Ambassador Andrew Young, Bloody Sunday, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King III, MLK Dream Speech, Rev. Al Sharpton, Selma, Selma 50th commemoration, Selma to Montgomery March, Tom Joyner, Viola Liuzzo
In a previous blog post, I said that I was “Going to Selma” for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Bloody Sunday March with a former student, Randy Gold who I had gone with 15 years before, in 2000, and his 8-year-old, son Natanel and my 8 year-old granddaughter, Makayla.
As you know, Bloody Sunday is the name given to the events of March 7, 1965, when 600 non-violent protesters began a march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, the state capitol, to protest blacks not being allowed to vote simply because they were black. As they reached the bottom of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were met by state troopers who proceeded to tear gas them, beat them with clubs, fists, and barbed-wire wrapped clubs, and ride over them with horses. Two weeks later after a call was sent out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for people of good will to join in the march, 25,000 marched across the bridge with the protection of troops federalized by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law a few months later by President Johnson.
So, this year is the 50th anniversary of the historical event and we went.
OMG. I am so glad we did.
Makayla and I drove the hour from Athens to Randy’s in Atlanta, and from there we had the three hour drive to Selma. It was worth very mile. Along the way, maybe near Montgomery, we saw a two-bus and one short van convoy with a front and back police escort. Even though we could not see through the darkened glass of the vehicles to see who it was, we had no doubt where they were headed. We felt even more excitement as we passed by the Viola Liuzzo memorial along the highway. You may recall that she is the white Detroit mother who responded to the Bloody Sunday violence she saw on TV by coming down to Selma when the call when out to the nation to join them for another attempted march for voting rights. She was shot to death by the KKK as she ferried marchers to the Montgomery airport. There is a tombstone memorial on the route between Selma and Montgomery, which is quite noticeable because it is right there on a rise beside the highway and is surrounded by a wrought iron fence to protect it from continually being defaced. Even though we were driving on the very stretch that the marchers used from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, it made it even more real to see her very sad memorial there, and to remind us of why it was important of us to take time out of our busy schedules to be there.
When we got to Selma, we were lucky enough to find a parking space right behind the housing subdivision that sits just across the street from the Brown Chapel AME Church that served as the gathering point for the March 50 years ago and was where people were gathered when we arrived. We had no real idea of what was what. Online details were pretty sketchy, but it didn’t matter. We knew that we’d find out when we got there. If you show up in a town like Selma, AL for something like this, you really don’t have to worry about finding your way or other details. Everyone is there for the same thing, so information won’t be hard to find.
As it turned out, there was a jumbotron video screen set up outside the church, as it was filled to capacity inside and there were zillions of people outside. That was probably the first really big difference Randy and I noticed from when we had come 15 years ago, to what, I think, may have been the first big commemoration, when President Bill Clinton came in 2000. That time, we were inside the church. In fact, I think pretty much anyone who wanted to could come in. There were lots of people there, but not like this time.
So, we found a spot close to the church and stood by the barricades blocking off the street, watching the speakers as they took their turns at the pulpit in the church. Rev. Al Sharpton was on when we came. Then there was Rev. Jesse Jackson. We saw seated there Martin Luther King, Jr’s son, Martin, III, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. As the speaking service ended, we were well placed to see the the attendees as they left. Radio personality Tom Joyner walked by. Several of the luminaries got right into their cars with dark windows before we even realized who they were. We got great pictures of Jesse Jackson working the crowd.
Unlike 2000 when the folks came out of the church and lined up to begin the march, this time, age had become a factor and a lot of the historical figures had to drive to the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge. There was also the logistical matter of the crowds. Not everyone had amassed in front of the church. As the program was going on, there were also people who skipped that part and went directly to the bridge. It meant that the streets were not totally clear for cars because the crowds were massive. We finally fell in and began to walk with the crowds headed toward the bridge. As we neared it, the crowd grew. By the time we got to where we could see the bridge, the bridge was a solid mass of people. It was unbelievable. It was incredible that that many people had come to show their support for the idea of freedom, justice, and equality.
Where Randy and I had been able to simply walk over the bridge in 2000, though with many others, this time we could barely move. While we easily managed a photo with Ambassador Andrew Young in 2000, it would have been more difficult this time. We inched along, tightly holding on to the hands of our 8-year-olds, lest they be quickly swallowed by the crowd. However, the mass of people did not take away from the impact and significance of what it was we were doing. There was still an incredible sense of occasion. All of these people, many with matching T-shirts from their organizations touting the 50th anniversary and their organization’s support, had taken the time, energy, effort, and expense to come be here in this place at this time to show their respect and honor for those who were brave enough 50 years ago to walk in the very place we were walking, all so that they could help America live up to its promise that “All men are created equal…”
Though they were so much shorter than most of the people in the crowd, and did not know all the famous people who had been such civil rights pioneers (though we told them as we saw them), the children with us understood the import of the occasion. On the drive home when Randy asked how it made them feel to be a part of this and to walk over the bridge, Makayla said it made her feel famous to know she walked where she had seen the people in the video marching for their rights.
It is not always convenient to be at an event like this. Most of us go through our lives pretty much just doing what we need to do day to day. But there are times when you have to step back and look at things from a different perspective. Sometimes you have to live life with a sense of the history and import of the moment. As president and CEO of an accounting firm, and an incredibly busy civic activist and father of three, Randy is as busy as a one-arm paper hanger. As someone in the throes of working and advocating and preparing for an upcoming TED Talk that made me cancel spring break plans, I, too, am busy. Even Makayla was leaving town the next morning with her Mom and brother for spring break in Florida. Everyone had perfectly valid reasons not to interrupt the normal flow of their lives by going. But Randy and I understood not only the historical significance of the event, but also our own personal historical significance since we had been at the commemoration 15 years before. It also held special significance for me because I had been at the 1963 March on Washington as a 12-year-old, and my life’s work is in dealing with issues of social justice and diversity and inclusion. We understood that no matter how busy we were, this was important. Makayla, having had many, many discussions with me about these issues in her 8 short years on earth, was as excited as I was to go.
Sometimes, the significance of the event is as much—or even more—about creating the memory and aftermath as it is about the event itself. As a 12-year-old at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, who was just thinking it was awfully hot, there were more people than I’d ever seen in my life, and trying to figure out what the “SNCC” and “CORE” meant on the paper hats I saw people wearing, I had no idea of the profound effect that the 1963 March would have on me and my life. Listening to Dr. King’s Dream Speech, I had no clue that 48 years later I would receive my University’s highest award, the MLK, Jr. Fulfilling the Dream Award, for building bridges to understanding. Even Randy and I having the memory of having gone 15 years before in 2000, at what Randy says was the first official commemoration event, is an incredible memory, especially thinking about all that has happened in our lives in that 15-year span. But, with his son and my granddaughter, there is no telling what this memory will mean for them and how it will resonate for them in the years to some. Even if it is just as a pleasant thought, it will be worth it. They will never again see the footage of what occurred at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day in 1965 and not be again connected to the memory of walking over that bridge in a sea of humanity with their Dad and Nana. That is worth what it took to make that happen.