SELMA, Ala. – The afternoon sun cooks my uncovered head. Below, to my left, the lazy, mud-brown Alabama River flows by. To my right, rusted trucks zip past within reach of the narrow sidewalk.
The danger is palpable here on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But let’s get real: I may be a minority white guy here in this economically challenged Deep South city, but I don’t have a wall of state troopers awaiting my arrival on the far side, waiting with nightsticks and guns and heads filled with archaic, racist ideas.
That was March 1965, when frustrated citizens attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery to take their case to Gov. George Wallace at the Alabama Capitol. The blacks of Selma wanted to vote, just like the U.S. Constitution said they could.
Ultimately, they got their way. Today, the 54-mile route along U.S. Highway 80 includes historical markers and museums commemorating the battle for civil rights.
In 1965, hundreds marched the route in five days, ignoring hecklers with signs that said, “I hate n---,” and “Go home white scum.” On Thursday, I decide it’s easier to drive the distance in less than an hour.
By the time I cross the bridge twice, doubling back to my truck parked outside the National Voting Rights Museum, I can’t get quickly enough to the chilled water in my (thankfully) still-icy cooler. It’s been an eventful day, beginning in Montgomery with a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial Center three blocks from the Capitol.
That’s where I meet with Lecia Brooks, the center’s director. One of our first topics is the euphoria leading up to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. People came in droves to the center – and to the nearby Rosa Parks Museum – to connect with the significance of a black man running for president, Brooks says. Obama himself came to Selma in 2007 for the annual remembrance of the march.
“When you think about it, 45 years ago, black people couldn’t even vote,” Brooks says. “It’s not that long ago at all. People (alive today) still remember that.”
A brief synopsis of events that spring, 1965:
Blacks in the South had been kept from registering through poll taxes, literacy tests and force. On March 7, protesters in Dallas County, Ala., set out from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But state troopers and sheriff’s officers on horseback met them on the other side, beat them with nightsticks and pushed them back with tear gas.
Media images of the “Bloody Sunday” scene and reports of other racially motivated deaths and beatings captured the world’s attention. So on March 21, they began again, this time with an escort from the Alabama National Guard under orders from President Lyndon Johnson.
A few thousand marchers started from Selma, and several hundred, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, continued on to Montgomery, camping out for four nights. The throng reached an estimated 25,000 at the Capitol. Later that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
While Obama’s election was cause for celebration, it also illuminated the sobering truth that not all is right in America. There was a corresponding resurgence in hate group activity, as monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that runs the Civil Rights Center.
Feelings about race were just kind of dormant, Brooks learned.
“I was really, really saddened about it. It just got so hateful. … I think I had convinced myself that we were moving beyond it.”
We’re sitting in a corner of a room at the Civil Rights Center, and she points up to a photo of black student Elizabeth Eckford entering a Little Rock, Ark., high school in 1957 during court-ordered desegregation. A half-century later, political rallies produce similar reactions.
“Those white women that are behind Elizabeth Eckford – look on the faces of these people,” she says. “Those are the same kinds of expressions they’ll have at these rallies where they’re just completely hateful. … I allowed myself to forget that that was there and always had been there.”
We finish our interview just before a group of juniors from a private school in Durham, N.C., enters the center. The school annually makes a civil rights tour that includes Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta.
After a short film, Brooks, a former South-Central Los Angeles teacher, prods the students about what they’ve learned. She’s not a big woman, but she grabs them by the arm and practically twists answers from them. Who was Violet Liuzzo?
A student answers that she was raped and killed during the civil-rights struggle in Selma. Only half right.
She was a white, 39-year-old mother of five who was so moved by the cause that she drove from Detroit for the Selma-to-Montgomery march. She was shot to death by Klansmen as she transported marchers back to Selma.
And that’s what Brooks wants the students to understand: the sacrifices made to ensure the right to vote, and the continuing sacrifices and courage we all need to ensure that no minority is vilified.
“It was about having representation in local government,” she says. “We always try to remind people about that. That’s where our responsibility lies.”
No doubt, it was hot Thursday in Selma. But in March 1965 – that’s when the heat was really on.
email@example.com. For more photos and blog entries, visit www.summerdetour.com.