February 21, 2022 |Phillip Howard

Filming History: The Selma to Montgomery March Campsites

When thinking of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, most people picture the fearless Civil Rights leaders, linked arm-in-arm, marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That image, for good reason, is part of our shared national memory of this event. But while most people’s memories stop at the bridge in Selma, the marchers kept on going—covering 54 miles over five days. The stories of what the marchers encountered and where they stayed along the way is part of the full history—one that I’m proud to help uncover, share, and preserve.

In March 1965, despite the imminent risk of state and vigilante violence, local Black farmers David Hall, Rosie Steele and Robert Gardner risked everything to offer their land and homes as shelter and protection for the marchers. The Hall, Gardner, and Steele families share a history witnessed by the world; however, it took more than 56 years for them to finally meet in person and tell their stories for the very first time.

Fear, anxiety, danger, retaliation and humility are words to describe why the families have never discussed the beautiful, quiet contributions their loved ones made to the voting rights march of 1965— until now. The new documentary “54 Miles to Home” is an intimate portrait of these three extraordinary individuals and their families who remain the owners and stewards of these historical spaces along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.


The farms and campsites are designated along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

My journey with the campsite families began in Anniston, Alabama in October 2020. I was given an informational booklet on the Selma to Montgomery March, and I reached out to a friend to tell her that I was interested in learning more about the campsites. Her next comment was, “Are you sure that is something you want to work on?” before telling me how difficult it would be, how others had tried and failed and how there was no unity. I was given three phone numbers, one from each family, and was told good luck. I challenged myself to see what I could accomplish.

I know that trust is earned, never given. I was so in awe of these people who helped destroy the Jim Crow segregation system, I was literally star struck. I had only read the names on pages in books, and now I was meeting people who were actually present when history was made. I started by listening to the campsite families, and approached building a relationship with them by asking, “How can I help? What can I do to help develop the ideas that you have for these sites?”

My first time meeting all three families was also the very first time they had all met each other. We met on March 21, 2021, the 56th anniversary of the start of the march, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I kept thinking, “This is my first time ever walking over this historical bridge, and I am walking over it with the campsite families. How cool is that?”

The families of David Hall, Rosie Steele and Robert Gardner meeting for the first time. Photo by Phillip Howard.


We eventually began conversations about visions, goals, hopes and dreams. From those conversations a familiar theme began to form. The families wanted for the first time to share the history that their family names represent. The documentary film “54 Miles From Home” came from that desire.

The film has been viewed several times and screened at film festivals. The campsite families have held two showings for family members and friends at the campsites, and those were very special events. The first time that the campsite families gathered for a public screening of the film really stands out for me. One by one, members of the families got up and spoke publicly for the first time about their story and the film, and it was just an amazing experience.

“This is my first time talking publicly [about this story]. My parents couldn’t talk about it because they knew the ramifications. Now we get to talk about it.”

- Cheryl Gardner, daughter of Robert Gardner, speaking at a screening of the film in Montgomery, Alabama

Photo courtesy Phillip Howard.

The goal of all involved, and this was certainly true of me and the film’s director Claire Haughey, was to create a film that captured the words and the story that the families wanted to tell. It is the truth of Mr. David Hall, Ms. Rosie Steele, Mr. Robert Gardner and their families—their truth, their words. In our view the film would only be successful if the families were satisfied with the way their story was represented.

“Making ‘54 Miles to Home’ was an eye-opening experience into how little I knew, and how little most of the people in my life knew, about this aspect of civil rights history. This film contains so many layers and converging stories that the biggest challenge was having to choose what not the include, as we had to keep it within a short format. I feel like this film is invitation to learn more about under-represented aspects of American history and hope it ignites people’s curiosity to learn more and on their own or through other resources.”

- Claire Haughey, Director

It was a huge honor to be a small part of a team that put together this film and cared about this story. There will be other films to follow, but this will always be the first. Often, I am asked how people can help with this project. I tell them to watch and share the film, and to read more about the campsites. This film, this story, and this historical moment really define words like courage, bravery, service, and kindness and bring a whole new level of understanding to their meaning.

Find Out More

Read Safe Shelter for Marchers and Support for a Movement by Phillip Howard

To watch the full film, please visit:


Written by

Phillip Howard

Phillip Howard is the Civil Rights People and Places Program Manager for The Conservation Fund. He is dedicated to preserving, restoring and raising awareness of the Civil Rights movement in his home state of Alabama.