Posted: 01/19/15 21:26
by Dave Mindeman(Reprint of a post I made on April 7th, 2009. I had just returned from a vacation in which we visited historical sites from the Civil Rights Era. It is appropriate for MLK Day and the recent release of the movie - "Selma". As I ponder the Supreme Court decision to reverse many of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, it is hard not to think about the Edmund Pettus Bridge.)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama. It's not a huge structure. It isn't a marvel of engineering. It doesn't hover over a large river. Under normal circumstances, this bridge wouldn't attract the slightest bit of extra attention.
But this bridge has blood buried in its asphalt. It muffles the shouts of anger...the cries of despair. Its crossing may have moved the nation to recognize disenfranchised rights.
1965. Selma has become a fulcrum point for voting rights in Alabama....even the entire South. Why Selma? Because Selma has a black populace that is tired of being held back. The county has 15,000 eligble African-American voters....156 are registered. This dismal record has the attention of the Justice Dept.... and it gets the attention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. King.
Of particular interest is the brutal enforcement tactics of Sherrif Jim Clark. Martin Luther King decides to test the limits of his non-violent resistance. Selma becomes the means to the broader end.
Marches and sit-ins and registration attempts are thwarted by the police. But then word came from nearby Marion, AL that a young demonstrator -- Jimmy Lee Jackson-- was fatally shot trying to protect his grandfather. The anger led to a push for a march...a march from Selma to Montgomery to take their grievances directly to the Governor.
On March 7th, 1965 the march to Montgomery began. It reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Route 80 and as the marchers reached the middle crest of the bridge, they looked over the top and, as John Lewis put it, "we saw a sea of blue". It was police officers from the Alabama State Police, backed up by the Selma police on horseback.
The marchers reached the police position and asked to speak to the person in charge. Instead they were given an order to disperse. When they did not, the police just moved in and the waves of troopers simply ran over the stunned marchers. They beat them with night sticks, shocked them with cattle prods, ran over them with the horses. They moved them back and then followed them into the town. It was brutal...and for a climactic moment, the onlookers that were sympathetic to the marchers were enraged enough for retaliation.
But, the leadership representing Dr. King, begged them to hold back. They had to stand fast to their non-violent principles. The world would know where the high ground lay.
A few weeks later, Federal troops were called in for protection. The march would go forward....and the group of 300 in Selma swelled to 25,000 by the time it reached Montgomery.
Governor Wallace refused to even recognize the march. The gathering in front of the Capitol became a rally for voting rights. And it was noticed. Later that year the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed in Congress.
Registration for African-Americans skyrocketed in every southern state. And it all really began in Selma....at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
We walked that bridge ourselves today. We had just visited the small Voting Rights Museum on the street that runs across the entrance to the Bridge. We saw the images of "Bloody Sunday" and those pictures stayed with us as we crossed to the other side. The traffic on the bridge is heavy, but on the other side is a quiet riverside park. A contrast to all the noise and bustle moving past.
A lot happened here 40 plus years ago, but the city hasn't gone out of its way to commemorate these events. We stopped at a Visitor's Center/Library/Chamber of Commerce. We had noticed that there was a new building being built on the other side of the river that seemed to indicate it was part of the Voting Rights Museum. We asked the person at the desk about it....but she told us, "Yes, I noticed that last week when I went to Montgomery. They must be setting up a new location." The building is nearly completed, yet she knew little about it....and she operates the visitor center.
We drove the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Most of the route is the same as the marchers took. There are a few markers with one large visitor center about halfway through. They offer a beautifully done half hour film about the events and eyewitness accounts. But little else has been done to let visitors know they are even on the right road.
When we reached Montgomery, we drove to the Capitol. One block away from the building is the Dexter Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King was the pastor from 1954 to 1960. We walked up the steps of the capitol and looked back over Dexter Ave. It must have been an impressive sight to see 25,000 people coming to demand a basic American right.
We opened the Capitol door and we were greeted by an older gentleman in a uniform sitting by a desk. He asked us where we were from and we told him Minnesota....
"What brings you all the way to Alabama?"
"We are on a Civil Rights Tour".
Finally, he gave us a Capitol map and told us it was a self-guided tour...pointing out a couple of things and then he moved on to the next family.
I guess I should have had a clue by the Jefferson Davis statue sitting on the front steps with a list of the Confederate States engraved around it. And the 30 foot mural of Governor George Wallace with a similar size portrait of his wife, Lurleen Wallace in the rotunda, was probably another clue.
I guess "civil" rights are in the eye of the beholder.
But the brave people that crossed that Edmund Pettis Bridge won their battle and made this country more just.....they also put Selma on the map, whether the current citizens of Selma like it or not.