It’s 50 years after the “Bloody Sunday” March at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and when you’ve crossed over from Selma on your way to Montgomery, Alabama you can see a billboard announcing “Welcome to President Obama and You”. But on the trip back you see the other side: a drawing of a Confederate general with the message “Keep the skeer (sic) in ‘em”, a paraphrase of a famous Civil War quote. As your car speeds by, if you look carefully you can read the legend “Friends of Forrest”. It’s 2015, but evidently in Alabama, Nathan Bedford Forrest—Confederate officer, alleged war criminal, and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—is not friendless. Could anything better illustrate the confusing, conflicting and contradictory world of the former Confederacy today?
The 50th anniversary “Jubilee” celebration of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent successful march from Selma to Montgomery is both a homecoming honoring the original “foot soldiers” (grassroots participants awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama) and an opportunity to bring the history, spirit and tactics of the civil rights movement to the #blacklivesmatter generation. Perhaps as many as a hundred thousand people converged on Selma for a week of commemoration culminating in a re-enactment of the march across the bridge. On the anniversary, anarchy reigned as thousands converged near the bridge to get into the rally area near where President Obama would address Democratic and Republican Congresspersons, including Rep. John Lewis who famously suffered a skull fracture at the hands of police on Bloody Sunday, and guests ranging from former Presidents Bush II and Clinton to the daughter of the late infamous segregationist governor and presidential candidate, George Wallace. The masses were then subjected to airport-level security screening at the entrance to the area, where they watched the event on jumbotrons from some distance away, as the Secret Service had thought better of the original plan with spectators closer to the first Black President. A mixture of pride, excitement and gravitas characterized the crowd, with quiet attention to the President and the other speakers—at least for a while. People posed in front of the giant screens to take selfies of themselves with President Obama. Perhaps affected by the sudden heat (no one was allowed to bring liquids), the crowd stopped paying attention halfway through the President’s speech; the second half of Obama’s speech was drowned out as people left. Although a small contingent of Red Cross staffers and ambulance crews was present, as people began collapsing from dehydration and there were no lanes for ambulances, it was evident that emergency management planning was woefully inadequate. The next day, the reenactment of the successful march across the bridge was characterized with an air of quiet, happy reflection, with people of all ages packed in very tightly but calm and cooperative. Organized labor’s presence was smaller and more local than might have been expected; the organized left was surprisingly few and far between. Although white progressives may profess respect for the seminal nature of the civil rights movement, the crowd was predominantly African-American.
It’s said that “Selma did more for civil rights than civil rights did for Selma”. Today, Selma has twice the U.S. unemployment rate and 67% of Dallas County children live below the poverty line. Downtown Selma doesn’t resemble your typical economically-depressed, blighted, run-down Main Street as much as a ghost town, with strategically-placed trompe l’oeil fronts obscuring vacant lots a block or two from one of the most hallowed sites in America (the bridge). Go just another block or so and you see grassy pastures. Yet, history is omnipresent at every turn, and you feel like you are walking through the set of the recent movie “Selma”. There’s Brown Chapel AME Church, site of martyr Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral, the proximate cause of the marches; where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke and where Malcolm X met with Coretta Scott King. Across the street are the George Washington Carver Homes, the housing project featured in the movie “Selma, Lord, Selma”, then-home of eight-year-old activist and marcher Sheyann Webb, who also spoke at Jubilee events. On the next block sits the First Baptist Church, where the legendary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee argued, planned and organized the Selma campaign. There was the mural marking where the Reverend James Reeb, a white pastor who answered the call for supporters, was murdered, and the National Historic Site on the road to Montgomery where volunteer Viola Liuzzo was felled by a sniper. And the Dallas County Courthouse where Sheriff Jim Clark attacked Amelia Boynton-Robinson, one of the “Courageous Eight”. She is now 103 years old, and held hands with Obama as they crossed the bridge. A visitor had chance encounters with SNCC Freedom Singers, elected officials, and many foot soldiers with stories such as the fear and pain incurred during a night in jail as a nine-year-old, the Klansman recognized as your neighbor by the shoes peeping out of his robe, of weighing the desire to participate vs fear of losing one’s job, the irony of only being alive today as the recipient of an organ from a white youth.
If one listened only to corporate media reporting, one wouldn’t know the depth and breadth of numerous events aiming to tie the strength and discipline of the civil rights movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s with the energy and momentum of today’s nascent fight-back against police brutality, mass incarceration, racial violence and economic inequity. In addition to the “official” events, with President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Congressman John Lewis, there were also the “people’s” events, like the Memorial for Martyrs of the Movement and Mass Meeting where the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and others delivered speeches with all the passion and eloquence of the southern pastoral tradition, something heard only rarely at political meetings up north. A “Community Hearing on Poverty: A Renewal of Reverend Doctor King’s Poor People’s Campaign” was held at Brown Chapel, with activists from movements such as rank-and-file labor, religious denominations, Iraq War Veterans Against the War, “Fight for 15” (minimum wage), Medicaid expansion, southern cooperatives, and the climate justice movement calling for a renewed focus on poverty and related issues. Plans to ramp up the action were made. The Reverend Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP, declared they’d give Congress five months to fix the gutted Voting Rights Act; if not, they might have to march from Montgomery to Washington this summer. Real living legends spoke during the week at the literally dozens of events, including Diane Nash of SNCC, who helped birth the Selma movement, Deloris Huerta, a founder of the United Farm Workers of America, who spoke at a Black-Brown Unity rally of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, and the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the electrifying North Carolina NAACP head who convenes the “Moral Mondays” protests which have brought thousands of protesters to state capitals. Inspiring both awe with his incisive political analysis (“The only sex you should talk about is the illicit relationship between big business and politicians”), and terror as his very physical existence seemed threatened by the power of his oratory and the vagaries of his blood sugar control.
Fifty years ago, no one would conceive of a Black President. Yet the flip side—literally, in the case of the billboard—is nostalgia for, even endorsement of, a system of indiscriminate murder, rape, assault, i.e., terror, that was variously state-tolerated, state-facilitated, and frequently state-sponsored. One might think that Jim Crow meant only segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains, second- class schools, even the disenfranchisement of virtually the entire Black population of most of the south. Mainstream news reports stress that the 1965 march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but seldom if ever use the “T” word, our current national preoccupation. (Interestingly, the massacre in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has sparked a debate on what constitutes terrorism, but it is applied more to such episodes of wanton violence than to the entire economic and political structure of the Jim Crow south.) Use of terror supposedly separates “us” from “them”, those against whom the United States can wage violence. But it is within human memory when the southern half of this country was an apartheid state enforced by terrorist violence. And here lies the essence of what Bloody Sunday really signifies—not just the right to vote but the overthrow of Jim Crow—an uprising that defeated at least (some of) the most terrifying aspects. As Rev. Dr. Barber said in Selma, “We’ve never changed this country without massive civil disobedience.”