“Selma is Now.” On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the violent confrontation between civil rights marchers and police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, President Barack Obama offered a pointed reflection on the state of civil rights today. The nation’s first African American president knows full well the progress and regression of this nation’s ongoing struggle with equality and justice, civil and human rights. In an excellent commentary for Slate, Jamelle Bouie sums up the many points of retrenchment on civil rights since the pinnacle of the movement in the 1960’s, most notably, the Supreme Court’s 2013 retreat on voting rights, the galvanizing issue for the marchers in 1965 and still a flash point for justice and equality in this nation.
For most of the 20th Century, in too many southern states black citizens faced impossible barriers to the most fundamental right of citizenship, the right to vote. In the State of Alabama, notorious for horrific acts of violence and intimidation against African Americans, the resistance to voting rights continued into the 1960’s. The story of the Selma marches appear in many places, as well as this year’s movie Selma, so I will not recount the details here.
Robert Caro, the great biographer of President Lyndon Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, includes an excellent summary of the violence and conditions of oppression that blacks faced in the southern states, and particularly in Alabama in his volume Master of the Senate. He details Johnson’s long and slow conversion from mouthpiece for the Senate’s southern segregationists to the Senate Majority Leader pushing for civil rights legislation. Controversy has swirled around the depiction of President Johnson in the movie Selma, but Caro’s detailed multi-volume biography offers telling details about Johnson’s shrewd political calculations that ultimately forced him to do the right thing, but often only after counting the votes. Of course, to turn the rhetoric of the great Civil Rights demonstrations like the Selma marches into the reality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, political shrewdness was as essential as passionate advocacy for Justice. For Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the partnership with Lyndon Johnson provided precisely the kind of political muscle necessary to force Congress to take action to ensure long-denied voting rights.
Such political shrewdness and muscle seems absent in today’s national legislative and judicial landscape, where highly partisan camps dig deeper trenches from which to lob their ugly and destructive maneuvers that undermine and thwart the original intention of the civil rights laws. When national leaders on the bench of the Supreme Court or in the halls of Congress take actions or make speeches that question the continuing need for vigilance in civil and human rights, they give encouragement to those who still actively pursue policies and practices of racial hatred.
Coincidentally, just days before the 50th Anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” in which police brutally beat voting rights demonstrators including John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis), the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report on the deplorable conditions within the Ferguson, Missouri police force. While the DOJ did not find enough evidence to charge former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson with a federal crime in the death of Michael Brown, the Justice Department did find pervasive patterns and practices of racism, including obvious practices of racial profiling in detaining persons on the street, intimidating practices imposing fines and harassment over small civil violations, blatantly racist emails including several disgusting portrayals of President and Mrs. Obama, and other offensive conduct no U.S. citizen should ever tolerate in law enforcement.
Strong political and moral leadership would demand swift and certain punishment for the Ferguson police force and for any other law enforcement agency engaged in repeated and blatant patterns of racial harassment, intimidation and discrimination.
Today’s observation of the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma should not be simply an occasion to remember, but rather, a moment to reaffirm this nation’s commitment to equality, justice and freedom for all people — regardless of race, bank account, religion, neighborhood, appearance, friends or lovers, abilities or accents, heritage or choice of political parties. The bitter hatred, fractiousness and mindless partisanship that has come to characterize our national government must give way to genuine leadership that acts, always and only, in the best interests of “We, the People.”
And “We, the People” need to remember that we are a self-governing community, that we choose those who will represent our needs and wishes, and that we must do that by exercising the precious right so many others gave so much to make possible for us: the right to vote.
Selma is now, and Selma is every single day. Take nothing for granted, especially when it comes to the ability of a self-governing nation to ensure equal rights and justice for all.
This week, a group of Trinity students were in Selma for the Alternative Spring Break, along with Dean Meechie Bowie and Sr. Kristen Mathes, SND. We are eager to hear their stories when they return next week! Thanks for sending along the photos….
Interesting article explaining why Dr. King and others wore white leis during the 1965 Selma march
See article in the National Catholic Reporter on the role of Catholics in the 1965 Selma march