From Selma to Ferguson
50 years ago yesterday, a march on behalf of voting rights made national news. ABC interrupted its Sunday night movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” to air 15 minutes of uninterrupted footage of a sort of brutality truly worthy of Nazi Germany. But happening on American soil.
Nonviolent protesters were attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, to protest all the ways in which Alabama law and practice prevented blacks from voting. They were assaulted with tear gas, billy club beatings, vicious dogs, and attacks from police on horseback.
History knows it as Bloody Sunday.
The namesake of the bridge is entirely appropriate. Edmund Pettus had been a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Naming the bridge after him was Alabama’s way of affirming their dogged commitment to white supremacy.
How dare the marchers attempt to cross!
But they dared. They dared a second time, and then, with a third march, and surrounded by national guardsmen, military police, and army troops, 8000 people left from Brown Chapel, crossed that bridge, and kept on, and the marchers would eventually swell to 30,000 strong. When finally they reached the state capitol in Montgomery, here’s what those marchers heard Dr. King say:
“The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”
We need to hear these words today, too. On our side of history—from the side of 50 years later, and beyond—we need encouragement to keep going, because he was right, the battle has been in our hands, there has been a call to higher ground, but there were no broad highways leading us easily and inevitably to quick solutions.
From Selma to now, we haven’t seen them…
New York Times writer Charles Blow reminds us that a majority in this country believe that race relations are getting worse and that more than a third think police-minority relations are getting worse. “Obviously,” he says, “in the long sweep of history, no one could make such a claim. Race relations are certainly not worse than they were 50 or 100 or 400 years ago, but there is a nagging frustration that things haven’t progressed as fast as many had hoped.”
Charles Blow adds that, “for young people in their late teens or early 20s … whose first real memory of presidential politics was the election of the first African-American president, any seeming racial retrenchment is jarring, and for them, over the course of their lifetimes, things can feel like they are getting worse. This is their experiential moment,” he says, “that moment when the weight becomes too much, when the abstract becomes real, when expectations of continual, inexorable progress slam into the back of a slow-moving reality, plagued by fits and starts and sometimes prone to occasional regressions.”
That’s Charles Blow. When the abstract becomes real. Slow-moving reality, fits and starts, occasional regressions…
One of these regressions is how access to the vote is currently under the most sustained attack since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was the direct win of the Selma campaign. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the 1965 Act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. States are now requiring stricter voter IDs, cutting early voting, ending same-day registration, and curtailing virtually every reform that made it easier to vote. Minorities are the ones disproportionately impacted.
On the other hand, to what degree are people taking advantage of the vote that Selma won for them? “There was nothing magic about Selma,” says Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest aides. “Selma just gave us the right to vote. But if you don’t vote, and don’t take advantage of that right, you’re still living in a pre-Selma age.”
The road ahead is not altogether smooth.
It’s also a road that takes us from Governor of Alabama George C. Wallace, on Face the Nation, pulling out one rhetorical trick after another and talking faster than an auctioneer trying to shore up the image of Alabama to a nation and a world that has seen the horror of Bloody Sunday—a road that takes us from this straight to Ferguson and the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, who, when it was his turn to be on TV, did everything but jumping jacks and jitterbugging to undermine his own side in the trial. “I’m not going to be stampeded and blackjacked in making any accusations against police!” said George C. Wallace, and it was essentially the same thing we got from the establishment in Ferguson, 50 years later.
And then the Federal Government stepped in. Have you read the report?
Here’s a summary from the New York Times:
“The Justice Department on Wednesday called on Ferguson, Mo., to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in so many constitutional violations that they could be corrected only by abandoning its entire approach to policing, retraining its employees and establishing new oversight.”
“In one example after another, the report described a city that used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures, a place where officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause, hurled racial slurs, used stun guns without provocation, and treated anyone as suspicious merely for questioning police tactics.”
The report gave credence to many of the grievances aired last year by African-Americans in angry, sometimes violent protests after the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. Though the Justice Department separately concluded that the officer, Darren Wilson, who is white, violated no federal laws in that shooting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said investigations revealed the root of the rage that brought people into the streets.”
“‘Seen in this context — amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices — it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,’ Mr. Holder said.”
Now, you might have heard President Obama speaking yesterday from Selma, and he directly addressed this report and what it implies about the state of things today.
“Just this week,” he said, “I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America.”
That’s President Obama. And of course, we don’t want to do a disservice to the cause of justice. To say that bias and discrimination are immutable is to be tone deaf to the music of Selma and all the accomplishments of the past 50 years. But this doesn’t stop how the feeling of being black in America is still a feeling of being unsafe, unprotected, and vulnerable to random violence and hate. Cornel West says it’s equivalent to what Sept. 11th felt like to all of us. That’s Cornel West, not white me. Who knows how many individual criminal justice systems there are in America that are as compromised as Ferguson’s, but they’ve not been exposed yet. Exposed, the Feds would swoop down on them like they did Ferguson, but until that time, what’s going to protect the American citizen?
You never know when the other shoe’s going to drop.
Back on February 16, UUCA and the Georgia Psychological Association co-sponsored a panel discussion on the issue of police-minority relations in this space, and one of the questions was about “what citizens can do to decrease the chances of escalating situations that involve interactions with law enforcement.” As a member of the panel, I got impatient really fast with all the pussyfooting around. Blacks and whites on the panel—police officers, psychologists, civil rights lawyers—but I was just not hearing anyone addressing the reality of being black in our times. So I asked the white folks in the audience of about 100 people if they ever had to coach their kids—especially their white sons—to prepare to be humiliated if police stop them. To lie down, if police tell them to sit down. To walk in the street with only one other boy at a time because, if it’s three or more, police will think you’re a gang. None of the whites in the crowd raised their hands. But most of the blacks did. They bear the burden of decreasing the chances of escalation. They are the ones, always bearing the burden!
The road ahead: not altogether smooth.
Dr. King knew this above all. Days before his assassination, he said to Harry Belafonte, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” Now this is a remarkable question. This is an arresting question. It is but another way of saying that, as central as racism was to Dr. King’s concern, he concern was larger than that. What bothered him was larger than that. You can talk about racism all day but that doesn’t mean you’ve covered all there is to talk about. You can completely solve racism but it doesn’t mean complete success. The house can still be burning—burning in flames of poverty and militarism and materialism.
Who wants to integrate into that?
People got Dr. King’s focus on racial justice, but they didn’t like it when he strayed from that single issue. 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to Vietnam and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. People just didn’t get it. Wanted him to stay single-issue. Didn’t understand his holism, how he saw systems of oppression intersecting and reinforcing each other.
This is exactly why he says, in his eulogy for the martyred Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb, “So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.”
That’s it: the system, the way of life, the philosophy.
Oppressions working together, in concert.
Call the focus on this “intersectionality.”
Dr. King’s intersectionality is something that most people never really got.
The road from Selma to now has not been altogether smooth….
Which is why we do not dare forget what else was said in the shadow of the Montgomery state capitol, 50 years ago: We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.” “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.”
Don’t get turned around. Keep fighting for voting rights. Keep reforming the criminal justice system. Eradicate racism in all its new 21st century obnoxious forms. March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and march on!
But in all of it, keep the provocative question from Dr. King in mind: “Are we integrating into a burning house?”
We need to stand before the forces of power, with intersectional focus. We need to expand our imagination about what the Edmund Pettus Bridge truly symbolizes—how it represents not just racism but poverty and militarism and materialism and other oppressions as well. UUCA’s Amelia Shenstone, in a recent blog, quotes writer Naomi Klein where she says, “…if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change.” Do you see that? Race intersecting with class intersecting with the environment?
We have to cross that bridge. The road from Selma takes us right there.
Here’s yet another instance of oppressions intersecting. I’m going to read a series of true quotes from various American court cases, laws, and politicians. Some of them are referring to marriage between races, and others are referring to same-sex marriage. See if you can tell which is which. (This, by the way, comes from writer Andrew Kirell):
“They cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies” not allowing their marriage.
This relationship “is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results … [Their children turn out] generally effeminate … [their relationship is] productive of evil.”
State legislators spoke out against such an “abominable” type of relationship, warning that it will eventually “pollute” America.
“It not only is a complete undermining of … the hope of future generations, but it completely begins to see our society break down … It literally is a threat to the nation’s survival in the long run.”
This type of marriage is “regarded as unnatural and immoral.”
Can you tell which is which? The only one that is actually referring to same-sex marriage is the second from the last. The rest are anti-interracial. But all of them sound alike. All of them come from the same spoiled well of hatred.
How can you fight racism and not fight homophobia?
Even as the country marches towards nationwide marriage equality and polls show record levels of support for same-sex marriage, it’s just like 50 years ago, and George C. Wallace and his thugs want to stop that march. Refuse to let them cross the bridge. Just this past Thursday, the Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is legislation that seeks to secure the right of “persons” (a term not defined and so could therefore be interpreted to include businesses, individuals, and even state employees) to refuse service to LGBT Georgians, or anyone else who supposedly offends someone’s “religious beliefs.” Marriage equality comes to Georgia, in other words, but clerks can refuse marriage licenses on the basis of their “religious convictions.”
Don’t let them cross the bridge.
What drives me to despair is the whole appeal to “religious convictions” which, for the conservative politicians involved, is supposed to somehow relate to Jesus of Nazareth. I just say, read your Bible. Jesus was someone who regularly shared a table with exactly the sort of people that the religious leaders of his day thought were inappropriate and out of bounds and evil—but Jesus thought they were not evil but children of God like everybody else. I want to tell those conservative politicians that they are no followers of Jesus at all. At least not the real Jesus.
But “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around,” right?
The so-called Religious Freedom Act heads to the Georgia House, so what can we do? I spoke with Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, and here’s what he said. “First: no one should consider this inevitable. The political dynamics of the house are very different than those of the Senate, so people should continue to voice their opposition.” More concretely, he said, “Folks can contact business interests such as AT&T, or the Metro Atlanta and Georgia Chambers of Commerce, and ask them why they are not vocally opposing this bill like they did last year.” You can participate in Georgia Equality’s phone bank and call people to to educate and mobilize people against the proposed legislation. You can stay informed by following Georgia Unites Against Discrimination via twitter, Facebook or email. Finally, Jeff Graham said that if the bill is passed by the House and it goes to the Governor’s desk, that’s when the protests will start. So stay tuned.
The road from Selma to now. There is a sense, 50 years later, that we are still trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. So much has been accomplished, but there is more yet to do. And our imagination about what is ours to do needs to be intersectional like Dr. King’s. No one wants to integrate into a burning house.
I’ll close with a story from just this past Wednesday and our amazing “Remembering Selma” event. It’s the benediction part of the service, and I’m saying those immortal words from Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Standing beside me is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, who I’ve asked to stand with me, together with others, because he was there in Selma 50 years ago, he saw it all, experienced it all, was beaten bloody but refused to stay down, was faithful to the cause of justice. He was there with Dr. King, was instrumental with Dr. King in leading the cause. This great man is standing right beside me, and as I am saying the immortal words, he is whispering them too, but he’s not reading them, his eyes are closed, he’s remembering them and the man who originally said them, perhaps he’s remembering the exact moment when Dr. King first said them, and the words are seared upon his heart, the words are sealed upon his very soul. In that moment I felt as though the love message came straight to me from Dr. King himself, and Dr. Vivian was the link.
From Selma to now, the challenge is, and will always be, bridges of darkness and hate to cross.
From Selma to now, the message is, and will always be, the power of love to overcome.