A long recounting of my short moment in history.
Today I watched Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both speaking at predominantly black churches in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday -- the day civil rights marchers were beaten and turned back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.
Both senators gave solid speeches, one pitched a little too low and the other a little too high, or so it seemed to me, but watching the whole ebony and ivory thing, playing out in a town made famous for its public display of racism and brutality, seemed bigger to me than whether Barack is black enough or Hillary is Bill enough and who showed up in which church for whom. Read on.
Listening to the speeches, both referring to that now-famous march to Montgomery that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, got me to thinking about my own little part in that history, back when we felt we made a difference. And, judging from what we saw in Selma today, I guess we did.
Several days after Bloody Sunday, civil rights leaders sought federal court protection for a march from Selma to the state capitol in Mongomery. Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. (later called an "integrating, scalawagging, carpetbagging liar" by segregationist Governor George Wallace) ruled that the marchers had a constitutional right to assembly for redress of grievances, in this case, the denial of voting rights to black people.
On March 21, 3200 marchers set out for Montgomery, this time with federal marshalls protecting them. By the time they reached the capitol, 54 miles and five days later, that number had grown to 25,000, and it included me, my sister, and our parents.
My mother had already gone on other marches with Dr. King, and on one occasion had been arrested and jailed in Albany, GA. So when the photos of the beatings on Pettus bridge were nationally televised, she, like thousands of other people, knew she had to join whatever part of this march she could. I did too.
I was a freshman in college and my sister was a senior, and we flew together from New York to meet my parents at the Montgomery airport.
When we got to the airport we were to wait for volunteer drivers who would shuttle us to where the march was assembling on the outskirts of the city for the final surge (oops) into the city.
It was what we'd now call a very fifties airport, part deco, part Jetsons, except for the bathrooms and drinking fountains, clearly marked "colored" and "white". We'd seen photos, but to actually see them in place, and being used as directed, was jarring. Of course we made a point of using the "colored" facilities, a point we knew we were free to make and others weren't. And yes, the "colored" ladies room was shabby and dingy with only one stall and a sink, and the "white" one was modern and well-lit with many stalls.
Airports in those days had lawns around them and I think that we sat out in the warm grass with throngs of others, black and white, waiting for our ride to join the march. (My sister will write a comment to correct me on all of this, I'm sure.) When our turn came we piled into a big old station wagon, clown car style, and were taken to join the march which was moving like a giant caterpillar along the highway towards the state capitol, where George Wallace defiantly flew his confederate flag.
It was hot and we were packed in close, holding hands, black-and -white-together-we-shall-overcome, to keep our lines in tight formation. We held hands with men in overalls and Sunday suits, and women in shirtwaist dreses and jeans, and with my mother, surely in a skirt and blouse and my father, most likely in a suit, maybe even a fedora, and probably smoking or chewing a toothpick which he did when he was nervous. It was hot and humid and sticky -- and utterly exhilerating.
All along the route we saw armed federal troopers on roof tops and white angry faces on the roadside. Some shouted the usual bunk, others just glowered, or waved the flag of Dixie, and they seemed defeated, more feeble than frightening. This was a victory march, after all. The federal government had come through on our side and we were the rag-tag invincible troops, coming to claim the spoils that were long over due, things like equality, justice and the right to vote.
There were speeches we couldn't quite hear, and jubilant songs that still make me cry. George Wallace cowered inside, though every so often a roar would go up from the crowd and rumor would spread that a curtain had been briefly pulled aside, so surely he was looking out at the throng on his doorstep. It was heady to be so certain that we were right, but even more so to feel our power. If enough of us stood up for justice, we could nudge the nation in the right direction. Well, that was then.
I don't remember whether it rained, or if the sky just got dark, or why exactly my father insisted that we get going. The rally was breaking up, and we were supposed to walk back out to a certain intersection where the volunteer drivers would pick us up for the ride back to the airport. My mother and sister and I were in high spirits but my father was jittery. He wasn't much of a people person in the first place, and I figured all the squishy presence of bodily flesh had gotten to him. So when a taxi cruised by, he flagged it, and asked to be taken to the airport. I was sorry to miss out on the bonhomie of the volunteer car pools, and probably made that clear.
The driver was black, and he also seemed a bit edgy, eyes watching the rear view mirror as much as the road. But I felt we'd seen the tide turn, that the old rules of the south had just been rewritten, and besides, the federales were there to keep us safe, andJust-like-a-tree-standing-by-the-wa-a-ter, we-will-not-be-moved.
As we sped to the airport a car pulled along side, the stereotypical klan car, with a few klan kinds of guys inside, laughing and making gestures at us, including one who lifted his hand up to the window like a gun, and pretended to take a few shots at us. Still feeling buoyed and invincible from the march, I made can't-hurt-me faces back at them until they edged over into our lane and played a sort of chicken game with our poor driver, at which point my father reached over and yanked me away from the window. "Killjoy," I thought as I huddled low on the seat. Ah, youth.
Our flight didn't leave until much later that night, but Mr. Killjoy had decided we were better off sitting at the airport than anywhere else in Alabama. Father did not always know best, but in this case he surely did. Some time that evening, a volunteer from Michigan named Viola Liuzzo, who had been driving marchers with a local black man named Leroy Moton, was murdered by three Klansmen who pulled up alongside her car and gunned her down. When the car crashed, Leroy Moton played dead, and later was able to run for help.
The march that began with Bloody Sunday on Edmund Pettus Bridge, ended with more bloodshed, but it accomplished its goal. Five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
So surely it's more than another day in politics when 42 years later, a white woman and a black man, leading contenders for the presidency of the United States, stand at neighboring churches in Selma, Alabama, and court the vote of those who, not that long ago, were told they had no vote to cast.