|The Rev. Dr. William Barber II leads marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.|
Friday, March 13, 2015
Selma's historic call: Looking back, marching forward
As far as one’s eyes could see, the throng – perhaps as many as 70,000 – stretched up and down U.S. Route 80 and in between cross-streets drawn by the memory of that horrific event in 1965 Selma, Ala., when blood was spilled in pursuit of the right to vote.
Men, women and children from myriad parts of the country formed a 2015 chorus of multi-generational, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic marchers singing in unison the freedom songs that set the tone and temperament of the tumultuous civil rights movement: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “We Shall Overcome.”
The Edmund Pettus Bridge stretches across the Alabama River, standing as a symbol of defiance and a stark reminder of the tragic events that still wrench hearts 50 years later.
The death of Jimmy Lee Jackson ignited the movement in Selma, said the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the North Carolina Forward Together Moral Movement, a healthcare initiative.
Jackson was a civil rights activist in Marion, Ala., and a deacon in the Baptist church when an Alabama state trooper shot him on Feb. 18th, 1965. He died eight days later; the victim of what Barber calls an “assassination.”
Selma’s hate also claimed the life of the Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was beaten to death. Seventeen members of Reeb’s family commemorated Bloody Sunday and reminded the marchers of Reeb’s gallantry and commitment to the “movement.”
“We came here, 17 of us, to stand with you in love and solidarity,” Reeb’s daughter said. “We are going to keep marching with you until justice is served.”
A group of white supremacists attacked her father on March 9th, 1965, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for the nation’s clergy to support the second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. Reeb died two days later.
About five months later (Aug. 6th), the price paid by the Selma-connected faithful helped usher in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1966 bolstered that landmark legislation. Now, said Barber, “It’s time to fight again.”
Barber’s resolve is tied to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision striking down Section 4 as unconstitutional. “Chief Justice John Roberts said there was not enough racism in America to justify the Voting Rights Act,” Barber told the marchers.
“They did more with less. We have to do more with more,” said Barber, referring to the leaders and foot soldiers that fought and died for the right to vote in 1965 and encouraging the leaders and foot soldiers of today to call upon the moxie within themselves.
He blamed the Tea Party and the Koch brothers (Charles G. and David H. Koch) for today’s voter suppression tactics, saying the brothers, in part, are duly responsible.
“Voting is a right, a responsibility that we must exercise, and a ritual that everyone does,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers and a member of the AFL-CIO.
While Barber and Weingarten both emphasized the importance of voting, Lucille Price lamented that young people don’t always participate in the political process.
“You know, young people piss me off because they don’t vote,” said Price, part of the Memphis contingent that joined people from all over the country at the historic event. The influx swelled the small Dallas County town up to its fringes.
Throughout the day, a cadre of young men tapped a rhythmic beat on djembe drums, entrepreneurs hawked food items and souvenirs, and the media swarmed over the humongous crowd.
“My feet are tired,” said Memphian Carolyn Matthews, who walked around almost non-stop for more than three hours until she finally tuckered out.
Matthews was part of a contingent of 50 Memphians that bussed into Selma on Sunday at noon. All, including the youngest marchers, were just as drained. Elaine Lee Turner, owner of Heritage Tours of Memphis, who chartered the bus to Selma, noted that she, too, could use some rest.
On Sunday evening, after a day none of them will ever forget, the travel-weary but soul-filled Memphians re-boarded their bus, recalled what intrigued them in Selma, and then slumbered as much as they could on the way back home.