More Than Just a Race: The Civil Rights Race Series' Selma to Montgomery Relay

A group of women stand on steps with their arms around each other.

This March, 1000 participants will make their way through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery during a relay race that tours one of the most iconic routes in American history. Runners, walkers and bikers from all over the country will experience the history of the Civil Rights Movement during an immersive weekend that includes tours and speakers along with the race.

The Relay is Born

It’s been 58 years since hundreds of demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. The march was intended to reach Montgomery, Alabama, about 55 miles away.

The day, often referred to as “Bloody Sunday” due to the brutal attacks on demonstrators, is commemorated as a turning point in the fight for racial justice in Alabama and across the nation.

When Alabama’s Walk Jog Run Club decided to host a race in 2017, they knew they wanted it to be meaningful. Club leaders drove across the historic Selma bridge and noticed that, while it would be a historically significant route, it was a bit too short for a race.

“We thought about replicating the Selma to Montgomery march. It seemed really cool, but then we thought about who would be able to participate in a 55-mile race,” explains Vergil Chames, Civil Rights Race Series race director.

“There are some ultra runners who could do it, but our target population were novice runners. We wanted more people to be able to participate. That's how we thought of the relay.”

A group of bikers celebrate after a race.

A Surprise Success

The first year of the race was taxing for the organizers. The approximately 55 mile route was changed to 51 miles after organizers had to cut off some of the turns in Selma.

Fifty-one miles is a lot of ground to cover for any race director, along with the hand off points, hydration stops and other logistics. As Chames said, “we were runners, not race directors.” The race brought in many more participants than expected, from all across the country.

“We were initially thinking that it would be a regional race, but we had a national presence. People wanted to experience the Selma to Montgomery march and see what those giants did in regular clothes and regular shoes,” Chames says.

Once the event was over, participants of the inaugural Selma to Montgomery relay race were already hungry for more.

“When we looked at our post-race surveys, the athletes felt that this was a needed event that they really enjoyed, and more importantly, they wanted to bring back their families to experience the event,” explains Chames.

After the success of the first race, the Walk Jog Run Club started to understand the true significance of what they were creating. They added several more races to their lineup and the Civil Rights Race Series was born.

The series is guided by three pillars - history, health and financial support. Through each race, organizers teach participants about local civil rights history, encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, and donate revenue from the race to charity organizations.

“We work with civil rights organizations, we work with food banks, those types of organizations that help those that need help,” Chames says.

Back in Action

A group of men in matching singlets smile after a race.

Just like every other race in the country, the Civil Rights Race Series has had to adapt to new COVID practices and policies.

This year’s race, scheduled for March 19, will be the first in-person event since the pandemic. Chames is confident that they can put on a safe and fun event for all participants.

“We’re doing things to stretch and keep people apart, from how we’re handling the exchange points to the hydration stations,” he explains.

“Not only do we want to put on a run, we want to keep a group of athletes in an area to absorb the culture. To hear, see and feel those historical issues that were prevalent 60 years ago and are rearing their heads now. If we can do that, then we can do our job.”

The relay race is sold out, but there are still opportunities to volunteer, sponsor or experience the organized tours and speakers.

Chames encourages everyone who is able to come and participate in the weekend’s events.

“This isn't Black history. This is U.S. history. These are the seeds that enabled the things that we see now.”

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