Makers Make a Difference: Quilts to Commemorate 50 Years Since the Selma March

By Michelle Reynolds, DIY Network’s Made + Remade

Lillis Taylor, Annie Bryant, and Carol Allen enjoy working together stitching and binding The March Quilts. Photo by Bob Farley

In the case of The March Quilts — Symbols are images that express emotion, ideas, or qualities about a history-shaping event; Quilts are made of personal patchworks, layers of fabric connected and stitched together with purpose; and Community is a unified group of individuals sharing a common goal. When the three are combined, and when the Bib & Tucker Sew-Op joins hands with the Birmingham Museum of Art, University of Alabama in Birmingham’s Department of Art and Art History (DAAH), ArtPlay, Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO), and others, and when the community is spread across Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, you have not just one or two, but three story quilts made up of 461 blocks.

They are called The March Quilts, and they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The project is the brainchild of Birmingham’s Lillis Taylor, co-founder of Bib & Tucker Sew-Op, who originally wanted to create a community project to honor the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Quilting Bee. Alabama is home to a rich African American quilting heritage. The Freedom Quilting Bee was established in 1966 during the Civil Rights Movement as a way to help craftswomen earn money to support their families. Worthy of celebration for much more than quilts, the cooperative from Wilcox County, Alabama were pioneers in the advancement of civil rights and women’s rights, and were responsible for the revival of American quilting in the 1960s and 70s.

But since this year is the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Lillis’ focus turned to the great event, and The March Quilts project was born. (Stay tuned for more, folks, because Lillis says the Freedom Quilting Bee project will be on for next year.)

Lillis Taylor is the creative powerhouse behind The March Quilts. Originally, she wanted to make quilts to commemorate the Freedom Quilting Bee, established in 1966. “We’ll do that next year,” she said. Photo by Bob Farley

Lillis put together a team of facilitators, sought out advice and information from experts, and called on partners to collaborate on the project. DAAH Outreach Coordinator, Jared Ragland, rallied troops and set up shop. UAB graphic design student, Jonathan Niega, signed on to create a logo and develop a brand for the project. This model of collaboration grew from Magic Chromacity, and primed for community outreach through the success of the Amanda Browder community sewing experience, the partnership stitched units together like a well-oiled machine.

Bib & Tickers Sew-Op co-founders Annie Bryant and Lillis Taylor hold up the Montgomery quilt. So many hands made The March Quilts. The sew-op hand-stitched the quilts and binding to complete the project. Photo by Bob Farley

The project was kicked off by an event hosted by Lillis Taylor, as well as the Director of Birmingham Museum of Art and quilt aficionado Gail Andrews and the famous story quilt artist Yvonne Wells. Wells revved up enthusiasm for the undertaking with a slide show and discussion with Andrews. Wells also brought her story quilts to show the group and included a new quilt she made to commemorate the march.

Bib & Tucker members Carol Allen and Gloria Purnell hold one of the Selma quilts. 461 blocks were sewn together to make three quilts. Photo by Bob Farley

Artists, quilters, crafters and non-crafters, women and men, and girls and boys of all walks of life were invited to sew blocks. Seven-inch squares in colors of the environment were lined up on tables, along with colorized scraps of fabrics in bins, pins, needles, scissors, and other sewing supplies. Hand stitching, embroidery, and appliqué techniques were use to make the blocks. A few of the facilitators brought sewing machines to assist participants in completing the squares.

A detail of the Selma quilt shows the variety of techniques individuals used in sewing The March Quilts. No matter the age, gender, or race, all who participated in the project, whether experienced crafters or not, sat down, cut out fabric, and sewed their own block. Everyone knew exactly what to do. Photo by Bob Farley

During the open sewing sessions, held at the museum, DAAH, ArtPlay, DISCO, and the Civil Rights Institute, all in Birmingham; the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma; and the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, participants gathered together to sew their individual blocks to be joined with others. Stories were told, questions were asked, answers were given, and advice was received. Encouragement, fellowship and understanding were themes of each session as we sewed in unison. The song “This Little Light of Mine” erupted in spontaneous and beautiful harmony at the church in Selma, where the group also made blocks for their own Selma Unity Quilt.

This square exemplifies the meaning behind the attempted marches in early March and the successful and peaceful Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery on March 21-25, 1965 — equal rights for black and white. The Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law on August 6, 1965. Photo by Bob Farley

In Selma, the Bib & Tucker women walked across the bridge after the sewing session at the church, and as we walked, we thought of the marchers, the movement, and the blood that was shed on the early attempts before federal sanction and protection. We thought about what the marchers must have endured during the five-day, 54-mile walk, and the four-night camp. From the Edmund Pettus bridge, we looked down at the Alabama River and thought about the course of the river through the land. Sometimes a river meanders, but it is always moving forward. And as it moves downstream, it picks up momentum through confluence and convergence, and pushes ahead as a mighty force.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photo by Bob Farley

To view more photos of the quilts and open sewing sessions, go to The March Quilts on Facebook. You can find even more photographs and fun moments on Instagram, #TheMarchQuilts.

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