From Alabama civil rights tribute, higher hopes for race relations

A gathering in Selma honored the gains of old – and registered new expectations for the Obama era.

Gary G. Yerkey
Civil rights weekend: Justin Rogers Jr. (at left) waited Saturday by a float for the start of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, Ala.
Gary G. Yerkey
US Rep. John Lewis stopped at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, another civil rights landmark.

Across this largely African-American city, there are signs of hope. Faces light up at the mere mention of President Obama. Even the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers attacked defenseless civil rights demonstrators on "Bloody Sunday" 44 years ago this month, seems somehow to lead to a better place – if not yet to the promised land.

In Selma this past weekend, people gathered to honor the leaders and achievements of the civil rights era of the 1960s, paying homage to a movement that, many here say, laid the foundation for an African-American man to become president of the United States less that half a century later.

Mr. Obama's election is again focusing attention on the unfinished business of racial reconciliation, says the Rev. Clete Kiley, president of the Faith and Politics Institute, which led the weekend tribute that included about 30 members of Congress.

"A page has been turned," he says. "But America has still not had the conversation about race it needs to have.... Our goal [in taking members of Congress to the churches and other landmarks associated with the civil rights era] is to get beyond nostalgia ... and to ask, 'Where do we go from here?' "

It is the ninth time since 1998 that the institute has organized such a trip to coincide with Selma's annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee.

Some warn, however, that the path forward may be compromised by inflated expectations and a sense among some African-Americans that, with the ascendancy of Obama to the nation's highest elected office, their dreams are fulfilled. Others insist that racial inequities spawned by past injustice remain and, in fact, need to be addressed even more urgently in this time of economic turmoil.

"Tough times for America often means tougher times for African-Americans," Obama told a conference on the State of the Black Union late last month. "This recession has been no exception."

The unemployment rate among African-Americans is five percentage points higher than the national average, statistics show. In Selma, which is 70 percent black, one-quarter of families live below the poverty line, compared with 9 percent nationally.

US Rep. Artur Davis (D) of Alabama, whose district includes Selma, said the events in and around the city 44 years ago, which began on "Bloody Sunday" and culminated two weeks later in a four-day voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, helped make Obama's successful run for the White House a reality. The march, led by Martin Luther King Jr., spurred Congress into passing the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

Representative Davis says that, as for inflated expectations, the African-American community simply wants Obama to "serve well and be a good president." The Obama presidency, he says, is also about healing past wounds and moving on.

There were signs of both this weekend. At Selma's Brown Chapel AME, the person who introduced Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of the segregationist Alabama governor of the 1960s, George Wallace Jr.

Her "words and life," Davis said, referring to her opposition to racial injustice and support for Obama as president, "have reflected what I have long believed: The true story of the civil rights movement is one of Americans working our way toward a sense of shared citizenship."

Also in Selma this weekend, Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who was beaten to within an inch of his life at the Edmund Pettus Bridge back in March 1965, said Obama's election has elevated the aspirations of African-Americans. But for him, Obama's victory is not the end. "It is a significant step down a very long road toward the creation of a beloved community," he said.

An activist in 1960s and beyond, Representative Lewis was attacked dozens of times by white supremacists. But no one had apologized for the acts of hatred or expressed regret – until now.

Attempting to enter the "whites only" section of the bus station in Rock Hill, S.C., in 1961, Lewis was beaten by a gang of white youths that included 25-year-old Elwin Wilson. Mr. Wilson, now 72 and still living in Rock Hill, has lately apologized to Lewis in an act of contrition motivated, he says, by Obama's election.

"That apology after all these years says something about the power of grace," Lewis said in Birmingham, on his way to Selma. "It says something about reconciliation, and it says something about forgiveness."

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