago, Doretha Walker, an advisor for WJR Club, noticed cyclists had ridden from Selma to Montgomery and back to Selma: a loop totaling over 100 miles. Inspired, she suggested a run from Selma to Montgomery to commemorate the historic event.

At most recent count, over 40 teams of runners, walkers and cyclists have registered. WJR Club is expecting over 400 participants and volunteers, and Lawler is thrilled by the enthusiasm and diversity of the crowd. Teams of seasoned runners and casual joggers alike registered from all over Alabama and throughout the southeast corridor — from as near as Selma and Montgomery to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“Remember, this is our inaugural event,” Lawler happily states. “So yes, we’re very pleased and excited with everyone’s participation and support.”

And WJR Club plans to keep up this momentum.

Lawler and his fellow club leaders are in the process of creating a Civil Rights Race Series highlighting other nearby landmarks, and events are already on the calendar.

Additionally, they have partnered with community churches in Anniston, Alabama to organize an event to commemorate the assault on the Freedom Riders’ bus in 1961, and the club will also host an event in Birmingham near the anniversary of the 1963 16th Street Baptist bombing.

And Lawler, doing what he does best, putting foot to pavement, is speaking to community organizations in nearby states in the hopes of expanding the series over the next year. We have our shoes tied and are ready to run (or march)…

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