Remembering Selma 1965

MARCH 21, 1965: Along with thousands of other civil-rights protesters, I huddle in the early morning cold outside Brown's Chapel in Selma, Ala. It is the start of what would later be called the Selma-to-Montgomery March. But this morning my mind is not on how historians will view the day. I am wondering if we will make it as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge a few miles away or whether, like earlier marchers who had come to Selma to support a voting-rights drive, we, too, will meet with violence at the bridge.

That earlier violence had caused President Johnson to go before Congress and in a nationally televised address urge swift passage of the legislation that would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the president's words -- his comparison of Selma to Lexington and Concord -- do not seem like much assurance this morning. By midafternoon we did make it to the bridge, and four days later the march reached Montgomery, where it was joined by 25,000 supporters at a rally in front of the old state capitol.

But in 1995 it is not nostalgia I feel for Selma. My memories are more mixed, black and white pictures that have changed over time. My first memory is of a newspaper photo taken two weeks before I arrived in Selma on a day now known as Bloody Sunday. The picture is not sharp. The overcast sky, the photographer's distance from the violence have muted the clarity the picture should have. The picture is dominated by Alabama state troopers clubbing black civil-rights demonstrators. There is no looking at this picture and saying you do not see it all.

The second picture is much happier. It was taken on the day the second Selma march began. I am in this picture, but nobody's face, not even that of the men leading the parade -- Martin Luther King and, on either side of him, Ralph Bunche and Ralph Abernathy -- can be seen. I find the anonymity reassuring. It reflects the fact that at its best the civil-rights movement was a mass movement, the sacrifices of many rather than the heroism of a few. Yet something about this photo makes me uneasy. It hides the fact that along the highway the federalized Alabama National Guard stood watch. It mutes the shouts of ''white nigger'' that came from everywhere.

The picture I like best is one never taken. It is Monday, and 20 of us are clearing a pasture where the Selma marchers will stop and rest for the night. Without enough rakes and shovels, it is slow going. But the sun is warm, and we know we will have the tents up by evening. Suddenly a caravan of cars pulls up along the highway, and the men in them pile out. We are too far away to hear their shouts, but we can see the rebel flags draped over their car hoods. Hemmed in by barbed wire, there is no place we can run or hide. We can only hope they do not have guns. But we are also strangely calm. There is no place we would rather be.

At the end of the week, I returned North and wrote a small piece about Selma in the newspaper of the university I was attending. A few days later the hate calls started. Always obscene. Always late at night.

We have come a long way since then. John Lewis, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of those badly beaten on Bloody Sunday, now sits in Congress.

But these days I worry more about civil rights than I did in 1965. I worry that the next step we take as we struggle to move to real equality will generate more resistance than anyone realizes. Most of all, I worry that the satisfaction my generation of blacks and whites took in finding common cause is gone.

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