Nation & World

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Revisiting Selma 50 years later

President Barack Obama, fourth from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. At far left is Sasha Obama and at far right is former first lady Laura Bush.
President Barack Obama, fourth from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. At far left is Sasha Obama and at far right is former first lady Laura Bush. AP

There were no commemorative T-shirts for sale here in 1965.

There were none the first time voting rights activists sought to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march to Montgomery, only to be clubbed and brutalized in a police riot that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Nor the second time they tried, when Martin Luther King led marchers from all over the country out onto that bridge, prayed, and then led them back into town, an event that came to be known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” Nor the third time when, under federal protection, they crossed the bridge and marched four days to the state capital, where King gave one of the most inspired orations of his life:

“They told us we wouldn’t get here,” he said. “There were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies. All the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama, sayin’ we ain’t gon’ let nobody turn us around!”

No T-shirts for sale back then bearing likenesses of King or Malcolm X or, obviously, President Barack Obama.It is an oversight they seem intent on rectifying at the 50th anniversary commemoration. There is an unmistakable air of the carnival to this affair. You can buy T-shirts not only of those men, but also, for some reason, of Michael Jackson.

Nor is that all. You can also buy buttons, candy apples, lipstick, fruity drinks in frilly plastic glasses, barbecue, roasted corn, fish, dresses, earrings and glow sticks like you’d find at the circus. It cost $20 just to cross a barricade to within a couple blocks of the bridge.

One is loath to criticize citizens of a poor and hardscrabble town for turning a buck any legal way they can. Still, all that unrestrained commerce feels ... odd. It has the effect of turning the day into not just a commemoration of America then, but a wry commentary on America now, on the seriousness, or lack thereof, of its people. We celebrate the courage of those who crossed the bridge 50 years ago, but how many of us, walking down Broad St., sipping fruity drinks and wearing our Michael Jackson t-shirts, would have the resolve and firmness of purpose to do the same thing now?

In a nation where the deaths of men and boys like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin are fresh wounds and the Justice Department just quantified the blatant racism of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, the question is not an idle one.

“I didn’t expect all the street vendors,” says Adrienne Howard, 44, a stay-at-home mom from Atlanta who grew up here. “I’ve never seen so many people in my life here.”

“I expected a lot of people, says Yvonne States, 68, of Birmingham. “I expected food, but I didn’t expect clothes and purses and food. It’s a little bit much. It’s kind of a carnival atmosphere.”

It’s worth remembering, then, that what feels like a carnival now grew out of a moment that was anything but. If voting is the one act by which democracy is defined, then the denial of that right to African-Americans was nothing more or less than the most visceral evidence of their forced exclusion from the nation’s daily life.

People came from all over the country to challenge that, at risk of life and limb. And for some, it turned out to be more than risk. A young Selma man named Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed in this campaign. As was a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo and a Boston minister named James Reeb.

Robert Adams, now a 69-year-old teacher from L.A., was a 19-year-old white kid who answered the call to come to Selma and accepted that same risk.

“It was one of those points in my life,” he says, “when I realized that you have to be a person of conscience. I think that was really a beginning point in a way. We look out for ourselves, of course, and becoming individuals is really important. But part of that particular individuation has to be the recognition of others who are on their own paths. Until conscience and a certain amount of self overcoming can be accomplished, we’re not really going to get very far.”

The men and women who crossed that bridge brought forth the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which opened democracy to many African-Americans for the very first time. The Supreme Court’s recent savaging of that act, coupled with the imposition of new voting restrictions, seems likely to — and designed to — close it again.

Any resemblance to the overthrow of Reconstruction is not as coincidental as some us might want to believe.

It is an interesting coincidence of history that the president in this pregnant moment is Barack Obama, who manages to embody both the promise of the Voting Rights Act (who could have believed a black president would address the nation from this spot 50 years later?) and the sheer intransigence of pure, unalloyed hatred that still strangles American potential (as in the washed up rock star and frequent Fox “News” guest who infamously dubbed Obama a “subhuman mongrel.”)

The president gave a stemwinder of a speech to close out the Saturday commemoration. As people cheered his name and women well past the usual age of climbing on things climbed on a police tower trying to get a better look, the president touched on many worthwhile topics. He saluted the courage of the marchers, he spoke of how they opened doors for freedom movements that came after, he reminded us that if Ferguson is no longer the norm, it is not exactly unique, either.

He also warned that this commemoration must also be a recommitment. Given the weakening of the Voting Rights Act and the passage of laws designed to make it more difficult for African-Americans and others to vote, there is still work to be done, he said, “new ground to cover...more bridges to be crossed.”

Unfortunately, the speakers were not very good and his words were not audible out in the midway where t-shirts bearing his image were going for $10 a pop.

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