Selma to Montgomery

Selma and Our Next Bridge to Cross

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after a Confederate general who became a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. His name, still emblazoned over the top of that now famous bridge, was a powerful and threatening symbol of white power and supremacy in Selma, Ala. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had at one time removed Selma from their list of places to organize because “the white folks were too mean, and black folks were too afraid."

But that didn’t deter a group of courageous African Americans from marching across that bridge a half-century ago, risking their lives for the right to vote in America. They were attacked and beaten by the fierce forces, led by notorious Sheriff Jim Clark, for their resistance to the frightening violence of white power.

Last Saturday, during the 50th anniversary event of “Bloody Sunday,” I spent many hours just looking at that bridge. The words that kept coming to me were “courage” and “resistance.” My question became: what bridge we will now have to cross?

Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was cracked that day as a young man, opened the main event.

"On that day, 600 people marched into history … We were beaten, tear gassed, some of us [were] left bloody right here on this bridge. … But we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing that the truth we stood for would have the final say.”

Then Lewis introduced the president, "If someone had told me, when we were crossing this bridge, that one day I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I would have said you're crazy.”

What happened on this bridge, President Barack Obama said, “was a contest to determine the meaning of America,” and where “the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America … ultimately triumphed.”

The Unfinished Business of Selma

Terry W Ryder / Shutterstock.com

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of Bloody Sunday. Terry W Ryder / Shutterstock.com

The journey to end systems of injustice begins with a single step. This theme resonates throughout the recently released film Selma, which recounts the events leading up to the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this march catalyzed the full enfranchisement of people of color through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act is considered to be one of the most successful achievements of the civil rights movement. But 50 years later, the residue of Jim Crow laws that banned people of color from voting lingers today in a new, subtle form: disenfranchisement laws for people with felony convictions.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, examines how these laws strip minority communities of their voice in the public sphere because of the disproportionately high percentage of racial minorities “swept into” America’s mass incarceration system.

Sojo Stories: Marching Alongside a Civil Rights Hero

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Nate Powell (l), Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It may have taken a little bit of prodding — a little ‘you-want-me-to-do-what?’ and a lot of faith — but in the end, Congressman John Lewis agreed to go along with staffer Andrew Aydin’s out-of-the-box idea. The result: March (Book 1) — the first of a three-part graphic novel autobiography chronicling Lewis’ life and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The story of the movement that we tell is very much John Lewis’ story in this first book,” Aydin said. “It is a story of him growing up poor, on a farm, and it builds to a climax of the national sit-in movement.”

Lewis certainly has a lot to tell. He and other activists famously were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 during an attempted march for voting rights — an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the height of the movement, spoke at the historic March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Aydin, who co-wrote the book with Congressman Lewis, and illustrator Nate Powell sat down with Sojourners to explain how the series came about and why it is such an important story these 50 years later.

Watch the Vote: Supreme Court Effectively Kills Voting Rights Act

Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Demonstrator outside the Supreme Court on Monday, Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Today is a dark day in our nation’s history. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, rendering the 48-year-old legislation impotent to protect citizens from voter suppression. Section 4 lists the states that must obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before instituting changes to their voter laws. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Only 48 years ago, on March 7, 1965, men, women, and children absorbed blasts of water, bone-crushing blows from police batons, and profound humiliation as Selma, Ala., police dragged limp black bodies over concrete on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They had assembled on that day, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” to march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of voter suppression and intimidation that had plagued the entire South. Ten days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress. The bill passed in the Senate on May 26 by a vote of 77 – 19 and passed in the House on July 9 of that year. President Johnson signed the Act into law with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others present on August 6.

Flash forward to Fall 2012. I launched a blog series called “Watch the Vote” because, as of August 2012, 30 states had introduced legislation or enacted laws to hinder voters’ access to voting over the previous year. The Fair Elections Legal Network crafted this map to chart the spread of legal voter suppression initiatives across the nation. Notice, Alabama is one of the states that has recently passed voter restriction law that has not been precleared by the Department of Justice. Its new law, requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship, was set to take effect in 2014 before the Supreme Court ruled last week that Arizona’s voter ID law, which Alabama used as a model for its own, is unconstitutional.

Joe Biden, John Lewis, and the Long Road to Reconciliation

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute

Delegation sings 'We Shall Overcome' hand-in-hand at the Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Ala. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

This year marks a long list of anniversaries in our nation's long march for civil rights: We now mark 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; and 50 years since the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the March on Washington, the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers in his driveway.

In remembrance of the sacred journey, The Faith and Politics Institute's Civil Rights Pilgrimage drew more than 250 people, including 30 members of Congress, for a three-day tour of civil rights landmarks and first-hand testimonies from the movement's leaders. Throughout the pilgrimage — moving from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma — the delegation learned, grew, and continued the conversation together: white and black, Republican and Democrat, man and woman, senior and child. We all returned to Washington, D.C., and to our homes across the country, with a renewed sense of responsibility for the common good.

A number of events made the term 'reconciliation' mean more than the definition I had somehow created for myself over the past 30 years. Reconciliation is calling the person who beat and humiliated you 'brother.' Reconciliation is sharing a platform, sharing a deeply intertwined story — and sharing an authentic embrace — with the offspring of your parents' enemies. 

[Photo Gallery at the jump.]

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