Selma is a small town in Alabama.
I discovered this on a day trip there a few weeks ago. I’m interning at the Southern Poverty Law Center this summer, in Montgomery, Alabama, roughly an hour’s drive from Selma. My roommates (and fellow SPLC interns) decided to take a trip down there.
Selma is the kind of small town where, as my roommates and I strolled down the sidewalk, a woman rolled down her car window when she drove by us and yelled, “WELCOME TO SELMA!” It looks like a town that time forgot, with old drugstore window neon signs still hanging from often rickety buildings, and dilapidated balconies occasionally swinging in a stiff, humid breeze. When I asked a gentleman working at the National Voting Rights Museum what we should do while we’re in Selma, he answered, “Well, my favorite things to do here are being at this museum and going to church.” We had lunch at the fantastic Side Porch Sandwiches, with the best red pepper jelly sandwich concoction I’ve had. Seriously, it was amazing.
I did not, however, go to Selma for the red pepper jelly. We went to Selma to get a taste of the civil rights history. As we drove there, though, I realized that I knew almost nothing about Selma. Whether I have forgotten long-ago learned history lessons, or whether I never learned it, I don’t know. But as I thought about what I knew about Selma, all I could come up with was: people marched from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act was passed shortly after the march. And I thought maybe there had been multiple marches.
Happily, I spent most of the day in Selma learning. Turns out that the marches grew out of the Voting Rights Movement in Selma, led by the Dallas County Voters League (“DCVL”) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”), people like Colia and Bernard Lafayette, Amelia and Sam Boynton (and eventually their son Bruce), and so on. People you’ve probably never heard of. Frustrated by their inability to register black people to vote, DVL and SNCC called on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) for help. SCLC came, led by a man you have heard of – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black man, was part of a protest. Jimmie had tried to register without success for four years. He headed off to this protest with his mother, Viola Jackson, and 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee. When the police attacked the demonstrators, Jimmie, Viola, and Cager ran. They tried to take shelter in a cafe, but police followed them. Police clubbed Cager to the floor, and when Viola tried to pull them off, they turned on her. Jimmie tried to intervene, and Officer James Bonard Fowler shot him twice in the abdomen. He collapsed outside.
Jimmie died at Good Samaritan Hospital eight days later.
Enraged, James Bevel sought a way to transform anger to nonviolent action. Bevel came up with the idea to march from Selma to Montgomery, with the intent of forcing Governor George Wallace to come out and talk to them, to answer to them re: voting rights denials and Jimmie’s murder. To no one’s astonishment, Wallace said he would do whatever was necessary to prevent the march.
On March 7, 1965, roughly 550 protestors left Selma for Montgomery. Sheriff Jim Clark deputized all white men in Dallas County and brought them to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the demonstrators arrived, Commanding Officer Jim Cloud told them to leave. He did not wait to see whether they would obey, but instead began shoving the marchers. Then beating them with nightsticks. Spraying tear gas. Mounted officers charged their horses. Amelia Boynton was gassed nearly to death. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized. It would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Bevel and King decided to have another march, to be held March 9, 1965. Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson issued a restraining order, preventing the march until he could hold further hearings. SCLC decided to go ahead with the march, but agreed they would turn around if and when they were asked to do so. On March 9, Dr. King led 2500 marchers. They got as far as the Pettus Bridge before hitting a solid wall of blue. They stopped, prayed, and turned around. It would come to be known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”
Finally, on March 17, Judge Johnson ruled that the protestors had to be allowed to march. So, on March 21, nearly 8000 people assembled at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama. Led by religious leaders, they set out towards Montgomery. Judge Thompson had limited the number of protestors to 300 (so they wouldn’t take up the entire highway), so after they hit Selma limits, 300 continued through Lowndes County, making the 50 plus mile trek to Montgomery. They walked, protected by 2000 soldiers and 1900 members of the National Guard under federal command, as ordered by President Johnson, because Governor Wallace refused to do so. From the 21st through the 24th, they walked in their Sunday best, through chilly spring rain. On the 24th, they entered Montgomery County, were joined by many thousands more, and held a “Stars for Freedom” rally and concert. Then, on March 25th, they approached the Montgomery Capitol. Governor Wallace did not come out, but Dr. King addressed them, saying: “The end we seek is … a society that can live with its conscience … I know you are asking, how long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
American jurisprudence is a history of a nation wrestling with its conscience. My office in SPLC (all the interns share this enormous room with a glass window and glass wall dividing us from the rest of the office; we call it a fish bowl/aquarium) looks out on Civil Rights Memorial Center . In the front of CRMC, there is a huge marble disc on a pedestal, roughly waist height. Water runs over it, and you can touch it. Engraved on the disc are the names of people who lived and died fighting for civil rights.
Most of their murders are either unsolved or were never prosecuted. These people were killed by their fellow human beings, unprotected by law.
Yet, usually when I look at this memorial, I usually smile. Most of the time, there is a group of twenty to thirty pretty cute kids, often in matching t-shirts, standing in front of the memorial, playing in the water and smiling for adults clicking away at cameras. I hope that to the extent any of those kids have any idea what they’re seeing, they realize that those people did not just die for civil rights; they lived for civil rights. They resisted. They pushed.
And they won. The Voting Rights Act became law.
But, as is evidenced by SPLC’s very presence, that victory was incomplete. Today, five members of the Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the law protecting the rights for which those people died and lived, is unconstitutional. The Voting Rights Act sets up a formula determining countries that are particularly likely to trample upon racialized minorities voting rights, then requires that they get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before they change their voting laws. The Supreme Court held that the section determining the formula is unconstitutional, effectively eviscerating the VRA while pretending it wasn’t, an act of chicanery for which I have no patience and will not spend time dismantling. Other people have already quite articulately done so (check Ginsburg’s dissent on that last link).
Instead, I wanted to talk about the people the Justices swept under the rug with their disingenuous grandiloquence. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy are continuing the tradition of our nation wrestling with its conscience, but today, the Court failed. It reinforced a racist power structure. Dr. King said the moment would not be long, but we are not there, folks. We are not there.
It took three marches, dozens of hospitalized people, 3000 members of the federal armed forces, at least 40 dead people, ruined lives, and countless people who stood up and demanded to be counted, to get the Voting Rights Act passed. It took five members of the Supreme Court to knock it down.
I suspect it will take a town that time forgot, and many others like it, to fight back.