A Relay Through Civil Rights History
The thrill of toeing the start line at a race is a feeling many runners can relate to. Participating in any one of the well-known races in the United States, such as the Boston, Chicago, or New York City marathons ratchets up the excitement even more. But what makes a race a must-do? Is it the location? The spectator support? The bragging rights?
For runners and cyclists tackling the Selma to Montgomery Relay, it’s about learning, growth and American history. The race starts in Selma, Alabama, crossing the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge and continues along a 51-mile route through American civil-rights history, ending in Montgomery, Alabama’s state capitol. This event commemorates the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and the brave actions of civil rights activists to secure voting rights for Black Americans. Participants can run or bike the course, and have the option to complete it as a relay or a solo event.
The Return to Live Events
The 2022 Selma to Montgomery Relay was a return to racing post-pandemic that met a desire for a more meaningful experience after virtual events. “It was great to be back in 2022,” says Vergil Chames, race director for the relay and Civil Rights Race Series (CRRS), hosted by the Walk Jog Run Club (WJRC). “We had some pretty good years doing virtual events, but to get back on the streets with our athletes and supporters strengthened the message for our three pillars of history, health and financial support.”
With a turnout of roughly 750 athletes in the run and cycling categories, participants enjoyed three days of unique and rich experiences. These started at packet pickup and carried on throughout the race itself as the route wound through history, offering educational touch points along the way. Athletes were treated to a celebratory dinner and awards, and were invited to a post-event breakfast hosted by a local church.
A Route Back in Time
The Selma to Montgomery Relay, and other events in the CRRS, incorporate at-risk communities that experienced economic decline after industry left following civil rights activism. Many of these towns can’t support their own endurance events because of their lack of infrastructure, so bringing an event through town offers an infusion of support in the form of money and education about health and wellness.
The WJRC leverages the U.S. National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network to bring historical context to the race series. For athletes, the route is a trip back in time.
“For a group of African American race directors, it’s significant to put on an event where athletes can see these points in American history,” says Chames. “Packet pickup is held in a train station near the warehouses where our forefathers were held in shackles. Athletes will cross the bridge in Selma where Bloody Sunday took place. Finish line events are close to where slaves were auctioned off in Montgomery’s Court Square.”
Athletes will also see the bus stop where Rosa Parks denied giving up her seat and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as pastor from 1954 to 1960.
“Our athletes are interested in this history,” says Chames. “It’s worth noting that what we’ve built speaks to people of all backgrounds, not just the communities supported through our race series. Athletes and their families come to the Selma to Montgomery Relay because they enjoy the stories being told about the many transformations our country has undergone. It gives us hope for the future. Hopefully our kids can build upon what has happened and keep doing good.”
2023 and Beyond
This year’s event features the Aurelia Twitty Spirit of Champions Award in honor of Aurelia Twitty. Twitty was a dedicated 2022 relay participant who passed away, leaving a legacy based on wellness and building confidence for young people in every community she lived in.
“We’re giving this award to athletes who exemplify her spirit, excitement and passion for helping others,” says Chames. The selected champion will receive a plaque and monetary reward recognizing their dedication to health and wellness and contributions to their community.
The relay has grown in many ways over the years, most notably in strategic sponsorships to amplify the message and enhance the event experience. “We’ve had some great partners come aboard to help us spread the message. A special thank you goes to Fleet Feet, Vacation Races and the City of Montgomery,” says Chames. The 2023 race includes new amenities for participants, including tickets to historic landmarks provided by the City of Montgomery, so athletes can turn their relay race into a destination.
How to Get Involved
Races can’t grow without support.
“The WJRC didn’t know we’d be a conduit for this message. We were a group of people running together that stumbled upon an event idea that made sense,” recalls Chames. “Our club members became certified race directors to serve the grander purpose of creating destination events to tell the stories of underserved communities that were punished for their participation in historical events.”
There are a few ways to support what the WJRC is doing.
Sign up for the Selma to Montgomery Relay! Whether you’re a relay team of runners sharing the route, an ultra runner taking on the 51 miles solo or a cyclist tackling the distance on wheels, there’s a way for you to travel through American history while getting your fitness on.
If you can’t make it to Alabama this year, sign up as a virtual participant to run or ride. Chames notes, “Our newsletter shares historical information in advance of the race, so you’ll be able to learn and feel the spirit of the event. Also, you still get all the great swag as a virtual participant.”
If running or riding isn’t in the cards for you this year, you can donate to the CRRS. Charities selected by Aurelia Twitty’s family—the Transformation Life Center and Girls on the Run DC—will benefit from your donation made in her honor. You can also support the relay’s 2023 partners:
If you represent a business or organization that is interested in offering support, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, an easy—and free—way to support the relay and race series is to spread the word on social media about the important work they are doing to offer a unique experience that seamlessly combines health and wellness with American history.
Chames answers our burning questions about the relay.
Favorite relay leg: I like five and six. They’re hilly, disrespectful legs. I also like the first leg because it goes across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. At 6:30 in the morning with the sun coming up, it’s a pretty sight and the gravity of what people are doing can be felt.
Most important tip for participants: Be very conscious of safety for yourself and others. This race is on a public highway, and there will be 1,000-2,000 people out there. Look out for your fellow athletes.
How athletes show team spirit: Team spirit from other relay events has trickled into this race. You’ll see team shirts and decorated vans everywhere. Some of the team names are very creative, and it’s really fun when we announce them at the awards ceremony.