Thursday, March 19, 2015

Selma's foot soldiers retrace their steps

      Selma, Ala. was a bastion of deep-seated racism as the eyes of the world watched state troopers unleash a violent fury on voting-rights marchers on March 7th, 1965. Annie Pearl Avery and Warren Harrison were there, fighting on two different fronts.
      The 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” drew Avery and Harris back to Selma, placing them among tens of thousands committed to commemorating that fateful day. Their foot-soldier stories conjure images of a sordid era and yield lessons for a more promising future.

Fighting back…

      Annie Pearl Avery was shy of 21 and sitting in jail in 1965 when Alabama state troopers clubbed, trampled and tear-gassed 600 civil rights demonstrators attempting to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery 54 miles away.
      A mangled mess of bloody human wreckage on U.S. Route 80 signaled just how tough the road would be en route to securing voting rights. Avery had incurred the wrath of the state troopers as well and even scrapped with one of them, she said.
Annie Pearl Avery talks about her experience in Selma 1965.
       “I was arrested that day. Me and the police officer had a physical disagreement,” said Avery, who sat along the same route telling her story and selling T-shirts and other paraphernalia to visitors who journeyed to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
      Some details are sketchy, said Avery, recalling the tussle that got her arrested and the minor wounds she sustained while fighting back.
      “I was a moving target,” she said. “You can’t seriously hurt a moving target.”
      After Avery was carted off to jail, hell was unleashed on the bridge. Battered bodies lay helpless and strewn on the pavement while others sprinted to avoid the rage.
      One of those battered bodies was identified as 54-year-old Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, an activist who helped to organize the local Selma Voting Rights Movement. Boynton lay unconscious after the melee while the world watched in horror.
      Fifty years later, the world’s eyes were back on Boynton, 104, “the original foot soldier.” She returned to Selma in a wheelchair to commemorate that moment in history with other foot soldiers, the sea of marchers and President Barack Obama on Saturday (March 7th).
      As Boynton and others were being savagely beaten on that frightful day in 1965, Avery was unaware that lives were hanging in the balance.
      “I didn’t know they were beating people until I got out of jail,” said Avery, who was the project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Hale County, Ala.
      After spending nearly hours locked up in Selma, Avery moved on to challenge the status quo in other cities.
      “I can’t remember the exact number of times I got arrested,” she said. “But I remember I was arrested in Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Gaston, Ala.”
      In Danville, Va., for example, Avery spent 90 days in jail for contempt of court. She fasted the entire time, she said.
      Although Avery forged ahead during the civil rights movement, she looked back over that part of her life during the commemorative anniversary and acknowledged that she was afraid.
      “I was always scared,” she said. “But the thing about fear is once you make the decision to do something, fear dissipates. You just have to make up your mind that you will accept the consequences.”

Activism by bus…

      Warren Harrison’s mind is sharp, but his body is frail. That didn’t stop the 92-year-old from rolling his scooter through the thick crowd with his oxygen tank on the back and over-the-ear nasal cannulas attached to his nose.
      On the side of Harrison’s scooter was a sign that read: “It’s A Privilege PLEASE Vote.” That message was underscored in Selma in 1965 and other parts of the segregated South where African Americans were denied the right to vote.
      The carnage of Bloody Sunday unfolded before Harrison on a television screen. The next day he was in Selma trying to make a difference.
Warren Harrison transported demonstrators during the
tumultuous civil rights movement.
      “I saw that the marchers were badly beaten and needed blood. So I donated my blood,” said Harrison, who’d left Detroit to assist the injured demonstrators.
      When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a third march, Harrison was still in Selma and answered the call. He marched with hundreds to the state house in Montgomery to assert his right to vote, braving the peril of trying to secure it.
      Fifty years later, Harrison is still concerned about civil rights and human rights. The commemoration, he said, meant he needed to be in Selma.
      On Saturday (March 7th), Harrison got a chance to shake President Obama’s hand and got two hugs from first lady Michelle Obama. The next day, his great niece, Leslie Clapp, spotted Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson on the bridge in the crowd.
      “I want to say hello to her,” Harrison told his great niece.
      Clapp made it happen.
      “He jumped off the scooter to meet her,” she said. “They held hands for a moment in the middle of the bridge.”
      Born in Selma, Harrison moved to Detroit at the age of 10 to live with an older brother – a decision made necessary after he got into a disagreement with a white man after an encounter with the man’s son. He was more than willing to tell that story and others, but preferred talking about the civil rights movement instead.
      A coast-to-coast bus driver, Harrison bused civil rights demonstrators all over the country. He drove them to the March on Washington, the Albany Movement in Albany, Ga., Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., back and forth to Selma, and other places when transportation was needed.
      He even shuttered the entourage of five U.S. presidents. He stopped driving a decade ago and now lives in Southfield, Mich., where he is an active member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
      “This trip to Selma,” said Harrison, “has added years to my life.”

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