How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on. Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
— Conclusion of speech”How Long, Not Long” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered March 25, 1965 in Montgomery at the end of the Voting Rights March
Our National Park Services staff during the 50th Anniversary Selma to Montgomery Walking Classroom has been without peer.
The team consisted of interpretive, logistics, medical, and security staff from around the Southeast Region. They were assembled based on their own unique skills and experiences, and my, how bright they shone.
The interpretive staff designed learning experiences along a 54-mile trail over a 5 day period for 150 members of the public and 150 youth from 18-25.
Read that sentence again.
You’ll feel tired.
Because what that really means is that they patiently waited through approximately 3 million steps, 9,000 bathroom trips, multiple daily bus attendance checks, and myriad urgent, yet uniquely personal concerns about blisters, water, soggy sleeping bags, and lunch breaks to tell us amazing stories.
Besides, this is a unique mix of passionate, engaged students and plenty of adults who work in some capacity advocating for other people or doing activism. Essentially, this group had zero sheeple and was going to be pretty tough to herd without strong, compelling leadership. Tim Sinclair, the lead ranger, splits his time between Tuskegee and the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Every day, in hundreds of ways, he kept our “eyes on the prize” … getting us fired up and ready to go in the morning with an emotionally charged and informative send-off. He modeled authenticity and vulnerability in so many ways, all while being extremely professional in carrying off a huge undertaking. Tim was never too tired or too busy or too important to not give an issue his full attention and consideration. His brand of respectful, big-hearted, resourceful professionalism should be replicated everywhere.
The interpretive staff told us stories we never heard before. Stories about martyrs. About voting organizers who worked in a community that hadn’t seen an African-American vote in a lifetime. They told stories in the rain, or on a stage in a tent, or pounding the pavement while watching to see if the semis veered too close.
They taught us to sing songs. Several of our rangers came from the New Orleans Jazz National Park. They interpret our national musical history for a living, and several times a day they would lift our voices in song…to rouse us on our long miles, to motivate us after a stirring morning presentation, to contemplate or give thanks at the end of a long day.
Our interpretive staff brought their prodigious regional knowledge to bear on the Voting Rights March, particularly stories from the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. They movingly interwove stories from their posts at other significant civil rights sites like Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. They provided deep contextual knowledge about the Civil War and Reconstruction from their assignments at places like Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park.
And the delivery is so, so good. I mean, you’ve got three hundred people — tired, soggy, hungry people– standing outside outside on crunchy leaves or in mud and we’re captivated…fantastic pacing, emotionally intense, factually new and exciting all the way around. None of us is ever going to forget hearing Robert talk about how the movement to register Dallas County voters was built over a long time, with a lot of strategy. He said, “You can’t fight the cool guy in the club on the first night.”
The interpretive staff was only one piece of the puzzle. Our march would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of the logistics, operations, and safety staff. Remember, we had 3 million steps, 9,000 bathroom trips, multiple daily bus attendance checks, and myriad urgent, yet uniquely personal concerns about blisters, water, and lunch breaks to deal with while we were being swept on the mighty stream of history and mesmerized by the interpretive staff all while getting to know one another.
That’s 3 million steps along a highway, where every intersection was blocked by state or local police so we could proceed safely. That’s 3 million steps along a highway where they kept us three feet from the center line while highway traffic was passing. That’s three hundred people each taking almost 25,000 steps on some days…that’s 750,000 possible blisters, ankle turns, stumbles too close to the center line when a semi with mirrors is coming through. One of our participants, an embedded photographer was charging through the ditch to get a shot and almost stepped on a rattlesnake.
We were a diverse group. Baby E. was the youngest at 5 months; we also had people in their 70s. We had a wheelchair, and a few people who walk with poles or canes. We had folks with pre-existing or chronic medical conditions. We all had to be dry, hydrated, with sore feet, eating enough and not exerting too much. And also not be made into roadkill. Our medical and safety care was so well attended to that we were able to more fully participate and appreciate this experience. The medical and safety teams were ready for anything, but thankfully, they mostly had to deal with an awful lot of difficulties that involved folks removing very fragrant, marched-in socks.
Our social media rangers took fantastic photos and videos each day. They captured ideas and experiences about the march that I would never have experienced. I want to give a special shoutout to “Social Media Ranger” Will Wilson. The day we went in to the Alabama State Capitol, thousands of marchers joined us in a nearly four mile march. We arrived at the steps of the capitol under a hot sun on baking asphalt. Ranger Tim Sinclair immediately got vulnerable members of the NPS Walking Classroom to seats to avoid the crush of the enthusiastic, peaceful crowds.
Baby E. and I were among the vulnerable members of the group, even though that’s not how I viewed myself…I’d just hoofed 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery carrying a 17 pound baby! I’d just nursed her in my sling trotting downhill in a crowd! We were invincible.
But my NPS Rangers could see farther, and they weren’t about to take a chance with us after the last mile had ended.
Ranger Will Wilson stuck to me like glue throughout the long presentations, speeches and songs. He flashed his NPS badge to seat me in some shade so that I could nurse Baby E. and stuck to me so that despite my lack of pre-clearance that we would not be moved. When I realized how after the hours on the hot asphalt with Baby E. strapped to my chest would have made us both so uncomfortable and in danger of overheating, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Here’s a “Social Media Ranger” compromising the kinds of photos he can shoot to make sure that Baby E. and I would be comfortable. I’m pretty sure he only left our sides to fetch us more bottles of water. Throughout the presentations, I saw our rangers continually coming in with huge cases of water and distributing them to participants. They modeled selflessness and situational awareness even at the culminating event of all their work.
When I realized just how much Ranger Wilson had accommodated us, we were listing to Dr. Bernice King’s delivery of her father’s famous “How Long, Not Long” speech on the capitol steps. I was a teary mess. I didn’t have the words to properly thank him, but he simply pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his little girls. He let me know, in very few words, how deeply he understood the needs of a young baby and her mother. I’ll never forget that kindness.
Our rangers modeled an inclusivity and a devotion to our democratic ideals. They went beyond simply finding a way to fully include people of different ethnic backgrounds and physical abilities. People of different socio-economic backgrounds. People of very different ages, from all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Our rangers made our program safe and accepting for our LGBTQ participants. Marchers felt valued and when a concern was raised, it was addressed humbly, completely, publicly, and professionally. Let it be known that on the road from Selma to Montgomery in 2015, the porta-potties were integrated so that folks who don’t fit gender norms weren’t made to feel unwelcome or less-than. For this Walking Classroom, our NPS staff realized Dr. King’s dream of a “beloved community.”
I know this entire NPS staff pulled long days. They put in a lot of road miles and were constantly working hard on behalf of our safety, health, and intellectual and civic development. Their souls were swift to answer, and jubilant, their feet.
Our country is a finer place for those who wear the green and gray. Our national treasures — including those ideals inscribed in our founding documents — are stewarded and interpreted by the best.
Even though Baby E. won’t remember this march, it’s part of her story. And someday, I hope that this little one grows up to be a National Park Service Ranger, too.