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The 54th Mile Project: A 54-Mile, 58-Year Journey to Police Reform
Why would three Black men in their 40’s—successful professional acquaintances who live in cities scattered across America—decide to come together in rural Alabama, in the middle of the summer, and hike more than 50 miles in the scorching sun?
What did their trek have to do with an infamous, 1960’s civil rights confrontation known as Bloody Sunday? And how would it give birth to an ambitious police reform initiative called The 54th Mile Project?
The answers to those questions are as surprising and substantial as the three men who began their unlikely journey together almost three years ago. When they started, Shon Barnes, Obed Magny, and Tarrick McGuire weren’t exactly sure where they were going. Today, they already have travelled much further than they could have imagined.
“As I think about the future of The 54th Mile Project, my hope is that it can be a roadmap, a way for police leaders, executives, community members to come together. To move forward and understand how we hold each other accountable so that we can reach our goals of a more fair and just society. Not just in your community but our society as a whole.” — Shon Barnes
To understand The 54th Mile Project, you first have to know something about its founders, all of whom hold senior leadership positions in law enforcement. Barnes is chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin. McGuire is deputy chief of police in Arlington, Texas. And Magny, a former police officer in Sacramento, California, heads a consultancy that helps police departments diversify their ranks.
You also have to know some history: McGuire, Magny and Barnes came together to retrace the route of one of the most iconic civil rights marches in American history.
On a spring Sunday in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a column of more than 500 peaceful protesters out of Selma, Alabama toward the state capital of Montgomery, some 54 miles away. But as they crossed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the group was savagely attacked by Alabama law enforcement officers. There, a young activist named John Lewis – who would go on to a celebrated career in Congress – was beaten and sustained a fractured skull.
“I often ask myself, ‘What if those officers on that bridge would have stopped what was going on?’“ McGuire said. “What if someone was on the bridge on that day to say, ‘We're not going to engage in this type of behavior?’ I really want people to see themselves on that bridge. I want them to see themselves as a bridge-builder in their community.”
The inspiration for a collective walk from Selma to Montgomery came from McGuire. In 2016, he visited Selma with his family to experience first-hand that city’s civil rights history. As he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he says, he had a vision that he needed to recreate the 1965 march.
So, McGuire reached out to Magny and Barnes, whom he had met through the National Institute of Justice’s LEADS Scholars program. Their reactions were quite different.
“When Tarrick shared that story about him being on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and how he was moved by that, we knew that using the bridge metaphor we had to create something,” Magny said. “This idea came up, and it was too much of a no-brainer to not get involved. I obviously jumped in with two feet.”
Barnes, however, was skeptical. “When it was first pitched to me,” he said, “I was the friend that was like, ‘Yeah, I'll make it to your birthday party,’ but never asks you when and where. 'Cause I know I'm not comin'.”
For a couple of years, COVID intervened and put planning on hold. But on May 25, 2020, a Black man named George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. The three decided that day that their walk had to happen.
The trip itself took three days and was physically grueling. On the first day, they hiked through a downpour so intense that “we couldn’t see five feet in front of us,” Magny said. “The following morning it took me 10 minutes to get out of bed. I couldn’t walk.”
But the journey would also prove even more inspirational than they had hoped. Along the way they listened to songs, speeches and talked by phone with one person who had walked the same route with Dr. King in 1965. And their chance encounters with strangers were unforgettable.
“We saw the real America,” Barnes said. “We saw some people who came by and refused to move over into the center lane, forcing us over into the shoulder of the road. That's the real America. We saw some people who came by and waved and gave us the thumbs up. That's the real America. We saw people who were both White and Black stopping to help. That's the real America.”
By the time they arrived in Montgomery, they had decided to develop a program that would show law enforcement agencies how to do a better job policing communities of color. They took their plan to Dr. Robin Engel, a respected criminologist who is Senior Vice President of the National Policing Institute. Working with the Institute, they obtained a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to support the project, which is now under way.
The three have lofty goals for The 54th Mile Project, which will draw on their years of experience as Black law enforcement officers and the inspiration they found on their 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery.
“If you were to ask me, two to five years from now, what I would hope for The 54th Mile Project, I would hope that we will have inspired a generation. I hope that this curriculum will be in police departments across this nation. I hope that this will be a tool to help the recruiting challenges and the retention challenges that we face right now in policing." — Tarrick McGuire
“I hope that my sons can look back and say that their father knew two men that rose to the occasion to try to provide a solution, to help the nation when we were going through a challenging time,” McGuire added. “No matter who you are, no matter what your background is, no matter where you come from, it's up to us to be a part of the change. And it's up to each of us to define what our 54th Mile will be in our local community.”
To learn more about this story, listen to the Justice Today podcast episode.