How events in Selma 50 years ago changed America forever
“You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.” — Rep. John Lewis
Fifty years ago this week on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the American civil rights movement came to a violent and powerful climax.
Hundreds of predominately black protesters of all ages were attacked in broad daylight with tear gas, billy clubs and even whips by the Alabama National Guard and local law enforcement. They were subject to the violence for simply trying to exercise their First Amendment freedom in a march to shine a national spotlight on legal minority voter suppression in the Deep South.
The nonviolent activists endured vicious beatings and hateful epithets, and their sacrifice shamed a nation into recognizing that it could not consider itself a democracy when a significant portion of its population is denied the right to participate fully in it.
Following the first clash on March 7, 1965 – which has since become known as “Bloody Sunday” – there was another attempt to cross the bridge, this time led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the voting rights advocates, whose numbers swelled due to the addition of many out-of-state supporters, were repelled again.
In the aftermath of the second demonstration on the bridge, Rev. James Reeb, a white clergyman who had traveled from Boston to support Dr. King’s cause, was murdered in cold blood by segregationists. His death galvanized King and his followers, and the combination of his stirring oratory and the courage of the rank-and-file activists who returned to the bridge for a third time, provided a turning point for a struggle decades in the making. And the powers-that-be in Alabama lost an attempt in federal court to block marchers, setting the stage for a final showdown.
Celebrities, politicians and many more from every walk of American life ventured to Selma and this time the president of the United States was solidly in the corner of the civil rights movement. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson made no secret about his support for the activists in Selma when he told a joint session of Congress, ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’’
After five days and 54 miles, King and his followers reached their symbolic destination of Montgomery, the state’s capitol. It was there that King delivered one of his most memorable speeches in which he declared,‘‘There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”
King may have been the face of the movement, but there were several crucial figures behind the scenes who made this historic action possible. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was among them. As young leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was on the front lines that fateful day and the experience not only shaped his future career as a politician, but his national identity as a heroic icon.
Lewis, who survived a brutal beating that day, wrote in his 1998 memoir “Walking With the Wind,” “I really felt that i saw death at that moment.” Yet today he remains resolute that what he and his colleagues accomplished that day still reverberates.
“If it hadn’t been for that march across Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, there would be no Barack Obama as president of the United States of America,” he said during a February interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
As President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their children make the pilgrimage to Selma this week to pay tribute to Lewis and his peers, it is clear that their debt to history is not lost on them.
“What happened in Selma is a quintessentially America experience not just an African-American experience,” the president told an audience attending a Black History Month reception at the White House on Feb. 26. ‘It speaks to what’s best in this country. It reminds us that the history of America doesn’t belong to one group or another – it belongs to all of us.”