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Selma: A Reflection

by Rachel Rye Butler

March 16, 2015

Photo by Greenpeace.

In early March, I had the privilege of traveling to Selma, Alabama to be a part of the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights that catalyzed the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

As approximately 70,000 people marched over the same bridge that was catapulted into history on Bloody Sunday in 1965, it was both a weekend of celebration and commemoration, as well as a call to action to continue the march for justice, from voting rights to police brutality and #blacklivesmatter.

What follows is one account of being in Selmaa brief history of Bloody Sunday, my experience at the Jubilee celebration, and a story of how the movement for justice continues todaybecause if Selma tells us one thing, its that the march is not yet over.

Restore the Voting Rights Act. Image from The Leadership Conference

Restore the Voting Rights Act. Image from The Leadership Conference

Bloody Sunday, Selma 1965

Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known, was a nonviolent march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 7, 1965 where peaceful demonstrators marched despite threats of violence. Police blocked the route from Selma and brutally beat marchers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Though marchers were beaten and hospitalized on Bloody Sunday, they were not deterred in their struggle for voting rights. Twice more, organizers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, led marchers from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They ultimately made it to Montgomery, underscoring the need for the country to make good on its promise of voting rights for its black citizens.

Bloody Sunday was influential because marchers created tension for the federal government and required a decision to be made. Would the federal government protect its people in full citizenshipthe ability for self-determination through voting rightsor would it not?

As a culmination of an ongoing nonviolent campaign for voting rights, marchers offered a choice to the federal government, catalyzing the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In Selma, I spoke with a marcher who had once met Rep. John Lewisthe head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the mid 60s, a leader of the Bloody Sunday march, currently a member of Congress, and in other words, a living heroas a student reporter for his school newspaper, and he had asked Rep. Lewis what he thought as he marched over the bridge in 1965 and saw the police blocking the route. My fellow marcher said that Rep. Lewis looked him right in the eye and said, Son, I thought I was going to die.

That day, John Lewis was beaten violently and suffered a fractured skull, and many others were hospitalized from police beatings. Throughout the movement in the 60s, many ultimately did give their lives in the struggle for full citizenship. But despite the threats, despite the violence, the movement came together, built and exercised their own power they organized and they changed the world because of it.

The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality by people of color and an opportunity to learn from the past to better understand the present.

Whats written here is by no means new, and theres no way of covering this history in one blog post there are entire libraries of books and articles on movement history and the continued struggle by scholars and movement leaders, organizers and activists. Learning this incredible history is one of the best ways to better understand the context of the movement for justice today.

Tens of thousands of marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

The Jubilee, Selma 2015

People filled every street in downtown Selma for the 50th anniversary Jubilee weekend. There were buses and street vendors. There was a jumbotron set up so participants could watch the speakers, including Rep. John Lewis and President Obama, at the foot of the bridge on Saturday, and the service broadcast from Brown AME Chapel, a center of movement organizing in the 60s, on Sunday.

I met people from Selma, Chicago, Washington DC, New Orleans, Detroit, and Southern California. I spoke with one resident who said they had never seen a crowd so big in Selma, and another who said that the big crowd was a good thing for the little town.

People were there to celebrate. And they were also there as part of ongoing struggles for justice. There were banners and signs for voting rights, for peace, and for #blacklivesmatter.

Selma was a powerful place to be 50 years after Bloody Sunday. It was powerful not because it was a commemoration, but it was a celebration of strength, resilience, and a living movement.

There is no question that everyone has benefited from the legacy that was celebrated at this 50th anniversary. As a white participant at the Jubilee, its a different experience for me to hear and then to write about the first black president being introduced by one of the Bloody Sunday marchers than it is for people of color who still face the negative impacts of racism in this country. That in itself must be recognized in order for this narrative to be both authentic and accountable.

But as both a white person and an organizer who is constantly unlearning racism, it was incredibly moving to be surrounded by the living, breathing movement for justice. Each of us has a role to play in the struggle for collective liberation. To be able to hear directly from black movement elders and lead organizers of the voting rights movement in the 1960s was a powerful reminder of the need to come together and organize, and specifically for white folks, to step back, make space, and listen.

Over and over, the message from movement elders was that we have come a long way on the road for justice, but the march is not overand the crowd invariably roared its approval.

Fifty years after Bloody Sunday, John Lewis stood at the foot of the bridge where he was brutally beaten in 1965 and said, Do not get lost in the sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe Theres still work to be done.

Rep. John Lewis speaks at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Rep. John Lewis speaks at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday

The march is not over

Systematic, institutional racism persists. Today, in 2015, we see this racism and its impacts across the country, from the struggles for justice against police violence to attacks on voting rights of people of color.

  • We see it in the fact that disproportionate numbers of people of color are denied the right to vote based on felony convictions and time spent in prison despite proven disparities in how the law is applied to whites and people of color in our criminal justice system.
  • We see it in the way that districts at all levels are gerrymandered or combined into at-large districts to make it impossible for communities of color to be fairly represented in elected offices.
  • We see it in the way that organizations like Koch-connected ALEC have passed and are currently pushing voter ID laws that disenfranchise, dilute, and suppress the vote, especially the votes of people of color. In many places, these laws are being challenged because they are created with the intent to make it harder for people of color and low-income individuals to be able to exercise their right to vote.
  • We see it in the Supreme Courts 2013 Shelby decision, which gutted key parts of the Voting Rights Act that Bloody Sundays marchers helped to pass. We see it in precincts being closed and early voting hours being restrictedputting up additional barriers to low-income individuals and people with disabilities who dont have access to a vehicle. These changes are facilitated by the Supreme Courts Shelby decision which struck down the requirement for federal government to pre-approve these types of changes in places that have historically curtailed the voting rights of its black citizens.

So no, the march is not over. In 1965 Selma, marchers called for voting rights. And in 2015, marchers, clergy, and dignitaries all the way up to President Obama called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and for additional reforms that will help us more fully realize the promise of American democracy.

To realize this promise, in 2015 like before, we must organize.

Crossing our own bridges

To echo one of Saturdays speakers, each of us has our own bridge to cross in the march towards justice. The struggle looks different today than it did 50 years ago, but that doesnt mean its not there.

In the work to create change, each of us will be asked to do something that creates tension, and often that requires taking a risk. It requires courage. And it requires acting together in community.

Systems of institutional and cultural racism are designed to be self-perpetuating and self-protecting. They are hard things to break. But step by step, it can be done, and it is done. Selma is proof of that.

It was true 50 years ago and it is true today: it is always worth it to free ourselves from the poison of hatred and realize the promise of freedom and justice for all.

The American flag flies over downtown Selma, AL on the morning of the Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary march

The American flag flies over downtown Selma, AL on the morning of the Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary march

Postscript

Some might ask why Greenpeace is talking about voting rights. To those questions, heres how I would respond:

Greenpeace stands for the ability of ordinary people to be able to create change. Nonviolent direct action is a founding principle of our organization, and there is much to learn from the path forged by those who marched on Bloody Sunday.

We work on democracy in partnership with organizations that have led the movement for voting rights for decades, because voting rights are at the foundation of our democracy, as is the right to free speech and protest.

Self-determination through the practice of democracyat the ballot box, through nonviolent direct action, and free speechare the best tools that we have to implement the will of the people, on everything from economic inequality to police brutality to climate changeand the best tools we have for justice.

 

 

Rachel Rye Butler

By Rachel Rye Butler

Rachel Rye Butler is a campaigner at Greenpeace USA

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