From Selma to Montgomery, a race that remembers the historic march of 1965

The 51-mile Selma to Montgomery Relay mirrors the route of the Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965. Devonta Lamond Photography

Sheyann Webb was only 8 years old in 1965, but she knew that something of major consequence was brewing in Selma, Alabama.

"Growing up in the midst of racial discrimination, it was clear to me that black people weren't given their proper rights," she recalled. "I was an inquisitive little girl. I used to always ask, 'Why couldn't we eat in that restaurant? Why are they eating in a nicer place? Why can't we go to this particular store?'"

Webb began sneaking out of her house to attend meetings at the local church, and she marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march required multiple attempts. During the first, on March 7, 1965, state and local police attacked and tear-gassed about 600 unarmed, peaceful marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Seventeen people were injured, and the event became known as Bloody Sunday.

On March 21, 1965, flanked by members of the Alabama National Guard, the marchers began what would be a successful attempt to complete their journey. They marched for five days along U.S. Highway 80, the men donning three-piece suits and the women in their best dresses and high heels. They camped at night along the way, and by the time they reached the capitol steps in Montgomery, it was estimated that they were more than 25,000 strong. Their effort led directly to one of the most monumental achievements of the civil rights era: the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voter registration.

"You really had to be there to get that deep, embedded spirit that exuded from all the people who were there," Webb said. "It wasn't ordinary for just anyone to join [the civil rights movement]. You had to have courage because it was very risky on many levels. It was risky for my parents, losing their jobs, many people losing their lives."

Last Saturday, Webb spoke at the beginning of the second-ever Selma to Montgomery Relay, a 51-mile race in which approximately 250 runners and cyclists traced a route nearly identical to the civil rights march that took place 54 years ago.

"You know that the struggle is not over," Webb said to the racers. "I look at the commitment you all have -- walking, running, biking -- and when you start your walk, when you start your run, I want you to think about all of those people who died and bled. I want you to think about yourselves, your children, your grandchildren and their future. Most of all, I want you to think about the service that you can continue to give with the same commitment that you have on your runs. There's a quote from Dr. King that has always been with me. He said that everyone can be great because everyone can serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."

Webb's words were followed by jubilant, spontaneous dancing before the start of the race at 6 a.m. in downtown Selma, followed by the footfalls of runners and the whisk of bike tires along the race route. Athletes of all abilities, races, ages and backgrounds traveled from across the country to participate. Former Marine-turned-marathoner Shalisa Davis, 50, who set a world record in the Triple 7 Quest last year, was one of just two athletes to run the course solo (she won in 9 hours, 21 minutes, 33 seconds). Harlem Run founder Alison Desir, 31, competed on a duo relay team with her husband while several months pregnant, and there were many cyclists and runners representing national organizations such as Black Girls RUN!, the Wounded Warrior Project and Black Girls Do Bike.

Shalane Griffin, 54, a runner from Greensboro, South Carolina, was part of the relay team that won the all-female category at the inaugural Selma to Montgomery event and took second place this year. She ran carrying a photo of her mother, who passed away just before last year's race. Her mom's name, Delcie Washington, is immortalized at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.

"In her heavenly absence, I run this for her," Griffin said of her mother, who was imprisoned as a teenager after her involvement in a "Jail, No Bail" sit-in. "If she had lived in Selma or Montgomery, she would definitely have participated in the march."

Thoughts of her mother filled Griffin's mind as she forged up her hilly segment of the relay. She also thought of the marchers whose journey was far less comfortable than hers.

"You know what I was thinking? That most of those women were wearing heels. I thought, 'I know I can do it in these $150 running shoes,'" she said.

"From Selma, coming into Montgomery on Highway 80, you're thinking about the risk people took," Griffin's teammate Latisha Alford said. "They took a risk on their own lives to be able to come through for our rights, to stand firm on what they believed. Looking back on history, this race is bigger than running. It's about continuing to stand for those rights."

During their time in Montgomery this year, many racers visited the newly opened Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the latter of which remembers the countless African-Americans who were victims of lynching. Examples include a woman killed for scolding a group of white children who were throwing rocks at her, a man lynched for protecting his daughter from being raped and another lynched for asking a white woman for a drink of water.

Visiting these places made the race even more meaningful to participants.

"The memorial and museum shed light on innocent people we've never heard of, people who died for no reason," said Mary Gooden, cofounder of Walk Jog Run Club, which puts on the relay event. "Doing these commemorative runs is important to educate people."

Doretha Walker, a marathon runner and program director of the College of Business at South University in Savannah, Georgia, dreamed up the concept of the relay and an entire civil rights race series when she was participating in the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon in Jackson, Mississippi. She found herself outside the home of civil rights activist and World War II veteran Medgar Evers, who was shot and killed in his driveway in 1963, with a white supremacist eventually found guilty of the murder. There, Walker was struck by an epiphany.

"I said to myself, 'Man, I just ran in these historic steps, but we don't talk about that because the run wasn't about that.' When I got home, I was like, 'I have to do something.'"

Walker set out to retrace the steps of the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers, initially thinking it would be just herself and a group of runner friends. But then she began conversations with the Walk Jog Run Club, and the race was born, followed this year by others in a Civil Rights Series. In April, a race will be held in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was assassinated, and in May, a race in Anniston, Alabama, will commemorate the Freedom Riders.

Walker serves as an adviser for the civil rights race series and, along with family members, was working at aid stations during Saturday's relay. She points out that the civil rights theme is significant not just as a reminder of history but also to help keep America from repeating its past.

"People think we don't have to fight for civil rights anymore because it's a done deal, because we don't talk about these things," Walker said. "But [even today], I really feel afraid. I look around and see other people of color around me, and I'm afraid for them. Nobody should be afraid like that in their own country. So I wanted this race to be about running in the footsteps of the people who came before us, honoring them, but also talking about it. We need to have these conversations."

Walker says she would like to see other race events, perhaps ones that focus on Native American history or remember Japanese internment camps or the Underground Railroad.

"There are so many historical markers. I like the idea of being physically fit and connecting with people and accidentally being educated," Walker said. "I hope everyone who did this race thought something they hadn't thought before."

For Webb, now 63 and still very much an activist for racial equality and human rights, the runners and cyclists competing in the 2019 race tapped into the same empowering, unifying spirit that King ignited when he marched along the same route in 1965.

"When I see people coming together for the same mission -- to run for something that's very meaningful," she said, "then there's hope."