Marching into Selma

Drive north on US-80 and you’ll cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge into downtown Selma. Cross the bridge in that direction and the first block on the right you will find the Selma Interpretive Center. When I got out of my car, I could feel the weight of history. Or maybe or was the heat.

Just shy of 50 years ago, civil rights activists marched across this bridge in the other direction, toward the Alabama capital in Montgomery, in search of voting for all its citizens.

The first time they tried there were 600 activists, and they were met by a wall of state troopers and deputized locals. They were met with batons and beatings. Led by Sheriff Jim Clark under orders from Governor George Wallace who told them to do whatever they needed to do to keep the people from marching.

The second time, called Turnaround Tuesday, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group onto the bridge where they prayed and then returned to Brown Chapel.

Finally on March 16 they began a 10-day march that led all the way to Montgomery, to the steps of the state capital, where Martin Luther King Jr. said to a crowd of 25,000 “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself.”

How are we doing?

As we look at the risks and the chaos of the larger world, sometimes I worry that our demise lies closer to home.

I’m 47, so this history predates me by a couple years. It can feel like a long time ago. But at the Selma Interpretive Center, I was scheduled to meet with Joanne Bland, a local woman who was a part of all three when she was 11 years old.

It was a last minute arrangement, so I wasn’t surprised when she wasn’t at the Center. These things have a way of working out. I went around the corner to the Downtowner for lunch and tried her cell phone again. Eventually she walked in the front door, looked at me and said, “Are you John?” Joann didn’t look much older than me, and suddenly the history didn’t seem that distant.

She made me eat chicken livers. She encouraged the gizzards, but I have my limits. I followed her to her home and we talked for more than an hour. She described her youth when she wanted to sit at the lunch counter at the local Carter’s Drug Store, but couldn’t because of her skin color. That was the day she knew she would be an activist. We talked about the voter rights act and the ramifications of that movement. We touched on the headlines of Ferguson, MO and its racial implications.

Just the day before, the Pew Research Center had released a poll showing that black Americans and white Americans viewed events in Ferguson very differently.

If the white owner of a ball club says that his team’s name honors the Native Americans, but the Native Americans do not feel honored, whose voice should prevail? Who gets to decide these things?

Let me just say that if you ever want to feel outclassed in a discussion about civil rights, just sit down with someone who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. But the conversation was open and wide ranging. We disagreed on some issues, but kept talking.

At the end, Joanne wanted to show me Selma’s Old Live Oak Cemetery. It was lined with those stunning Southern oak, with enough moss draping from the broad branches to make you walk quickly in the fading dusk light. We drove to the center and she showed me where the town was erecting a grand old statue honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who also happened to be the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. All this in a town that elected its first black mayor in 2006.

That night I stayed in the St. James Hotel just down the street from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The antebellum structure has housed both Confederate and Union soldiers. Frank and Jesse James have been guests and its halls are said to be haunted. The ghosts were quiet the night I stayed, but my mind wasn’t.

“Toward a more perfect union” is a lofty goal. Have we finished, or is there still work to do?

The history is not that distant. Some of the people who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. still walk the earth today. We’d do well to walk with them and hear their stories.


**this post was also shared on my website for A Peace of My Mind. Please visit for other stories of peace and justice.

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