Hard-won victory of civil rights revisited

Forty years ago today, a march in Selma turned bloody - and as a result the town and nation are today transformed.

It was as close to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as I would ever get - or to history in the making - that bright Sunday morning 40 years ago this month.

A spellbinding orator, he would not disappoint.

"You will be the people that will light a new chapter in the history books of our nation," he said, speaking to the huge crowd that had gathered outside Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Selma at the start of what would become the most celebrated civil rights march in US history. "Walk together, children," he said, "Don't you get weary, and it will lead us to the Promised Land. And Alabama will be a new Alabama, and America will be a new America."

It was heady stuff, to be sure, his voice rising to let us know we were serving a cause greater than ourselves, which, to many of us still in college, was a new idea.

Now, four decades later, I am still at a loss to explain exactly what drew me to Selma that distant spring - although I would like to say it was the cause. Mentors like the Rev. Jerry Thompson, a civil rights activist and then chaplain at Ripon College in Wisconsin, played a major role. Others did as well. It could have been something in the '60s air. Or simply the attraction of fleeing the lingering Wisconsin winter for the warmer South.

This past weekend, many of us who participated in the march - which began on March 21, 1965, and ended five days later at the State Capitol in Montgomery, with the crowd swelling in the end to 25,000 - returned to Selma to mark the occasion.

Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who, at 25 years old, was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), said in an interview here that the march was a turning point for the entire country - not just the South. "The Selma-to-Montgomery march had a profound impact on the psyche of all Americans," he said. "It was like Gandhi's march to the sea. It transformed American politics."

'Bloody Sunday'

For the past seven years, Lewis has led a congressional delegation to Alabama, under the auspices of the Faith & Politics Institute, to pay tribute to those who fought and died during the civil rights struggle - visiting movement landmarks and culminating with a reenactment of the crossing of Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, now known as "Bloody Sunday."

Led by Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams, some 600 protesters for voting rights quietly walked across the bridge on that Sunday 40 years ago on what was supposed to have been the first leg of the 54-mile march to Montgomery only to be beaten back on the other side by Alabama state troopers hurling tear gas and wielding night sticks.

It took two weeks for the organizers to regroup, and by then the number of protesters who had descended on Selma to take part in the march had swollen to just over 3,000.

Those of us who had came from the North - including college students like me - were called "outside agitators," which both pleased and frightened us in equal measure since we clearly saw ourselves as agitators (for justice) ... but then these were also frightening times.

President Kennedy had been assassinated. Four black girls had been killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. And the homes of blacks and black churches throughout the South were being attacked.

Three civil rights workers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman - had also been murdered in Mississippi less than a year earlier, and James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston was severely beaten by white men in Selma March 9 after leaving a restaurant and died in a Birmingham hospital. A 39-year-old white woman from Detroit - Viola Liuzzo - was also shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan while driving back to Selma from Montgomery the night the march ended on March 25.

Since then, of course, the country has changed, and the city of Selma has changed as well. And as for those of us who came to Selma 40 years ago, we remain changed today.

Four decades ago, there were only 300 black elected officials nationwide and three African-American members of Congress. Today, around 9,000 blacks hold elected office, and the Congressional Black Caucus numbers 43.

Today ... a black mayor's optimism

Here in Dallas County, which includes Selma, there were no black elected officials holding office 40 years ago, and only about 1 percent of voting-age blacks (i.e., about 250 people) were even registered to vote, with a host of factors conspiring to keep them from the polls: literacy tests that the testers themselves could not pass, intimidation, violence.

Today - thanks in part to the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law five months after the march - Dallas County now has more than 20,000 black voters.

The current mayor of Selma is African-American - the first ever - Selma-born former businessman James Perkins Jr., who five years ago unseated one-time segregationist Joe Smitherman, the mayor of the city for all but one year between 1964 and 2000.

I recall Selma 40 years ago as a city filled with hatred. Young white men lining the streets as we began the march to Montgomery waved Confederate flags and called us nigger-lovers and communists. Today, I see a city where racial tension still exists but where blacks and whites work together and want to move on.

Mayor Perkins has said that Selmians themselves have grown tired of talking about the "race problem." "I believe that most are ready to deal with strategies to make things better in spite of our individual or collective bias," he said.

Lewis, born in Troy, Ala., the son of sharecroppers, said the Selma-to-Montgomery march set the stage for further progress in the civil rights movement and the election of black officials like Perkins and him. "It had a liberating effect on blacks and whites alike," he said. "People literally put their bodies on the line. People felt it was so right they were prepared to die. It was a crossroads."

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