Note—As I type these words tens of thousands are gathering in the streets of Selma, Alabama, their faces turned as one to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where 50 years ago a bloody outrage occurred that made a nation—or most of it—gasp with horror and for once determine to act to change history. The high and low will be there—President Barack Obama and his family and members of Congress—but no House Republicans whose party has morphed into the party of the Klansmen in uniform who once stood astraddle that bridge and who cannot afford to alienate their dwindling base. There are elected officials of every grade so numerous that they have had to come in busses like the common heard. There are celebrities of ever sort, many of them actually more concerned for the movement and moment than for how they will look on Access Hollywood. There are the now grizzled surviving veterans of that original march some as famed and honored as John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, others as anonymous today as they were way back then. And there are the families of the martyrs—the kin of Jimmie Lee Johnson, scads of relatives—many of them children—of the Rev. James Reeb, and the three daughters of Viola Liuzzo. Joining them will be the kin of other Civil Rights martyrs—Emmet Till, Andrew Goodman, and, of course Martin Luther King himself.
For my own Unitarian Universalist faith community, to which two of the Selma martyrs belong, the original march and the commemoration hold special meaning. Not only will Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller, Reeb’s colleagues who were with him when he was attacked, be on hand but so will UUA President Peter Morales, most of the Board and other denominational leadership, scores of ministers and seminarians from around the country, and uncounted lay members. For all of them, and for the many of us who wish we were with them, this moment is not just one of commemoration, but a one of re-commitment to an ongoing struggle.
Joining them will be thousands whose lives have been touched and inspired by what happened long ago and who are now mobilized to action by outrage that the hard fought for voting rights won at such great cost are under systematic attack today by those who barely bother to conceal their motives. They come inspired by a new generation of leaders like the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP whose Moral Monday protests in the state capital have awakened a new movement. And hopefully they include the still mostly unheralded young Black voices who are building creative and powerful new responses to police brutality, the prison/industrial complex, and the vacuous cluelessness of White privilege.
March 7, 1965 was Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. On that day massed Alabama State Police attacked peaceful demonstrators attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to the state capital at Montgomery to protest suppression of voting rights.
Members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been conducting voter registration drives in the area since 1963 and had encountered escalating violence. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, efforts stepped up. On July 6 of that year SNCC leader John Lewis attempted to lead a march on the county court house to register voters. He and other marchers were beaten and arrested. A few days later a local judge handed down a sweeping injunction against more than two people assembling to even talk about voter registration.
SNCC leaders appealed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC leaders including the Rev. James Bevel, who had been conducting his own voter registration projects, and his wife, Diane Nash, a SNCC founder who had cut her teeth in the Nashville youth crusade sit-ins with Lewis, came to Selma to join the effort. But the national organization, busy with other efforts, had not yet committed.
Finally, on January 2 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Selma brining with him the national spotlight and officially launched a new Selma Voting Rights Movement. Marches on the court house resumed there and in surrounding counties.
|The first martyr--Jimmie Lee Jackson shot defending his mother and grandfather from a beating|
On February 18 a young man, a Baptist elder who had tried four times to register, Jimmie Lee Johnson was shot trying to defend his mother and grandfather from police clubs after a night march on the Perry County court house in Marion. When Johnson died of his wounds days later, Bevel called for a protest march on the state capital from Selma on March 7.
On the day of the march John Lewis, the Rev. Hosea Williams of the SCLC, and local leaders like Amelia Boynton led about 600 marchers. When they attempted to cross the bridge, they were met by massed troopers and ordered to disperse. Lewis attempted to speak to the commanding officer but was shoved to the ground and beaten. Police charged the crowd with clubs and gas. Mounted officers attacked from the flanks. Scenes of horrific violence were captured on film and soon broadcast on television helping to swing public sympathy to the marchers.
King responded with a call to rally in Selma for a second march. Hundreds from around the country, including many clergy, rallied to the call. Lawyers appealed to Federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson, who was suspected to be sympathetic, to lift the local ban on marches. The judge took the issue under advisement, but issued a temporary restraining order against resuming the march until he could make his ruling.
With thousands gathered, King felt he had to move but did not want to alienate the judge. On March 9 he led about 7,000 to the bridge but then knelt in prayer and turned the crowd back, a move that was harshly criticized by SNCC leaders.
|The Rev. James Reeb, originally from Caspar, Wyoming|
That evening three Unitarian Universalist ministers, James Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller who had responded to King’s call were attacked and beaten outside a Selma café known to be a hangout for Klansmen. Reeb died of his wounds on March 11 in Birmingham after the Selma hospital refused to treat him.
On hearing of Reeb’s death the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association meeting in Boston voted to adjourn and re-convene in Selma. UUA President Dana McLean Greeley and eventually half of the active ministers in the Association headed south.
The death of a white minister galvanized public opinion the way that Jimmie Johnson’s had not. A shaken President Lyndon Johnson submitted a Voting Rights Act to Congress on March 15 after failing to get Governor George Wallace to back off from attacks on demonstrators.
A week after Reeb’s death Judge Johnson finally issued the long anticipated ruling upholding the First Amendment rights to assemble and protest.
On March 21 the final and successful march on Montgomery set off with King, Lewis, Bevel, Williams leading the way with a bevy of national clergy. They were protected by 2,000 Federal troops and U. S. Marshalls on the four day march through hostile territory to the capital.
|Originally from Tennessee, Detroit Mom Viola Liuzzo came to Selma to help. Here she is on the March to Montgomery walking barefoot and carrying her shoes.|
After a triumphant rally on the capitol steps, Viola Liuzzo, a young Detroit mother and U.U. laywoman was driving a black marcher back to Selma, when she was shot as she drove by Ku Klux Klan members. A federal informant was in the Klansmen’s car. She was the final fatality in the Selma campaign.
The Voting Rights Act passed Congress and was signed into law by the President on August 6. Within a year 7000 new black voters were enrolled in Selma’s Dallas County.
In 1966 Sheriff Jim Clark, who was responsible for much of the early violence in Selma, lost his bid for re-election. John Lewis would go on to be elected to Congress. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is now marked as part of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a National Historic Trail.
This year the feature film Selma was released to wide acclaim and controversy when it was seen as largely snubbed at the Academy Awards.
And still, as I type this, the rally in Selma continues.
La lucha continua.