Leonard Pitts Jr

Do Selma’s lessons still resonate with the young?

IN SELMA: A couple joins thousands of people who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday.
IN SELMA: A couple joins thousands of people who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday. Getty Images

“My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.” — Hosea 4:6

You wonder sometimes what children see.

When some boy or girl brings to bear young eyes and a sense of context not yet 20 years old, how do they interpret what happened here 50 years ago when their grandparents were young? When they see the old black-and-white footage of the beating on the bridge or the triumphant entry into Montgomery 18 days later, does it seem like a dispatch from another planet, all those men in ties and hats, all those women in cat’s eye sunglasses? Can they smell the fear and taste the blood? Does it seem quite real?

Fifty years later, children are among those who have gathered in this small town at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a symbolic march across to commemorate those demonstrations, which culminated in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ask a few of them why they are here, ask them the significance of this place, and one or two will be able to offer a cogent explanation of the fight for the right to vote. One little boy can even talk about how registrars once required black people to answer nonsense questions (“How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”) before they could register.

Most others, though, speak in vague generalities about freedom, but smile shyly and shrug when you push them to say what that means. When asked what the significance of the bridge might be, one young man shrugs. “I don't know,” he says. “I got woke up and brought [here].” He is, he says, a member of a Mississippi group that promotes history through storytelling.

“I think we have let our children down,” says Ann Beard Grundy. “Those of us who are now the elders, the adults, 40-, 50-, 60-year-old people. Think about it: Where can a black child go in 2015 and know with certainty that he or she will get a message filled with information and purpose? Can’t go to church. You sure ’nuff‘ ain’t gon’ get it at these so-called schools.”

“With all the advances in technology,” she adds, “it strikes me that we can find a way to transmit at least information. It’s real, real hard to just casually point the finger at them. ... It’s like sending our children into war and they don’t have the armor. We have to take full responsibility as African-American adults for not institutionalizing [knowledge].”

Grundy is a retired Alabama native who lives in Kentucky. Fifty years ago, she was a college student who answered the call to march to Montgomery. Her group arrived in time for the final push into the state capital.

“The thing that most of us remember is that as we passed through African-American neighborhoods, we were cheered: ‘Yay! Thank you! So glad to have you!’ And as we walked through white neighborhoods, the look of death. If looks could kill, Ann Grundy would be dead right now.”

She remembers seeing Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary. She remember seeing George Wallace peek furtively from his window. And she remembers Martin Luther King Jr. giving that great oration on economic justice, the one where he spoke forthrightly about the con job that segregation played on the working-class white man. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide,” said King, “he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

Most people who remember that speech recall it for its soaring refrain: “How long? Not long.” It is, in many ways, King’s most profound, if under-appreciated oration. Grundy is not at all sure she understood it herself, 50 years ago.

“To be honest at 18 years old I don't know quite what all I took in, even though I was standing fairly close to the front of this. I don’t know what I took in and I don’t know what I carried away. I just know that at 18, it was kind of my first time independently away from home. And I had seen a certain amount of things I had seen the bus boycott. I had seen the bombing of the church. I had experienced indirectly the Greensboro sit-ins. All of that to say that at 18 I was feeling my oats. Like, wow, I now have an opportunity without my mother and father standing over me, to stand for what I believe in.”

Half a century later, sitting out front of a school across the street from the George Washington Carver housing project, this red-brick monument to the warehousing of poverty saw the original marchers step off from nearby Brown Chapel. It watches, apparently unchanged, as a commemorative march prepares. And that rather neatly symbolizes the enduring challenges Grundy sees facing young people today as they attempt to determine what they will believe in — and fight for

“Look at these projects. In a real way, has [the Selma march] impacted the quality of life for our people? I don't think so. We have got to fight the economic piece. White people are not going to give it up. It’s going to have to be taken. If I were white, I wouldn’t give it up. Because it works for them. It doesn't work for me.”

Young black people she says, need to start business of their own — and support black businesses already in operation. In order to do this, she says, they need to reach past the emotional brokenness that is still a legacy of slavery and embrace a model of economic self-determination.

It is a forward-looking agenda, a do-not-rest-on-your-laurels agenda that seems very much in keeping with the words of speaker after speaker echoing from within Brown Chapel, a collective commandment not just to restore the gains that have been eroded over 50 years, but to forge the way forward from there.

One wonders what the children see. One wonders if they understand that the bulk of that work will be theirs. And that it will shape the future for themselves, their children, and their country.

The marchers step off from the chapel at about 3:30 in the afternoon, singing call-and-response choruses of Amen. They are bound for the bridge, marching in commemoration of a yesterday long gone — and in anticipation of a tomorrow not yet born.