"54 Miles to Home": The Selma to Montgomery Camp Sites
There is a prevailing narrative about the Civil Rights Movement that focuses on the approximately 600 people who found themselves on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. On that day and in that place, they faced unquestionable violence, moments that have forever been captured in photographs and history books.
However, that event, now called Bloody Sunday, was not the entire story. Rather, it marked the beginning of a 54-mile march to the Alabama state capitol, a journey that included the extraordinary courage of David Hall, Rosie Steele, and Robert and Mary Gardner who risked their lives and homes to shelter and protect the marchers from numerous threats by the state and vigilantes.
In 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included two of the Selma to Montgomery March camp sites—the David Hall Farm and Robert Gardner Farm—on the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The two sites were listed not only to raise awareness of their significance, but also to draw attention to the need for stabilization and repair. The listing also emphasized the need for expanded interpretation of this significant landscape in civil rights history, including the stories of these families whose tremendous bravery helped to change American history.
Today, the sites are a subject of a documentary called 54 Miles to Home, which documents the bravery of these Black farmers in Alabama, and the threats they faced in the fight for voting rights in America.
For those hoping for a glimpse of these important historical sites, the documentary provides a tour of both the Hall and Gardner Farms which retain many of the original structures from the era of the Selma to Montgomery March when leaders and marchers found shelter there. Also featured in the documentary is the land belonging to the Steele family, and while no existing structures remain at this site, it is equally in need of additional interpretation.
To get an update on the preservation of these historic sites, and to learn more about the documentary, I interviewed Phillip Howard, Forgotten Civil Rights People and Places Program Manager for The Conservation Fund, and filmmaker Claire Haughey.
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Since the 11 Most listing in 2021, how has work on the project gone? What are some of the challenges you are still facing?
Phillip Howard: The 11 Most list has helped elevate the camp sites, both locally and nationally. It has helped us grow the list of partners from around the country who are interested in plugging in to see how they can support preservation efforts. Some of the challenges, specifically for the camp sites, is developing a plan to address heirs' property issues and dealing with dynamic family relationships, but the cool thing about working in this space is that even the challenges are fun.
What drew you to making a documentary on the Selma to Montgomery camp sites?
Claire Haughey: I started working on this project as a film fellow with the Southern Exposure Film Fellowship in the summer of 2021. Phillip Howard had already started working with the families on the preservation of both the sites and had approached Southern Exposure as a way to get the ball rolling on documenting their stories. During the application process, I heard a little about this story and it hooked me immediately. I couldn't believe I’d never heard anything about it. I think what really drew me in was that disparity between how incredible the story is and the fact that it’s so unknown.
I’m also particularly interested in stories that are at the intersection of different themes, topics, and issues. It was clear to me that this land and what happened there was a sort of nodal point between forgotten United States history, racial justice, agricultural, food sovereignty, and ecological diversity. And while I didn't totally understand the details of those connections within the context of these sites, it was something I wanted to learn more about.
What inspires you about this piece of history? Why do you think it is an important story to tell?
Haughey: As I was working on this film, I was thinking a lot about the American identity: What stories do we tell ourselves about who we are on a national level? Who do we build monuments for and what events do we turn into legends? There are certain stories that we tell over and over until they become a kind of mythology. I want this to be one of those stories that everyone knows, because it has so much to teach us about what it means to be a good citizen, neighbor, community member, parent, etc.
I’m also particularly interested in ways in which we can reframe and expand our understanding of conservation and environmental issues in a way that centers aspects of the humanities and reflects how humans are an integral part of the environment. There is ecological, agricultural, and historical significance to these lands. While the stories can live on without the preservation of the camp sites, the preservation of the physical sites have the potential to be critical teaching tools.
How did you work with the families to tell their story?
Howard: Working with the families to tell their stories was an amazing experience. It was the first time that the Campsite Families had ever shared their story together. For some it was the first time they ever spoke publicly. So building trust that we would allow their words to guide the process, and not our opinions was crucial. Once they felt they could trust Claire and me, it became such a moving experience, something I will never forget.
Haughey: Whenever I am working on a new project, the first thing I want to find out is why someone is interested/willing to be in a documentary. It’s such a scary, vulnerable thing to allow yourself to be filmed and to put your story (or your family’s story) in someone else's hands. I want to make sure that my intentions were aligned with their motivation for participating.
Before I came to Alabama, I had a Zoom call with as many family members as were available and asked them why they wanted to do this. What were they hoping would come out of it? Their answers had a lot to do with underscoring the importance of voting rights and not forgetting what was sacrificed and risked on a personal level to establish the right to vote. This is definitely a history that does not just live in the past, and our conversation got me thinking a lot about the consequences of forgetting.
Once I was in Alabama, I had to think critically about what the material of the film actually was. This story is really a collection of different family members' memories, which are at risk of being lost forever as people get older. So while I am somewhat resistant to making interview-driven films, that was really the best way forward. I told the families that as long as I was in Alabama (6 weeks), I would interview as many people as they wanted, which ended up to be about 19 people. I couldn't fit everyone in the film, but I was surprised at how many I actually did end up using. Since I had so many voices in the film, the audience really needed a guide (one consistent voice that helped them move between the different sites and family members). That’s when I realized Phillip Howard needed to be in the film.
Part of the documentary talks about the connection between then and now, particularly within the frame of voting rights. Can you talk about your approach as a director for pulling out that part of the story?
Haughey: Phillip said something to me early on that really stuck. We were talking about how divided and political everything is, and he said something along the lines of “how could anyone disagree that these individuals were heroes?” Left to my own devices, I would not necessarily have thought of this story as one that could be inherently unifying. So, I wanted to tell a story about forgotten history that could help inform our understanding of what is happening in the present-day, without co-opting the past to make a film about present-day politics.
The difference might be kind of subtle, but I think it’s important. I thought the way to do this was to keep things rooted within the family members’ individual perspectives rather than, for example, bringing in a montage of modern-day news footage about voter suppression. I knew it was important to say something about the consequences of forgetting, but I wanted to make sure that any statement about the present-day was from a family member and not imposed onto the film by me.
“This work is important because it changed everything for us all. This work is important because as a result America is closer now to that “more perfect union.”Phillip Howard
What is your hope for the camp sites going forward?
Howard: My hope is the same as the hopes of the camp site families, to assist the families in reaching the goals and vision that they have for the sites and help them to bring awareness to the amazing sacrifice that Mr. David Hall, Ms. Rosie Steele, and Mr. Robert and Mary Gardner made for us all.
Why is this work important to you?
Howard: This work is important because of the impact these people and places have had on the American story. You must understand that before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, scores of Americans were not allowed to exercise their right to vote. So that police commissioner who felt it was a good use of resources to use water hoses on children, or that governor who stood in the schoolhouse door, did not need to worry about getting voted out of office.
This work is important because it changed everything for us all. This work is important because as a result America is closer now to that “more perfect union.” These spaces allow us to touch history and losing them is not an option.
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