“I felt as if my legs were praying.” This is what Dr. King’s friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said about his experience at the 1965 march in Selma. I know just what he meant. This was not just a political event but a spiritual one, a pilgrimage. The same was true this year when I returned to Selma to join the 50th anniversary march there.
There were important differences this time. Back then marchers were faced with open hostility and death threats. This time there was no fear and no confrontations. Back then we knew what we were doing was important, but we could not know that Selma would become a symbol. We were demonstrating our support for the right to vote. That right is a constitutional right and the basis for all our other civil rights. Back then this right was being denied to people on the basis of race. The government of Alabama held onto power through intimidation, unfair legal practices, violence, and murder. The Selma march succeeded in pushing the President and Congress to pass the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
Today the vote is being suppressed in a more refined manner and race is not the target, or not the only target. In 2013 the Supreme Court decided to gut the VRA taking out the section that had the teeth. Enforcement of the act was ended because, as Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his decision that the law is “based on 40-year old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” I wonder how it is possible that the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court could be so clueless. Immediately, upon publication of that decision, several states, including North Carolina, proceeded to pass new laws restricting voting rights. No one affected by these laws is fooled about the partisan nature of these laws. In our state alone over 300,000 people are without the necessary documents and for them access to the polls is made difficult and sometimes impossible. As one speaker noted, Jim Crow is now James Crow, Esq. It’s the same thing dressed up in better clothes.
The event I attended in Selma on March 8 was not nostalgic. It was not just about an accomplishment of a past generation. It was an affirmation that, as much progress as there has been, there is still a very long way to go. Even the abuses of legal process and violence against African-Americans are still with us and are currently revealed as being systemic. There is another town, which has become a symbol of racial injustice. As I write this the outrageous miscarriages of justice in Ferguson, Missouri are being revealed along with similar practices in many cities all over our nation.
The first event of the day for me was a church service. I saw there a teenager wearing a t-shirt that said, “UNARMED CIVILIAN.” The family of Michael Brown was seated near the pulpit. The preachers addressed the voting issue but also the police violence issue. This church holds to a very traditional form of Christianity. In fact all the speakers I heard were ministers, mostly Baptist. Even Al Sharpton spoke as a preacher rather than a news commentator. The civil rights movement was always about applying the spirit to life.
The people gathered in Selma were overwhelmingly people of faith. I saw a lot of clerical collars. Buses for church groups were parked everywhere. The spirit was joyful and loving. About 100,000 people marched in a town of 20,000. No one, not even the organizers, expected such a turnout. It took hours to walk the few blocks from Browns Chapel to the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge because of the sheer number of people. Yet I saw no sign of anger or frustration in anyone.
The President spoke the day before along with other political figures, none of whom represented the Republican Party. What can we conclude from that absence? Back in 1965 it was Congressional Republicans who pushed the VRA vote over the top. Today none that I know of were present to say that they too endorse the right to vote and oppose racial injustice. I have to ask whether the party leadership understands that many of their members support the right to vote and certainly oppose racial injustice. I cannot believe that this is not so.
The march this year was a portrait of America. There were people of all ages, people of many faiths, people representing communities in every part of the country. I even saw a group of Alabama State Troopers, led by an officer, marching with us. This was our country at its best. This was faith at its best. I think we “foot soldiers” were acting as true patriots calling for the realization of the ideals on which this nation is founded.
I was there in 1965 as a young college student. I was there this year as I approach my 70th birthday. In the years between I have worked for justice, and for peace. Much has been accomplished in those years, but there is still a long way to go. As we sang on the march,
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. Gonna keep on a-walkin’, gonna keep on a-talking, marchin’ down to freedom land.”