From Bloody Sunday to a White Wedding

Mar 5, 2015

This weekend, the city of Selma will remember the fiftieth anniversary of the event known as Bloody Sunday. State troopers attacked voting rights marchers with clubs and tear gas in 1965. The Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the bloodshed took place, has become a monument to the civil rights movement. For one Atlanta couple, the bridge is a symbol of something else, and that’s raising some eyebrows in Selma.

The world remembers March 7, 1965 in the town of Selma. Voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were met by State Police Troopers and a Sheriff’s posse armed with clubs and tear gas.

News footage of the attack poured out of black and white television sets and into living rooms nationwide. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“It may have started out as something so negative but it depends on how you look at it," says Sonja Houston of Selma. "Cause the strength of the people made it more so a beautiful thing.”    

I met Houston at the Saint James Hotel right next to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She grew up in Selma and she wants to associate some positive memories with the iconic bridge and its place in civil rights history… “A year and half or two years ago, I thought it would be so beautiful if I could have my wedding ceremony someday, I wasn’t engaged yet, have my ceremony out here, it’s just beautiful.”

If Houston gets her way, her wedding photos will include the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the backdrop…

“Because it has so much character, history, it’s the main focal point of Selma," says Houston. "When you think of Selma or any outsiders think of Selma. Why I want to come home to Selma is because it is home to me.”

Like any bride-to-be, Houston has enlisted help in getting everything organized for the big day.  Rebecca Nichols is the couple’s wedding planner. She and her husband help plan and organize weddings all over the state, but she says using the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a first… 

“When Sonja called me and said she wanted to get married down there, I was so excited because we love a good challenge. It’s different and no one has done it before so it’s exciting, and it’s exciting for Selma because if we can get some kind of policy in place for this, Selma could really become a destination wedding place.”

Houston hopes to have her wedding around the block from the St. James Hotel at the City Walk. It runs alongside the Alabama River and provides a clear view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge…

Couples who get married in Selma typically flock to neighborhood parks or stately plantation homes for the big day. Nichols says Houston’s goal of using the Edmund Pettus Bridge carries more complications than where to put the flowers and the band.

“The city’s concern is that they have no way for us to actually reserve it because you can’t block it off or keep people from coming down here and I think their concern is because it is a public area and there is a walking trail right by the river that there will be public coming in and out and I don’t think we’re that opposed to it, they’d get to see a beautiful ceremony.”

And Houston’s big day isn’t the only thing on the minds of city leaders in Selma. The town is going into high gear for this weekend’s fiftieth anniversary jubilee of Bloody Sunday. This is where we find James Benderson, the Director of City Planning and Development. His office also handles special events for the city.

“So if someone wants to have a wedding, bar mitzvah, or baby shower, whatever they want to do in the park, you know, depending on the season they would just make an application at the mayor’s office typically and it would get funneled down to planning and development.”

Benderson says the application process is actually pretty easy…

“It’s kind of simple, just fill out the paper work and we look at it and see if we can accommodate you and make sure, we want to know when, where, how many people, if you need police presence, if you need chairs, tables that kind of thing and the amount of staffing it takes, determining what the fee and cost is.”

He says he isn’t shocked someone wants to be married there; what does surprise him is the lack people asking…

“Believe it or not a lot of people who live here in Selma, a lot of times they don’t even recognize the amenities they have in their own back yard. They don’t even know that 'Oh, that’s a beautiful place, I could have a wedding, or a family reunion or something like that,' I probably presume that is why we haven’t gotten a lot of requests about it.”

Houston says while the Edmund Pettus Bridge conjures images of brutality and struggle, it also represents the beginning of something good and what she believes ultimately is beautiful…

“The people who made it such a beautiful thing are people I am related to, they are the people I come from, they’re the people we have attachments and bonds to and why I was able to grow up in Selma and go to integrated schools and walk the whole city it seems with no problem.”

And Sonja hopes to add to this beauty by beginning her married life in the shadow of one of the most infamous sites of the Civil Rights Movement.