“The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks--and three events--that represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma. Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a "symbolic" march to the bridge. Then civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., weighed the right of mobility against the right to march and ruled in favor of the demonstrators. "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups...," said Judge Johnson, "and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways." On Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong. Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965--the best possible redress of grievances.” (NPS.GOV)
With the upcoming release of the film Selma and in light of the racial riots happening in Ferguson and New York City at the moment, I've decided to share a personal story about my journey to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement that took place in the South in the 1960s.
Before I start that, I want to just give a disclaimer. I’m not a person of color and cannot fully understand the struggles they deal with on a daily basis. I’m not trying to be anything I’m not, but as a supporter of justice and equality.
I have, however, talked with many people of color, read many books, seen films and documentaries, taken college courses and have had very blunt and uncomfortable conversations with people of all races and ethnicities on this trip and afterwords. Although I haven’t personally been a victim of racism, I do know the roots and history behind how it came to be and have personally seen how it has affected other people and will constantly try to listen and be an ally.
This country has always had racial issues and probably always will. However, I hope that reconciliation is constantly the goal at hand. We have made major progress since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, but these recent events show that we are nowhere near perfect. The racial inequality, white privilege, stereotyping, lack of a sense of belonging, lack of financial and emotional support, and institutionalized racism still exist and are present in today’s society.
So my goal in writing this piece is showing the importance it is for those who don’t experience racism on a daily basis see the constant and past struggle and hopefully, some of the progress. Now as we have come to see another wave of those standing up and fighting for justice, the importance of peaceful protesting, communication and understanding between all people is as vital as ever.
In 2012, I took a bus to the deep south with about 25 college classmates on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The trip was called Sankofa and it was offered by the Reconciliation program at my college. The trip was purposely diverse in its student body present, as it was a way to experience the past with those who are still strongly impacted by it currently.
I learned so much on the trip, but the most important thing I learned is that I’m very much immune to thinking about racial issues on a daily basis because I’m a white person; it’s not something I have to think about everyday to survive and thrive. I can largely live my life without thinking about my race; however, this is not true of people of color.
Selma, which is being released on Christmas day, is largely the story of the Selma-to Montgomery March for voting rights. Below, I’ve added the trailer (watch before continuing reading)
While we drove from Montgomery to Selma, we passed over the Edmund Pettis bridge that many were attacked and beaten upon and walked for freedom and their voting rights. While I looked out the window, it seemed like that moment was so far away, like it was centuries ago, even though it happened during both of my parents lifetimes.
After watching a documentary about Selma and the story of “bloody Sunday” on the bus, we headed to The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. We had already traveled through Memphis (where MLK Jr was shot and killed)
Birmingham (the site of the bombing of the 16th Street baptist church that killed four young girls and where there were riots in the park, as well as where Martin Luther King spent time in prison)
and Montgomery, where Rosa Parks started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Although I knew of most of those places, I have to admit Selma’s story is not something I knew much about before heading there. The Civil Rights stories I had heard in school were about Ruby Bridges (who I had the absolute honor of meeting at Bethel-below)
The Sit-ins the in the Carolinas, the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and the bus boycott. I was not really well-acquainted with the horror that happened on the Edmund Pettis Bridge that day in 1965. I think the reason is because it was thought to be too much for high school kids to handle and many of my history teachers focused on other stories instead. That’s why I’m so glad this movie is being made, so it can stay in the back of the American conscience and be taught in schools.
We went to the museum where we learned about the struggles that the Jim Crow-era African-Americans had when it came to voting and how it came to a head in the Civil Rights Movement.
Then we decided to retrace the steps of the protestors of the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
After going over the bridge, we then stopped at a memorial of the journey in a beautiful wooded area.
This whole trip really changed the way I saw both the current state of racial inequality and racism, but also of both the past and the future. I wholeheartedly challenge yourself to not only visit these places and museums, many of which are fascinating, but also read and watch documentaries about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, as without knowing our history, they say we are doomed to repeat it. In the current state of chaos, I hope that we all have faith in humankind and the power of knowledge and brotherhood that we owe to each other.
I don't really know how to end this article besides saying that we need to keep moving towards reconciliation; that powerful feeling of forgiveness that is the only way towards any kind of understanding. I may not be a total expert and my knowledge may be rusty, but I believe in the hope that God gives us to the power to love and accept each other.
Thanks for taking your time and reading this.