Jennifer Brown and Derek Chimner
“We have come a great distance as a society, but we still have a great distance to go.”
– Former Congressman John Lewis
This was the first line read during a memorial service we held at the end of our time in Selma. It comes from John Lewis’ book Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. This line encapsulates our theme for the day from our tour guide, Todd Allen: “What bridges do we have to cross today?”
As we traveled from Montgomery to Selma along the same stretch of land the marchers (or more commonly called in the South, “foot soldiers”) took, we had a chance to gain further understanding of the actual journey of the march. Our first stop was in Lowndes County, an unassuming community which became almost a refugee area for families affected by segregation. During the Jim Crow era, Black people were not permitted to vote, infringing on their rights as stated in the 15th Amendment. In Lowndes County in the 1950s and 60s, 80% of the county’s population was Black, however, ZERO Black’s were registered to vote. With the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 39 Black members in the county tried to register and were subsequently kicked out of the town by their sharecropping white landlords and needed a place for refuge. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) established this refugee area as “Tent City ” where families could find food, shelter, and, most importantly, safety.
We then continued our travels towards Selma, making a stop outside of the town at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. In this well-curated space, the history of the vote in America is highlighted and documented. As we entered the museum, the wall outside framed part of our thought process for the day: “Education is the key to control our destiny.” From Reconstruction time to women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement to present day, the museum had both visual and written representation of the different voting strife eras. What struck us about the Civil Rights Museum was the photographic parallels between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott King placed side-by-side to President Barack Obama & First Lady Michelle Obama. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” This quote from President Obama was prominently displayed on the wall and encompasses the thoughts and feelings of our CWB travel party.
As we crossed the famous Edmund Pettis bridge into downtown Selma, the visual of the town planted the seed of the disturbing recounting of what was to follow. For a town rich with Black history, it felt as if time had forgotten it. For lunch, we stopped at the Black-owned cafe The Coffee Shoppe, which was strewn with Black historical images, celebrating the movement. During this time, we were able to fraternize under the gorgeous, sunny day, getting to know our fellow travelers.
Unbeknownst to us, we were about to be joined by a woman with such passion and vitality, but also sharp as a knife’s edge: Joanne Bland. From her opening sentence, we knew we were in for a journey with her. She took us to the George Washington Carver projects where families would be invited to stay during the 1965 marches. Here, we saw the Brown Chapel AME Church which Dr. King used as the headquarters and starting point for the three marches to be led from Selma to Montgomery. We then walked to a plot of land where Ms. Bland had each of us grab a stone, showing we were holding a piece of land where John Lewis and Dr. King stood, preparing the foot soldiers to take their journey. In effect, we had a piece of history in our hands.
From here we toured all over the back neighborhoods of Selma with Ms. Bland pointing out hospitals, schools, and other points of interest during the Civil Rights time period. As we kept going through the back street, we pulled into Old Live Oak Cemetery, unaware of what we were about to experience. As we got off the bus and started walking down a well-maintained gravel path, an off-putting sight came into view: The Confederate flag. And not a single flag, but at least a dozen and a half around numerous graves. After shaking off the initial shock, we investigated the area with disbelief and anger as we would read heavily biased accounts erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Friends of the Forrest organizations. This plot of land was bought in 2015 and maintained in order to preserve Confederate gravesites, paying homage to Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Believed to be a founder and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest and his followers established this area of the cemetery as a stark reminder to the approx. 80% Black residents of Selma and the outward community that we have not come as far as we would like to think or hope. All the while, Ms. Bland was sitting on a bench unnerved by our surprise because she “has to live it every day.”
At the end of our time with Ms. Bland, she gave a disturbing firsthand account from when she was 11 years old of Bloody Sunday. On this day, March 7, 1965, John Lewis and 600+ foot soldiers left Brown Chapel and attempted to peacefully walk across Edmund Pettis bridge. When they reached the crest of the bridge, police officers on foot and horseback were lined up, waiting to impede their path. After being given a very short 2 minutes to disperse, Ms. Bland said she could here the firing of what she believed were gun shots into the air, but in reality, the poice fired tear gas into the crowd, creating confusion and mayhem. With gas masks on, the police beat back the foot soldiers. Ms. Bland recalled her last memory being of a horse trampling a young lady, distinctly remembering the sound of her head hitting the pavement. From the brutal attack, she woke to her sister crying and bleeding on her, requiring 35 stitches in her head. After another unsuccessful attempt a few days later, Dr. King arrived with a court order allowing the community to march. On March 21, 1965, over 4,000 foot soldiers marched by the police who only weeks prior beat them but now had to protect them on their journey. The size of the crowd paired down as the journey continued over five days, but once they reached Montgomery, the crowd regained its size.
From here, Ms. Bland departed leaving one last tidbit of knowledge for young people: “There is no road map, create your own and figure it out!” We then were able to cross the bridge ourselves, two-by-two, singing the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” This was a moving experience for us both, as we clutched each other’s arms hard, taking in the symbolism of this moment. On the other side, we ended our journey at Civil Rights Memorial Park, holding a small candle vigil (even though the wind was not cooperating), giving thought and prayer to all those who risked their lives for justice and equality. Finally, on the drive back to Montgomery, we stopped at a memorial site along interstate highway 80. Here, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, was shot in the head by KKK members while shuttling foot soldiers, specifically Black marchers, from Selma to Montgomery airport.
As the day drew to a close, the weight of the atrocities on our people, Black people, pressed down heavily on our souls.