Same As It Ever Was

Fifty years ago today, 600 civil rights marchers started walking east on US 80 out of Selma, Alabama. The march was led by Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The march had two goals that should sound familiar to all of us; to protest the obstacles to voting put in place by state and local officials and to protest police violence against the black community.

Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers, March 7,1965. Photo by Federal Bureau of Investigation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers, March 7,1965. Photo by Federal Bureau of Investigation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The protest went well until they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and left Selma. There, they met a wall of troopers and “deputized” locals – County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized.

Some troopers and “deputies” beat the marchers with nightsticks. Other troopers fired tear gas at them and let police dogs attack them. Mounted troopers charged the marchers on horseback. Televised images of the attack horrified people around the world, and it became known as Bloody Sunday.

The second attempt at the march was held two days later, but turned around halfway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That night, three white Unitarian Univeralist ministers who participated in the march were attacked by four members of the KKK; one of them, Rev. James Reeb, died two days later.

On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson, in response to the events in Selma, outlined what would become the Voting Rights Act in a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress. In the address, he famously said:

“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

On March 20, he federalized the Alabama National Guard, and sent 1000 military policemen and 2000 troops to protect the marchers. On March 21, 8000 marchers set off once again from Selma. Covering ten miles a day, they reached Montgomery  on Thursday, March 25, and had grown to 25,000 by the time they reached the State Capitol.

Selma to Montgomery historic route sign. Photo by Markuskun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Selma to Montgomery historic route sign. Photo by Markuskun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s fifty years later, and what President Johnson said still holds true today. Yes, we’ve seen some improvements here and there, but overall we don’t seem to have learned much.

The income gap between black and white families keeps growing. Our police practice discriminatory policies such as stop and frisk, based on nothing but the color of one’s skin. People of color only make up 30% of the population, yet make up 60% of the people incarcerated. One of every three black men will spend time in prison.

In the last few years we’ve seen the gutting of the Voter Rights Act by the Supreme Court. We’ve seen conservative legislatures gut the public education system, thereby creating educational inequality on a level not seen since before the desegregation of public schools.

We’ve seen the police murder unarmed citizens, and then violently suppress the protests that their actions create. The list goes on…

When Barack Obama became the first black president, a lot of people took that to be a sign that we were finally a “post-racial” society. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) must think so, as he shows no inclination of taking up the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act, instead saying: “We have continued to study this issue, but to this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people, because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now,”

There’s an event in Selma today marking the 50th anniversary of the march. President Obama and his family will be there, as will former president George W. Bush and his wife. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be there, as will Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. According to Representative John Lewis (yes, the same John Lewis who led the march that day), somewhere around 115 members of Congress are going.

Earlier this week, it was announced that none of the Republican Congressional leaders would be attending the event. Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee Chairman, said yesterday morning“We do dumb real well. It is astounding to me that whether it is supporting the continuation of the Voting Rights Act or commemorating a pivotal part of American Civil Rights history [Selma], Republican leadership prefers to sit on the sidelines.” After much more negative publicity, it was announced late yesterday afternoon that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would attend.

Oh – and the bridge that played such a prominent role in the Selma story? Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, and the bridge still bears his name. “Post-racial,” huh?

Same as it ever was…

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