Selma, Alabama,1965, now made famous not only by an historic victory, but by a movie that brought that victory to the big screen, just happened to be a small southern town, where one end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge stood. The other end leads to Montgomery, the state’s capital, a site selected by Martin Luther King to bring the issue of voting rights to the forefront of the American consciousness. In 1965 Selma was poor. In 2015 Selma is still poor despite its fame, with an unemployment rate over 10%, twice the national average, and with more than 40% of families living below the poverty line. After the 1965 marches white flight began and the city’s population of 20,000 is now 80% African-American and is pocked with vacant buildings. Estimates are that between 50,000 and 70,000 people arrived to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate Bloody Sunday this year.
Susan La Porte, a fellow Woodstocker, didn’t hesitate when I asked her if she wanted to go with me to Selma to observe the 50th anniversary of the. And so, Saturday, March 7, we were en route to Selma, our day beginning at 3 a.m. in order to catch a 6 a.m. flight out of Albany Airport. Selma was sunlit when we arrived, not quite early enough to get to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to hear President Obama.
Fortunately our main event was going to be the next day when we would walk across the bridge with so many others who had made the trip from all over the United States. I met men, women, and children from North Carolina, Florida, California, Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan — some of us there because we remembered Selma 1965, or because we learned about Bloody Sunday in school, from parents, or, as a young man I spoke with told me, just recently because of the movie. All of us were there to honor history and because we shared a concern for the future, heightened by what we perceive as the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, the persistent murders of young blacks by police, and the socioeconomic inequality that has a stranglehold on this nation.
Walking down Broad Street through a mass of vendors selling tee shirts, sweat shirts, posters, and items not of a memorabilia bent, we were at the bridge by 9 a.m. Sunday morning, March 8. According to the schedule there was to be a pre-march rally beginning at 1:30 p.m., but from what we had seen the previous day we knew plans could change and we wanted to be at the front of the line. Nearby, a building’s face was almost entirely covered by a sign, “Honor the Past. Build the Future,” beneath which was a photo of young people. I talked with Howard, a videographer from Tuscaloosa who had stationed himself and his equipment at the bridge’s rise. “I like it that all types of people are here. We may not all have the same needs, but we share concerns.” A 15-year-old boy from Florida had come with his Auntie. “It’s awesome,” he said.
By noon a crowd extended seemingly forever away from the Bridge, and looking back all I could see was a potpourri of colors. The sun was overhead and it was hot. Finally, at 2p.m., we began to walk, and somehow I was no longer at the front, but I was close enough. Chanting, “What do we want? Voting Rights. When do we want it? Now,” we made our way. Up ahead I could hear the chant and see signs which read “Black Lives Matter.” Overhead, a drone hovered like a winged extraterrestrial creature, with two red eyes blinking incessantly as it flew back and forth above the crowd. Reaching the other side of the Bridge, I was greeted by the haunting sound of the shofar being blown by white and black, men and a woman. The long horns usher in the Jewish New Year and the jubilee in which Jewish law provides for the release of all slaves, land, and debts every 50 years.
The commemoration of the Bridge crossing is called a Jubilee — a time of joy, remembrance, and celebration. I spoke with David Goodman, President of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, about the party atmosphere which was, at times for me, jarring. “It’s a wedding and a funeral,” he said, “all at the same time,” acknowledging that balancing celebration and remembrance is not easy. “In celebrating the event,” Goodman continued, “we are recognizing the bravery of people, and that all of us are equal. That’s worth celebrating. A respectful remembrance.”
Arriving in Selma with the congressional delegation, Goodman was front and center to hear Obama speak and noted that though they all “sincerely do care” about voting rights they can’t seem to get an amendment passed to outlaw the restrictive ID requirement. His brother, Andrew, was one of three civil rights workers, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who had gone to Mississippi to register blacks to vote in 1964 and were murdered at the start of Freedom Summer.
The shofars were still welcoming those who crossed the bridge two hours later. And they would welcome them for hours more: the stream of people waiting seemed endless as we struggled back to the Selma side.
Yes, there was chaos, not unexpected given that the crowd numerically overwhelmed the town’s population. Yet, the march seemingly without leadership, somehow remained peaceful and caring, and managed to be a march with a message. Although there were signs that appeared unconnected to the purpose at hand, and a sense of carnival which might have diminished the significance of the assemblage, the meaning and intent of the gathering was unassailable. The challenge is the future. As Goodman noted, the people who lived the event are getting old now, and some have died. “The succeeding generation has to step up and take over, and there aren’t enough. That’s a problem.”
While I was too young to be on the original march, I knew I had to be in Selma this year, to acknowledge the past and to be a voice for the future. The gathering of nearly 70,000 including octogenarians who inspired me as I wearied from standing, to parents with young children, felt like a family, with the message that all our lives matter. “We all need each other,” someone said. Readying to leave, Susan and I looked at each other: “What’s next?”