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Grand Rapids march honors 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches

The group also sang "We Shall Overcome," a popular song during the Civil Rights Movement.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Saturday, a group of about 200 people marched for 5.4 miles from the Southeast side of Grand Rapids into East Grand Rapids and back. The march was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, honoring the 54-mile marches from Selma to Montgomery. 

The Path for Peace event was organized by Justice for Black Lives (JBFL), a group that has helped host a number of protests in Grand Rapids in response to the death of George Floyd and police brutality. 

"The Civil Rights movement was a really important time in Black history, and especially the march from Selma to Montgomery," said Alyssa Bates, an organizer and a founder of JBFL. "Martin Luther King had a really big impact on the Civil Rights Movement, so I think it's really important to remember that history and pay a tribute to that." 

In 1965, activists including Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis led three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in a series of civil rights protests that highlighted racial injustice.  

Saturday's march looked different than others Bates has helped organize. There was no chanting, and the group walked through neighborhoods instead of the downtown area. 

"We are going to be walking through predominately Black neighborhoods and predominately white neighborhoods on purpose to make that message know that we are here, we aren't going anywhere, we're united, and we are going to keep fighting this," she said. "It's more impactful when it's in your neighborhood. It's up in your face; you can't ignore it."

Credit: WZZM/Rose White
The Path for Peace march on the corner of Kalamazoo Avenue and Burton Street SE.

The march started at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church near Burton Street SE and Plymouth Avenue SE. They headed west on Burton Street and turned north up Kalamazoo Avenue. The group also marched through a portion of East Grand Rapids and were escorted by police there. 

Tim DeYoung from Hudsonville said he has attended several of the protests and marches that have taken place in downtown Grand Rapids in recent weeks. 

"It's good to change the narrative a little bit," he said about the format of the march and the Black Lives Matter movement. "The Path of Peace is a good spin on it to get people to understand a different viewpoint of it and what it's really about versus what it appears to be."

Bates said the march was put on to unite the community and send a message that "we are one, we are the community." 

During the march, the group also honored history by singing "We Shall Overcome." 

"That's a really important song from the Civil Rights Movement," said Bates. "They sang that song during their marches. It's not that chanting is wrong, but in this situation we're a peaceful environment, we're trying to bring the community together. I think singing is the best way to do that."

Michele and Roger Bird, leaders of The Bridge church in Allegan, said they thought singing that song was going to be an emotional experience, especially for the people of color participating.

"Singing 'We Shall Overcome,' that's really powerful for them and their history and the people that have gone before them. And we want to be here to support that," said Roger Bird. 

Alexandria Nembhard, 16, attended the march with her 15-year-old brother Victor. She said walking the 5.4 miles felt like she was a part of something bigger. 

"I am proud that when we grow up, we'll be able to tell our kids that we participated to help make change," she said. 

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