Today Representative John Lewis led a thousands of people on a march to commemorate the March 7th 1965 Selma march, a march that the then 25 year old Lewis, working for voting rights as a leader of the SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee both led and organized. In today’s march, Lewis was accompanied by President Barak Obama and nearly 100 members of Congress. They were joined by former President George W. Bush and his ice Laura. Though about two dozen Republican members attended, sadly, of the Republican House or Senate leadership only Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy bothered to show, changing his mind late Friday. Lewis remarked today:
“We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do…”
This is profoundly important today.
In 1965, the political and police leaders of Alabama, including Governor George Wallace, as well as those of Selma, determined to stop any movement that might advance the cause of blacks acted to crush the marchers. Wallace denounced the march as a threat to public safety and promised to stop it. He ordered the State Police to take all measures to ensure that it did not happened. In Selma, the county sheriff ordered all adult white males to report to the courthouse to be deputized.
On the 7th some 550-600 protesters led by Lewis and the Reverend Hosea Williams and began their march. All went well until they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There they ran into a phalanx of State Police. The commander of those men ordered the marchers back. Williams attempted to discuss the matter with him and was rebuffed. It was then that the State Police advanced into the ranks of the demonstrators. They knocked them down, and beat them with nightsticks. Another group of State Police began to launch tear gas which incapacitated the unprepared and peaceful crowd. Still more mounted troopers charged into the now struggling mass of people beating them with nightsticks as they rode through the demonstrators.
Dozens of marchers, men, women and children, including Lewis were injured. Seventeen required hospitalization. Wallace appeared to have succeeded in stopping the march, but instead the images of the brazen brutal acts committed by his police energized people around the country, including President Johnson.
It triggered additional demonstrations not only in Selma, but in Montgomery, the State Capital. While the demonstrations were peaceful, and the later march which took place on March 21st was protected by U.S. Army soldiers and Alabama National Guard troops under Federal orders, more protesters would be killed or injured. Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston was attacked by a white mob armed with clubs. He died of massive brain trauma two days later. On March 25th, Viola Luizzo, a white mother from Detroit who had come to support the marchers, was assassinated by members of the KKK.
The marches led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As he introduced the act to Congress Johnson noted:
“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Fifty years later, the battle is still not over. I know that much progress has been made in my lifetime, from my experience in high school where due to a court order I went to school with people I would have never met, people who today, are among my best friends. Racism and discrimination are not as bad as they were back in 1965, but sadly they are still all to common and not just in the South, and its reach extends far beyond blacks, although African Americans still suffer the brunt of it.
President Obama gave an amazing and inspiring speech today at the Pettus Bridge. I recommend that you either watch it or read it. Here is just a part of what he said today:
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?
What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:
“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny…
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.
That’s what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity…
The actions of those who marched at Selma in 1965 and the words of the President appeal to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, they appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the new birth of freedom.”
That being said, we shall overcome.