I wasn’t in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago, but when I saw the marchers brutalized by state troopers, I knew I had to join them.
All across America and the world, everybody who could get to a TV saw troopers viciously assault peaceful marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. We saw a young John Lewis get his skull fractured, protesting for voting rights and against the murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson in nearby Marion, Rev. James Reeb in Selma and so many thousand gone. (By the time the march ended in Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights volunteer, would also be murdered.)
On March 7, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a massive televised commemoration took place in Selma, attended by President and Mrs. Obama and other dignitaries. In introducing the president, Congressman John Lewis said, “If someone told me 50 years ago I’d be back on this bridge introducing a black president of the United States, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
And now the story of this remarkable civil rights campaign has been told in a major film, “Selma.”
I was a college student when the events of Selma were unfolding. I had been terribly upset by the beatings and longed to be there to bear witness and show solidarity with the marchers. When I learned an acquaintance and her father, a minister, were planning to fly to Montgomery for the last day of the march, I almost shouted, “I have to go with you!”
Our group of 21 students, professors and local clergy who went to Montgomery on March 25, 1965, were traveling from the safety of Indiana University to the deep South, with its vestiges of slavery and the Confederacy, and present danger from white supremacists with little regard for human life.
While in flight, the Unitarian Universalist minister in our group instructed us on nonviolent techniques to use in case of police attack or tear gas bombing. He had been in Selma at the time Reeb, a fellow Unitarian minister, was clubbed to death.
Our bus trip from the airport took us along the route of the Selma march, past red clay soil and swampy groves of trees hung with Spanish moss. On the outskirts of the city I was shocked by the sight of neighborhoods of shacks on unpaved streets; one of the African-American ministers in our group said this was one of the “better” black sections of Montgomery.
As I later wrote, as a staff member of the Indiana Daily Student, “One of the most heart-warming scenes I can remember was driving through the Negro section of the city where old people and children waved and smiled at us. …We were mentally, and almost spiritually (reinforced) by their joy in seeing us.”
In contrast, as we joined the line of march, we were instructed by one of the organizers not to heed the hecklers standing behind the Alabama National Guardsmen federalized by President Lyndon Johnson to protect us, and to look straight ahead. It was difficult to ignore the jeers; we had never had such hatred directed at us: “white scum,” “-lovin’ trash,” and a shrill cry from a teen girl responding to our chant of “Freedom!” by telling us freedom could go straight to someplace eternally hot.
The destination of this four-day journey — its original group now swollen to over 25,000 — was the statehouse, with its Confederate flag beneath the state flag atop the dome. Inside was segregationist Gov. George Wallace, to whom a voting rights petition would be presented, though Congress was almost certain to pass a bill enfranchising African-Americans, because of the events in Selma.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the last of many speakers, and our cheers were from the heart as his words rang out in his familiar preacher’s cadences: “We are not about to turn around. … Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us … not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us.” Inspired, I later wrote in the Daily Student, “Although our group had marched a mere ten blocks, we felt as one in spirit with those who had trudged 50 miles, and we too, knew that we would never be turned around in our work for freedom for all.”
At the end of King’s speech came a passage of remarkable depth:
“How long will it take? …However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Following the speech, the crowd joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome.” I wrote, “One of the verses said, ‘black and white together’ and there we were, each race hand-in-hand with the other as if there were no such thing as discrimination anywhere. …We had 30,000 brothers (and sisters) there in Montgomery, and we will never forget it.”
Observing President Obama speaking so eloquently at the commemoration, tears came to my eyes as I saw past and present in a single frame, recalling the struggles of 50 years ago while looking at our first black president. Although we have some distance to go before we reach anything like racial equality, oh my, how far we have come.
Anita Gyojin Cherlin is a mother, former journalist and retired Buddhist monk, and lives in Columbus. Send comments to [email protected].