Tens of thousands of people came to Selma, Ala., this week to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, remembering the march 50 years ago in the struggle for voting rights.
I was one of them.
As I stepped foot onto the bridge, the stories of brutal beatings and vicious hate brought a shiver despite the warm Alabama day. That feeling was soon replaced by a sense of awe, humility and inspiration to be following in the footsteps of the Foot Soldiers and civil rights leaders that forced the Voting Rights Act into being.
I grew up in Homer, and until I traveled here six years ago with my uncle, a professional photographer who works with the Voting Rights Museum, I’m not sure I could have picked out Alabama, much less Selma, on a map.
That trip back in 2009 opened both my eyes and my heart.
For me, and I imagine for many graduates of Homer High School, the civil rights movement is something from way back in history, like the Great Depression or even the Revolutionary War. I’m sure our teachers struggled to make us hear more, but all I remembered about the civil rights movement was Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and bus boycotts and sit-ins. All of which seemed to belong in the distant past.
That is, until I came to Selma. Then history came alive, through the voices and stories of the leaders of the movement and all the Foot Soldiers on the ground.
Many know that Dr. King came to Selma to educate, inspire and help lead the marches. One of the reasons he chose Selma was because hundreds of people were on the ground there working to make voting rights a reality. In the years leading up to 1965, numerous brave souls in Selma had attempted to register to vote, struggling against vehement and increasingly violent opposition from the local sheriff and the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite this opposition, the movement continued simmering. Then, Bernard Lafayette and his wife, Colia, came to town. After surviving the Freedom Rides through the South, Bernard had signed on to be a community organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But the group didn’t have an assignment for him. He looked on the wall and saw a big map with all of the campaign cities on it.
“There was a big X through Selma. SNCC wasn’t going to go there anymore. Two teams of SNCC had gone to Selma and come back. They both said the same thing,“ Lafayette said. “They said: ‘The white people are too mean and the black people are too scared.’”
But he and Colia went to Selma and quickly began organizing young people, holding mass meetings and leading voter registration clinics. Despite death threats and severe beatings, they continued the work. Hundreds of Selma residents risked their lives to be a part of the movement. Families made huge sacrifices. The danger was real, and yet they continued. Parents of young children would alternate days they attended meetings and marched, so that if one was arrested, injured or killed there would be someone to care for the children.
In 1964 and 1965, other leaders in the civil rights movement began to focus on Selma. As Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Orange, and eventually Martin Luther King Jr. came to town, they found a warm and welcoming home with Amelia Boynton (now Boynton-Robinson). Miss Boynton did more than just transform her home into a headquarters for the movement. This was a battle she had been fighting for years and she knew the ins-and-outs of Selma. She counseled the leaders and mentored young freedom fighters, inspiring all with her determination and serenity in the face of great danger.
Sheyann Webb-Christburg was one of those young people. She began sneaking out to participate in the mass meetings after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. in the street outside of Brown Chapel. This week she told students in Selma, “I knew it was wrong to disobey my parents, but I also knew that this was the right thing.”
On March 7, 1965, she was the youngest person to march across the bridge. Led by Miss Boynton, the “Courageous Eight” and other civil rights leaders from around the country, 600 people marched across the bridge. Their goal was Montgomery, where they planned to register to vote. They were turned back by county sheriffs, state troopers and an angry mob of white citizens. As the tear gas cleared, Miss Boynton and many others lay unconscious on the ground. Annie Pearl Avery was the only person arrested that day, taken into custody as she tried to bring a nurse to the bridge to treat the wounded freedom fighters.
Photos of the extreme brutality spread throughout the country, and people poured into Selma to lend their support to the movement. Finally, on March 21, 1965, the third march to Montgomery began with federal protection. Among the thousands of people on this march was Selma student Lynda Lowery, the youngest person to complete the entire 54-mile march. She turned 15 on the third day of the March. It was a long journey, but she made it “because of others like Miss Boynton who took care of me as we walked.” Two days after her birthday, the group reached Montgomery.
The Voting Rights Act became law on Aug. 5, 1965.
Now, 50 years later, I walked across that bridge with tens of thousands of people. At the front and sprinkled throughout were dozens of the Foot Soldiers, those who had sacrificed so much and worked so determinedly to bring the vote to all citizens of the United States. It is hard to believe that only 50 years ago people were beaten on this very bridge simply because they had the audacity to want to register to vote.
It seems like this country has come so far from a time when darker skin made it acceptable to be beaten, jailed, and even shot.
The struggle of Selma, and this nation, however, is not just in the past. A memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, can be seen in a cemetery mere miles from the bridge. Confederate flags decorate the graves of many buried there, and over the weekend, a quiet stream of visitors paid homage at the site.
Hate and fear is still alive in Selma and the larger world, but the Foot Soldiers of Selma, and these civil rights leaders embody love and courage. When I ascended the stairs of the Tabernacle Baptist Church earlier this week, I had to shake my head in wonder.
How did I, a young white woman from Homer, Alaska, find myself here?
As I made it to the crowded upper balcony and the crowd began to sing, I knew that I was in the right place. I was filled with love as the beautiful words of “This Little Light of Mine” swelled throughout the chapel. All of us — black, white, brown, old, young, men, women, and children, rich and poor — sang along. The song is stuck in my head, and the love is happily stuck in my heart.
That is the kind of love that can accomplish amazing things. The kind of love we need throughout the country and the world as we struggle with issues of inequality, poverty, failing education, violence, discrimination, and even, 50 years later, threats to voting rights. We would do well to remember this spirit in our own communities as we encounter those that are different from us, that are disenfranchised and disempowered. The stories of these civil rights heroes can serve as inspiration to us all.
Katie Gavenus is a 2005 graduate of Homer High School. She works as an environmental educator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and is the director of Children of the Spills. She graduated from Bowdoin College in 2009 with an environmental studies degree focused on marine ecology and a visual arts degree focused on photography and public, community-based art.