Friday, March 8, 2019

On Being Ordinary in Selma

I came to Selma. Finally.

I drove the 54-mile road to Montgomery, along the path where thousands walked in 1965. I saw the campsite locations for the walkers, most of whom set out on the journey - for a piece of freedom they knew the 14th amendment to the constitution had already had promised them - in their Sunday clothes.

I saw the memorial for a brave white mother from Detroit who heard the call for everyone who believed in justice, fairness, and America to come to Selma. She did. And she died.

I arrived at Alabama's state capital - one hour...not four days - later, to the grounds of St. Jude's Catholic Hospital/School with a sense of joy and relief. I cried.

Our trip began here 2 days ago, at the Edmund Pettus bridge. A quiet, sun-drenched morning put a little shine on this otherwise crumbling, poverty plagued South-Central Alabama town:

We came to remember this cold, drizzly day...March 7, 1965:

That was the day hundreds of Americans who believed every US citizen deserved the right to vote without qualification, harassment, or intimidation showed up to make a point. They would walk 54 miles to the state's capital, Montgomery, to let Alabama's segregationist governor know they were fed up with a post Civil War/ratified-14th-amendment-to-the-Constitution system that kept them from the most basic right in this country. Voting.

Those 1965 people were greeted with this on the Edmund Pettus (too much to say about who Edmund Pettus on the link) bridge:

We - my husband and I, 54 years later - threatened by nothing but shadows of ourselves:

By the time we arrived in Montgomery - unencumbered by state troopers, national guard, blisters, rain - I knew it had taken 3 separate attempts to get the march all the way to the capital. When an accumulated 10,000 marchers joined hands on the steps of Montgomery's Capitol building on March 25, 1965, more than 50 people had been hospitalized with injuries inflicted by Alabama law enforcers, and 3 people had been murdered by white supremacists.

They marched to a building to be seen and heard by an elected head of state who wouldn't come out of his office to greet them. But they were seen. They were heard. Just not by 9 year old me. Until this week.  And I am moved almost beyond words.

These people believed a bitter war had freed them 100 years before. They believed two subsequent amendments to the U.S. Constitution (13th and 14th, both ratified in 1868) had given them full rights as citizens of this country. They believed ordinary people doing extraordinary things would make a difference.

And they were right. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August, 1965.

If I've learned anything on this Civil Rights trail of tears we've been traveling, it's that I know nothing about being tossed to the fringes of humanity. Nothing about believing in what's right. Nothing, really, about the cost of freedom. I've never had to know.

I am a white woman of great privilege, learning a history of extraordinary people.

And, I am still desperately trying to pay attention...
Thank you Selma, for the reminder that the fight of 1965 is not yet won:

There is more to do.
And more to say. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Finally in Selma

54 years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked everyone in America who cared about justice to join him in Selma, Alabama. I was 9 years old.

The plea from Dr. King came after 600 non-violent voting rights marchers were stopped by Alabama state troopers at the end of the Edmund Pettus bridge as they walked toward Montgomery, 54 miles away. The protesters were tear-gassed and billy-clubbed and beaten back in their tracks (Bloody Sunday). A second march was scheduled three days later. In that brief re-grouping period, King appeared on TV, and he begged America to join the movement:
"If you believe in justice, come to Selma!
If you believe in fairness, come to Selma!
If you believe in America, come to Selma!"
I don't remember any of that from my 9th year of life in Nashville, Tennessee...but it hit me hard when I saw the scene depicted in the movie Selma a few years ago. I wondered then, "Why didn't we go to Selma?"

I am here now.

It's a twelve hour drive from Austin, TX to Selma, AL. We left our neighborhood at sunrise this morning and arrived just as the light hung low enough in the sky to add a touch of lovely to the front porch of the historic home where we're spending the night.

We'd been listening to the book White Rage on our drive across East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, as we meandered through Selma this evening, every historical marker in front of every 1860s home looked like a giant, neon RACIST sign to me. Pity our poor host, who greeted us warmly at the door of his 1870s home, but spoke in that Alabama drawling way that reminded me, again, of people from the past I'd really like to forget. Let's say I may have shown up on his porch a little hyper-sensitive to the ancestral sins of the South.

Tomorrow we begin our self-styled/self-guided civil rights tour in earnest. The Pettus bridge is Stop #1. But tonight, we sat a bit with our gracious Southern host and heard about his hopes for his hometown of Selma, about his love for his grandmother, and about the valiantly struggling cookie business he runs in honor of both.

Trip lesson #1: You just can't judge a person by their drawl. Or the color of their skin. 

From the road to Montgomery. Peace.

PS. The cookies are delish.