I finally walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma Alabama. If you are old enough, you may remember. Police and random thugs beat and gassed unarmed, nonviolent black protesters here back in the sixties. I say “finally” because, buried deep in my heart, I’ve always felt I should have been here the first time.
Most of the time, I say the three things that define me are that I am female, black and Jewish. Usually in that order, but it depends on the circumstances.
When I work on quilts to be given to the local women’s homeless shelter, it is definitely female first: I see myself in the women there.
On Shabbat, or in Torah classes, I’m a Jew first. A Jew of Color (JOC) to be sure. (It seems there is always someone around to ask me one of the questions JOCs always get like “Are you really Jewish?” There certainly was on this trip. I came to Selma with a group of other Jews from the District of Columbia and Maryland).
But standing before this bridge, I’m just a solitary black person. And here, now, that is the most important thing to me.
In 1965, when the original marches happened I was still in high school. My family lived in Southern California. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have money for anything extra.
Realistically, there was no way for me to be here. I don’t even have any memories of seeing “Bloody” Sunday on TV, but I remember knowing it was happening. Somehow black communities always “knew” what was happening in the movement, however far away they might be from wherever it was, whatever it was, was going on.
In 2017, on the Saturday before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I’m standing by “The Bridge.” I’m surprised by how small a bridge it is. How small the town of Selma is, for that matter. The importance of this place in my mind obviously demanded it be bigger than it has turned out to be.
I see the past.
I watched trucks full of National Guard troops roll past my house into Watts during the riots. I cried when John and Bobby Kennedy, and then Martin Luther King Jr., were killed. (For that matter, it broke my heart when Ted Kennedy died. He was the last. That vision of Camelot is no more.)
I also cried the day Barack Obama was sworn in as President, but they were happy tears. It had never crossed my mind that I would live to see a day like that after all that had gone before. (Regardless of what I may think about what happened later in his presidency.)
Naturally there are times during this weekend when my Jewish side is ascendant. I am a Jew first when I attend Friday night services at the beautiful old Selma synagogue, Miskan Israel. Its (7) members were kind enough to open it up for us. (It was a Reform congregation, and the group I am with is Orthodox. I will always see the makeshift mechitza they created out of tarps laid down the middle of the synagogue.)
But then, there were also times when being Jewish wasn’t on my mind at all. One of those times was when, due to random circumstances, instead of crossing with the whole group, I end up walking across that bridge alone.
Of course, I walk up from Selma. Standing at the middle of the bridge, I look down at the water. It’s muddy from rains earlier in the week, a single boat speeds by underneath.
Looking back at the bridge, my whole body tenses up. My stomach begins to hurt. If this was ’65 there would be police, standing and mounted; an armed mob; and a surly mass of screaming spectators below looking up at me from the county side of the bridge.
A man (white and, as it happens, a Jew), who lives in Selma today, wanted to make certain I knew that the town of Selma ends at the middle of the bridge. And that the Selma Police were not part of the force that attacked the marchers. He was so sincere when he was explaining this to me. And I guess I understand why this matters so much to him. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how much it matters to me. Looking down at the police and the mob that is no longer there, I’m pretty sure it didn’t much matter to the people gassed and beaten here either.
The people. The ones I might have been a part of. There were three marches over this bridge. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t here. Dr. King wasn’t in Selma during the “Bloody” Sunday march either, although he did lead the other two. Even so, he is considered the leader of “The March”. And that’s not surprising. It is the way of history. It is the leaders who are remembered. And I’m not in any way saying they shouldn’t be.
Dr. King was an amazing, amazing man. He was a great leader. But, I think we all sometimes forget: he had to have someone to lead.
All the pictures you see focus on the leaders: Dr. King, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael; or the famous: Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory. But if you look closely, if you look behind the leaders and the famous, there are the rest of the people. They are not considered anything special. They are just… people. Background. But many of them risked everything to walk across this bridge.
I can feel them. As if they are still here when I walk across it now. I wonder how they feel about me being here, all these many years late. Risking little.
I continue across to the place where the beatings started. Just on the other side of the bridge. Right there, off to the side, is a small, grey building with a long, impressive name: The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Unexpectedly, it is the most memorable place I visit. Because this is where they are. The people in the backgrounds of all those pictures. The ones I would have walked with. The ones I think I should have walked with.
An enthusiastic black man who works there talks about the history of the museum. He explains their signature project: recording the identities of the Foot Soldiers: the nameless folks I felt standing on the bridge.
The Museum has a large collection of photographs of the marches (including surveillance footage from law enforcement archives.) “A lot of people come in here, look at the pictures, point and say ‘That’s me!” he said. “We have recorded over 3,000 names of the people who participated in the Selma marches! And we make plaster casts of those Foot Soldiers’ feet.”
I look around and there they are. All over the walls of this museum, wherever you look, plaster casts with the names, ages and which of the marches the individuals participated in.
I can’t even describe what it felt like standing there. Turning around and around. Trying to look at all of them. Keeping my hands behind my back because I want to touch them so badly. As if it would take me back to the marches I missed.
I know it’s ridiculous to feel guilty about something I couldn’t realistically have done. It wasn’t realistic, but was it… possible? Could I have gotten money from somewhere? Just enough to take a bus across the country? And if I had been here, would I have been afraid to walk across this bridge? To risk anything, everything? Staring into space, breathing deeply, in and out, no answers come. I still don’t know.
What I do know is that these long buried questions are the spark that pushed me to come to Selma now – over 50 years later.
The current mayor of Selma, Darrio Melton, is a black man. He attended Friday night dinner with the group I came down with.
When I was young there was no such thing as diversity on TV. So whenever there was a black person on a TV show, my family and I and all the folks I knew made sure to watch. And we always felt as if somehow what that actor or singer was doing was a good reflection on all of us, a good reflection “on the race” we used to say.
I felt that way about this young man. I’m terribly introverted, but after dinner I went up to him and thanked him for being there, for his success, for being a “good reflection on the race” (although of course I didn’t say that part, it wouldn’t be politically correct these days) and for his words:
“My grandfather was beaten on “Bloody” Sunday. And now I’m the mayor of this town.
What happened here changed the country. It made Selma one of the birthplaces of our democracy!”
I realize later I must be around his grandfather’s age. If I had made it here, I might have marched beside him.
“How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King Jr, speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march.
Does it? I wonder.
In 1965, in response to the TV coverage of the violence at Selma, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, which granted the Federal Government oversight over voting laws in nine southern states.
In 2011, Texas passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. The legal fight against the law began immediately with assistance from the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
(As an aside: I was born in Texas. Dr. King was born in his grandmother’s house in
Montgomery. When I see the house I wonder if he was born here for the same reason I was born in my grandmother’s house in Texas – because, when we were born, black doctors were not allowed to use the hospitals. Dr. King and I are not so old that should still have been true.)
In 2013, the conservative Justices of the Supreme Court, struck down the heart of the Voter Rights Act, allowing the original states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
Chief Justice Roberts mentioned the Freedom Summer of 1964, when three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi and “Bloody” Sunday in 1965 when police officers were beating marchers on that bridge I just crossed in Selma, AL.
“Today,” he wrote, “both of those towns are governed by African-American mayors.”
I wonder how Darrio Melton would feel about his success being used to destroy his people’s voting safety net.
Texas announced shortly after the decision that its voter identification law could now go into effect immediately.
How long? Not long.
In 2017, President Donald Trump promised to do a number of things on “day one”, most of which I am grateful he did not do. One that he didn’t talk about, but that he did do, was to have the Justice Department file a motion to postpone the US District Court hearing on the Texas voter ID law.
“This motion is made in good faith and not for the purposes of delay,” Justice lawyers wrote.
An appeals court’s ruling (that while the law might be discriminatory, it was not the intention of the Texas legislature to discriminate against black and Latino voters) hadalready led to the law being more laxly enforced in last November’s election. However, it is the new round of court rulings, now postponed, that will govern its application in the future.
All this makes me wish even more that I had gotten to Selma when I was 18. I wish I could have been one of the Foot Soldiers. I wish I had walked beside Mayor Melton’s grandfather. Even if I was terrified. Even if I was beaten.
I didn’t. I wasn’t.
But standing here today, I know that the other thing that called me here today is the attacks on voting rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, on everyone’s rights, right now.
Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, in her dissent to the 2013 decision, also drew on the words of Dr. King.
“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she said. “ ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is asteadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” (Emphasis mine).
Today’s walk, both mine and that of my Jewish friends, is our steadfast commitment.
Walking back across the bridge into Selma, I feel the marchers again. And it comes to me that women and Jews “praying with their feet” were also part of the Foot Soldiers.
Standing in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma AL, the three parts of me (female, black and Jewish) come together. I still wish I had been here before, but I am here now, at a time when there is still a need to be here.
“There will be neither rest nor tranquility until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” (MLK Jr.)
That long arc certainly hasn’t bent as far as it needs to yet. Walking across the bridge was me helping it along. I’m not sure yet exactly what else I’m going to be doing, but I know I’ll be doing it. I’m not going to wait another 50 years.