Fifty years ago I traveled from Mississippi to Selma, Alabama on March 21, 1965 to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of fellow citizens marching the 54 miles to the steps of the state’s capitol in Montgomery. Millions of Americans now know about this march thanks to the movie Selma and the recent 50 anniversary celebration. Selma was the site of a courageous voting rights campaign by Black citizens which was met by brutal Southern Jim Crow law enforcement and citizen violence. The nation was shocked two weeks earlier when John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams set out on a nonviolent march with a group of 600 people toward Montgomery to demand their right to vote and were brutally attacked by lawless state and local law enforcement officials at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The televised images of “Bloody Sunday” and the savage beatings of the marchers—including Congressman Lewis whose skull was fractured—were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and in America’s struggle to become America. It provoked the thousands of us (ultimately about 25,000) who came together later to finish the march, safer thanks to Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.’s order that we had a right to peaceful protest and with National Guard protection. And we were buoyed by President Johnson’s March 15, 1965 address calling on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In that speech—“The American Promise”—President Johnson said: “This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: ‘All men are created equal’—‘government by consent of the governed’—‘give me liberty or give me death’... Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man... To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.” President Johnson also said: “Should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
Fifty years later, speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama echoed the same themes: “[Selma is] the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents... These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.” He added: “The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon. It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America. That’s what makes us unique.”
The first Selma march was planned not only to gain the right to vote but to protest the tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Black church deacon and military veteran killed in Marion, Alabama when he, his mother, sister, and 82-year-old grandfather attended another nonviolent voting rights demonstration where marchers were brutally attacked by racist Alabama law enforcement officials who broke it up. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and beaten trying to shield his mother from a police nightstick. What a terrible irony that in this year of celebration of the Selma marches we are witnessing the resurgence of overt law enforcement brutality and injustice in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, and elsewhere, reminding us how far we still have to go. The continuing protests against unequal justice under the law by those enjoined to protect all of us and all of our children after the deaths of teenager Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and others are a wake-up call about the deeply embedded systemic racism still alive in America. Each of us has a responsibility to root it out and stop it in its tracks.
Each American must remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society. Each of us has a personal responsibility to be decent and fair and insist that others be so in our presence. Don’t tell, laugh at, or tolerate racial, ethnic, religious, or gender jokes—or any practices intended to demean rather than enhance another human being. Walk away from them. Stare them down. Make them unacceptable in our presence and in our institutions. Through daily moral consciousness each of us has a responsibility to counter the proliferating voices of racial and moral and ethnic and religious division that are regaining respectability over our land. Let’s face up to rather than ignore our growing racial problems which are America’s historical and future Achilles’ heel unless addressed firmly and courageously.
As Dr. King spoke to us at the end of the exhilarating Selma to Montgomery March he reminded us that we weren’t done: “Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past... Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat... Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congressmen who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”
And let us all stand up right now to all those in our Congress, statehouses, and across our country who are trying to take away and suppress the right to vote and who are refusing to honor the sacrifice of all those who died to gain this fundamental American right. Shame on them and shame on us if we don’t act to insist that Congress renew the Voting Rights Act without a minute’s more delay. And shame on us if we do not stand up to all those who seek to turn the clock of racial progress backwards by denying equal justice under the law for all. We still have so far to go in our march to make America America—but we must march forward and never backwards.