Come we now to the summary event in the classic Civil Rights Struggle, the Selma March, commemorated 50 years after the fact this weekend in the city of that name. The event has been idealized in a colorful motion picture that won an Oscar for a song played within it, but the original was enacted in base black and white, with splashes of red.
There were three separate attempts to march, of course. The third one was the successful one, thanks to military accompaniment, a court-mandated 300 marchers well guarded in a 54-mile procession to Montgomery. That march will be remembered on Friday, March 13 in the capital city. You’ll be able to differentiate that observance because neither President Obama nor former President Bush nor any of the cast of Selma will be speaking on the capitol steps.
The second attempt was a brave one, perhaps, because it never took place. Before Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson could issue a restraining order against demonstrations, Dr. King, who had not been present on “Bloody Sunday,” led a couple of thousand marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a prayer session, after which they turned back and dispersed. There must have been tremendous pressure from within King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference beforehand to confront the authorities, but the disciple of nonviolence held firm.
(Unfortunately, the doctrine of nonviolence was of little help to Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who had answered King’s call for clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma. After dining at an integrated restaurant that night, the minister and two fellow Unitarians was attacked and beaten by three other white men who disdained what they called “nigger lovers.” Reeb died of his injuries two days later in Birmingham. The men who killed him were acquitted of murder that December in Dallas County. Such was Alabama 50 years ago.)
The first march attempt, the one to be remembered this weekend, contained the money shot. Just as national network footage of snarling dogs and fire hoses had outraged the country about Birmingham in 1963, the TV cameras’ capture of white police clubbing black marchers two years later added Selma to the map of infamy.
Had reporters not been present, the event might have gone as unremarked upon as the cop shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in February of ’65 in Marion, northwest of Selma. In part because that killing was so little noted, activists in that little town pushed for increased political action in the Dallas County seat, which ultimately led to the legendary march in Selma.
How do we learn history? I hate to admit this, because I detested the practice when I was in school, but rote memorization is a pretty important component. So many things have happened to human beings during their dominion of this planet that the only way to keep track is to make a list. It is by no means enthralling to commit dates, names and places to memory, but it will protect you from inadvertently insisting that Abraham Lincoln was president during the First World War.
Another way to get acquainted with history is to go to the places where it was made. This doesn’t necessarily mean trips to Europe or Africa or Appleton, Wisconsin (the birthplace of Harry Houdini), though travel can be broadening (especially if you try the strudel in Appleton). Sometimes history is right in the vicinity.
If you drop down to Selma this weekend, for instance, you’ll be able to walk in the very footsteps of those who marched for freedom. You could do that any day. Because this is a special anniversary, this weekend you’ll be offered the chance to observe as well a Bridge Crossing Jubilee golf tournament, an “Old School Blues Show & Dance” and a “Stomp Out to Vote” step show, among many plays, parades, workshops, breakfasts and luncheons the event organizers have prepared. Because, history.
But was Selma in fact, as its tourism board asserts, “where voting rights history began”? A closer look at the record suggests otherwise. One participant in the movement, organizer James Orange, told Southern Exposure’s Bob Hall, “It was places like Marion, Eutaw, Greensboro. See, we never could motivate people in Selma, Alabama. We motivated young folk, but the adults came from surrounding areas of Selma, because Sheriff Jim Clark wouldn’t let folk register in Selma.”
Were great men at the heart of the voting rights struggle? “If the story is ever told,” Orange asserted, “women made black folk what they are today. Like, we had Martin Luther King as a leader, but if you check out every march he participated in, or led, every movement that he had, there were women and children, not men.”
And Orange offered one other alternate view of history: “The people we hear about is Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, Andy Young. The media never talks about the people who got the whippings.” There were a lot of those people, back in the bad old days, and I bet more than a few will be back in Selma, Lord, Selma this weekend, to recollect how things really were and take heart from how things are.
With the opening of the Civil Rights Institute in 1992, the city of Birmingham officially embraced its past. What’s called “heritage tourism” has brought millions of dollars into community coffers and will continue to do so, as long as our fellow Americans remain curious to see what made people lose their minds back in the 20th century.
So let the city of Selma profit handsomely this weekend from the very events that shamed it in the eyes of the world five decades ago. It is less a manifestation of Green History Month than the ultimate lesson of history. History teaches us that people make mistakes. Remembering history, by any means necessary, means we can learn to make fewer.