By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ The 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march is a year away, and both cities are making plans to draw big crowds for commemorative events.
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, County Commission Chairman Elton Dean and Alabama State University President Gwendolyn Boyd announced Tuesday that Montgomery is planning two big weekends of events that they expect to draw thousands.
Fifty miles away in Selma, a founder of the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, state Sen. Hank Sanders, said next year’s celebration will be the biggest ever, with more than 50 events being planned.
Officials in both cities are counting on a big economic boost from tourism. Montgomery is counting on a double boost because the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is later in 2015. “It will be a banner year for us,” the mayor said at a news conference.
The Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march began on March 7, 1965, with 600 protesters being beaten by law enforcement officers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march ended peacefully in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, with 25,000 people converging at the state Capitol steps to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The march led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened voting booths to millions of blacks in the South and ended all-white governments.
Dean was one of the marchers 49 years ago. He said he was a 10th grader at Carver High School in Montgomery and left classes to join the marchers on their way to the Capitol. “If it wasn’t for voting rights, I wouldn’t be where I am and other black politicians wouldn’t be where they are,” he said.
Boyd, president of a historically black university, recalled being a 10-year-old in Montgomery at the time of the march and seeing signs saying “whites only.” She got tears in her eyes as she, Dean and Strange placed a commemorative wreath on the Capitol steps where King spoke.
“It really is an emotional moment,” she said.
Montgomery is planning weekend events around the start and finish of the march. City officials are expecting more than 30,000 participants for the first weekend and about half that for the second weekend.
Selma’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee already draws thousands that fill hotel rooms in several surrounding towns. Sanders said the 2015 Jubilee will be March 5-8. Past events have attracted President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Bidden and President Barack Obama when he was a presidential candidate. Sanders and Montgomery officials said they are trying to get the president to return to Alabama next year for the commemoration.
Tourism focusing on Southern history is a big factor in both cities’ economies. In fact, a busload of tourists stopped to see the news conference by the Montgomery officials Tuesday. Sanders said attracting tourists next March will pay dividends for many years.
“Once folks come, they come back and bring their children, their grandchildren and friends,” he said.