There is an old saying that one can never truly understand another person until s/he has walked two moons in that person’s shoes. This month, I had the opportunity to come closer to grasping a world very different from my own by walking the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery hike, although not the most scenic or topographically exciting hike I’ve ever done, showed me the power of walking to absorb a bit of what it is like to live in another region, to live in another era, and to care about something enough to walk for it.
My impetus to hike the Selma to Montgomery Trail was the 50th anniversary of the date that 25,000 Civil Rights marchers started their journey to the Alabama State Capitol to demand, among other things, the right to vote. As an Asian American girl who grew up in one of the most racially diverse cities in the US and now lives in Colorado, I can’t help but feel like my life is far removed from the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, many young people have a hard time relating to the Civil Rights movement, or really any part of history that doesn’t involve what was consumed for lunch. Because I am an experiential learning, I knew that if I was ever going to really start to learn about the Civil Rights movement, I would have to walk to even start knowing the right questions to ask.
As I headed on the S2M, I was admittedly a little worried about my safety. Before I headed on trail, I read and researched the history of the Selma, and admittedly, this trail looked dangerous. For one thing—the entire trail is a roadwalk along a highway with cars going at least 60 miles per hour. But more importantly, I didn’t know how Alabamans were going to treat me as I marched. I was equally concerned that White Confederate sympathizers would throw beer bottles or swerve at me with their cars as I was concerned that African Americans would be offended that an Asian American girl from California/Colorado would walk a trail honoring African American voting rights in the South. Call me naïve or ignorant, but essentially, as someone who had never been to Alabama before, I was imagining a world that looked like the 1950s.
When trail runner hit pavement, traveling at 3 miles per hour from Selma to Montgomery showed me that some things haven’t changed from the 1950s. Much of downtown Selma looks the same. In some ways, the poverty in Selma and the rural communities around it seemed worse than I could have ever imagined existing in the United States. I saw children with the worst dental care I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Yet I didn’t see a Confederate flag on my entire walk (save at the Alabama State Capitol) and everyone I met—regardless of their color—was excited and enthusiastic about the march.
A man who was missing quite a few teeth offered to buy us drinks once he learned what we were doing. We didn’t have the heart to ask a man who lives in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states to purchase us drinks. But maybe we should have accepted. Even those who couldn’t walk wanted to contribute to the movement.
By the end of the first day, my feet were telling me that this march sucks. Road walking sucks. But you know what else sucks? Not being able to vote. Not being able to use public restrooms. Fearing for your family’s lives or for your job just because you want to speak your mind. Like a true pilgrimage, there were aspects of the Selma to Montgomery march that felt like each step was payment for the rights that we as Americans take for granted.
What struck me the most is that the original marchers were not the type of people who went on long walks for fun. They were people who worked so hard they didn’t have time to exercise. They were people who were afraid to go out at night because of the KKK. At the S2M National Park Service Lowdres County Interpretive Center, I saw the shoes of a woman who had marched the whole distance. They were fancy leather sandals. People marched in their Sunday best—in wool and suits and bowler hats and collared shirts and ties—because they wanted to look good to emphasize the seriousness of their cause.
There’s something profound about walking a trail that was not created because people wanted to have fun and highlight cool natural features—a trail that people walked because they had to. While the physical walking on the S2M was not difficult, the emotional impact of walking the trail still hurts.
It became clear by the end of my hike that Selma to Montgomery is every American’s march. Not every American has to thru-hike or backpack or even dayhike. Not everyone needs to enjoy walking. But the S2M march allowed me to see the power of walking, not just to transform an individual, but an entire society.