(In the wake of the national release of the new movie “Selma” and the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march for voting rights.)
Selma, Alabama waited on the front porch of U.S. Highway 80 and a crooked finger of road beckoned me closer into town. I slowed down my rental car. I was a Black Civil Rights Movement child on her first trip into the Deep South, traveling alone, and unaccustomed to navigating these roller coaster hills and unexpected inclines.
I had set out on this journey of reconciliation to confront some painful parts of the Civil Rights story of my sixty-something generation, to sort out why the memories are so conflicted. The new broom that swept through the country in the 1960’s left even the sanest among us with emotional debris. It causes us to shove talk about racism into corners of denial and then shudder when the headlines shine light on it. Or, erupt with anger and pointed fingers whenever the topic is raised. We who have lived through and fought for social transformations that inspired global imitation tell our children that no progress has been made.
Even a Florida-born girl like me is, as the old folks say, just as “touched in the head.” Although I grew up in segregation, I found the state’s ethnic diversity easier to align with than my troubling southern roots. But the South is the one place in the country where race has always been right out there, on the table. Southerners expect to talk about it, to pull up a chair and sit a spell.
Eventually I would wander through six cities in four states and visit Civil Rights sites, peruse archives and hold conversations with Black and White residents about the past. By the time I wound my way through Selma I was on factual overload. That early morning in March I would join hundreds of others for a crossing of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge and a step forward in history for a change.
Selma was already bustling with sojourners, including Black families, young White people, politicians, celebrities and civil rights notables. We had converged for the landmark commemorative walk honoring the 40th anniversary of the ill-fated “Bloody Sunday” attempt to launch a protest march to the Capitol in Montgomery. Participants were brutalized by the police and pushed back into town, but the event set off demonstrations that led to passage of the long-resisted federal Voting Rights Act.
Vans with camera crews and streamlined coach buses filled up the lion’s share of parking spaces along Water Street but I found one, near the foot of the bridge, and went exploring.
The mass of iron lattice arched like a crown over the murky Alabama River. At the far end, a memorial plaque saluted the Voting Rights Park. Nearby – an incongruous sign about Nathan Forest, an infamous local son, and his founding of the Klan. Scrawled boldly at the bottom of the sign was a hand-lettered message – “We ain’t scared” – a paraphrase of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words at the height of battle.
Times change. One of the speakers later would proclaim that our commemorative walk would be more like “a pilgrimage of faith.”
The streets swelled with people singing spirituals as we filed out of the Brown Chapel AME Church. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a wounded soldier in 1965 turned Civil Rights griot called out sternly, “We did not sing; we did not talk,” enforcing solemnity.
Once the ceremonial moment of silence at the top the bridge ended, however, with no easily identifiable adversaries below, the crowd began dispersing before even reaching the other side. Where to go next? I wondered, leaning for a moment on the railing. So many sighs that river must have swallowed over the years.
A young Black teenage girl paused to flop down on the same railing, inches away, swinging legs next to a friend. I strained to overhear their take on the commemoration experience. “That’s all they did was march and they got the vote?” she asked of nobody in particular. Bored, or perplexed? I wasn’t sure. No, that’s not all, the elder in me couldn’t wait to say. But her friend jumped in and interrupted, drowning me out with a boy-story, a gift in disguise.
I probably would have touted the importance of a righteous do-or-die struggle – the story we usually tell. It’s easier to explain than the power of acting from hopeful ideals. They sustain you and keep you alive and viable in the arena, trying to make a difference even when it looks like you may not win.
Later, over dinner at the riverfront hotel, I related the incident with the teenage girl to a couple of folks I had met. Young people don’t know, and they want to know, a 27-year-old diner insisted, and the history we were experiencing should be taught. Our table overlooked the same streets where, one night in 1965, a White minister and activist had been beaten to death by locals for just being there.
But Selma pulled on the cloak of evening and headed for bed after our march, leaving the doors open wide for us until we chose to say goodbye.
Traffic crept slowly for awhile out of town the next morning to give room to a ragtag group walking along the side of the road. About 15 marchers were making their way out of Selma to Montgomery in a voluntary continuation of the commemorative walk on their own. They were American, and Australian, and Japanese, and Buddhists pounding tom-tom rhythms to their steps. From time to time, busloads of public school students joined them for a mile or two in symbolic support.
State troopers, the assaulter in the 1965, now an integrated squad of escorts, would guard the marchers as they camped overnight along the route.
Tears surfaced – surprising and sudden – for the courage of people still engaged in the act of remembrance, for the determination to keep going despite the odds. Once the traffic was allowed to speed up again we hit a stretch of road. I prepared for curves ahead.
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