There’s something very asynchronous about rolling into Selma, Alabama. We’re there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March, a symbol of how far we’ve come as a nation. A milestone. A “can-you-believe-we-let-this-happen-in-America” moment. And yet, just as you come upon the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a welcome sign on the right side of Highway 80 features Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. While many other Alabama institutions have rolled out the welcome wagon for out-of-town guests commemorating voting rights, a neo-confederate wizardess erected that billboard.
Several weeks ago, on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Klan also put out the full-court press by placing 4,000 recruitment fliers at Selma homes. You can read more here, if you’re not easily disturbed by hate speech and atrocious grammar.
I had a hard time imagining Selma beforehand, trying to hold that contrast of the center of the struggle for basic freedoms alongside a brazen, still-active hate group. How do these things coexist in twenty-first century America? I suppose you know that your ideals haven’t carried the day when your town is welcoming the first Black president of the United States and you’re shoving a bunch of rocks and misspelled mimeographs into baggies as your way to win people over. But still. The idea that some amateur leaflets will carry any weight in an i-Pad world was really stunning.
Selma is small, much smaller than its outsize contributions to American history might connote. The population has gone down to about two thirds of what it was during the 1965 march; it is predominantly black and economically fairly modest. There are plenty of “For Rent” signs in the empty storefronts in the downtown business district, which has a number of really lovely historic buildings. Part of it echoed some of the Iowa county seats I knew growing up there, towns that had been thriving until the population dwindled and the local business base diminished.
The thing you notice in Selma right away is that there is nothing between Brown Chapel AME Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge that doesn’t have some kind of historical marker or placard on it. Everything from signs describing buildings or people to events fairly chokes the main thoroughfare. The National Park Service has an interpretive center there as well, and I can fairly say that the city punches above its weight in terms of museums and historical sites.
Brown AME Chapel was the site of the kickoff, a Mass Meeting in the style of the original organizers. The National Park Service rangers and employees were phenomenal. That group of people seems to be able to play guitar, sing, interpret history, do safety orientations, preach, reflect, and herd cats in an inimitable style. They are a real national treasure.
We were led in prayer by Rev. Frederick Reese. A lifelong activist, educator, and minister, Rev. Reese was a member of the so-called “Courageous Eight” — the group of African-American voting rights activists in Dallas County who signed the invitation to bring Dr. King to Selma.
Let me be clear; without the decades-long work, the tireless, often invisible work at great personal risk by people like Rev. Reese, there would be no Selma-Montgomery march. Dr. King didn’t dream it up; its seed was planted years before and watered every time a Black citizen of Dallas County tried to register to vote. Now in his eighties, Rev. Reese had to struggle for his own access to the ballot box. And if he says that God is the one that brought him here, well, no one can quibble with that. Rev. Reese is a dynamic, engaging speaker and even managed to elicit a little call and response from the marchers gathered.
The second foot soldier of the march to address us was Joan Bland. She was so warm and dynamic, with such a strong call to non-violence and a challenge to the current generation to not just remember and honor the march, but to actually go fix things. I’ll never forget the hug Edith and I got from her.
The walk itself is lovely. Flat, smooth walking with so much public safety around. There are marchers from 29 states, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. We range in age from my five-month-old to people who remember when the march happened the first time. We are in strollers, slung on our mamas, in wheel chairs, using canes. We are America.