Selma, Alabama was – and remains – a small southern town. One day in 1965, however, it became a global buzzword for repression against the just struggle for the right to vote by black American citizens. This past weekend, President Obama took part in commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of that march on 7 March - and the police brutality that had ended it. Obama used his moment to offer a vision of the nature of American exceptionalism - and the country’s continuing efforts to meet its own standards. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look both at the commemorations and the events that gave birth to them.
It is astonishing to realise that the infamous end of that first march from Selma, Alabama to demand action on voting rights, a march that was supposed to continue on to the state capital of Montgomery, some eighty kilometres away, took place a half century ago in what seems like another country. The march was part of a concerted programme of civil action and protest to insist on access to the ballot box as well as the end of segregation.
The recently acquired sobriquet for that march, “Bloody Sunday,” marks the baleful day when Alabama State Police waited on the Edmund Pettus Bridge until around 600 marchers had breasted the access road leading up to the bridge over the Alabama River. The police then charged at them furiously with riot batons (some truncheons wrapped with barbed wire) and launched tear gas canisters at them as well. Fifty years later, the commemoration on 7 March attracted a crowd that was estimated at some 40,000 people. This was a crowd that was twice the size of the population of the town of Selma itself.
The first march came on 7 March. A second march came two days later although this time around, state troopers and police ultimately stood aside to allow the marchers, led by Martin Luther King, to return to a local church while the protestors sought protection from a federal court to permit further marches. That evening, a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, from Boston was murdered by a mob of white people. The violence attached to the first march and Reeb’s death led to a national outcry – along with various acts of civil disobedience, targeting both the Alabama state and federal governments. The protesters demanded protection for the Selma marchers and a new federal voting rights law to enable African Americans to register and vote without harassment. President Lyndon Johnson, whose administration had been working on a voting rights law, held a televised joint session of Congress at mid-month to ask for the bill’s introduction and to urge its passage. (Technically, presidents do not actually formally propose legislation; only members of Congress have that specific right.)
When then-Governor George Wallace declined to offer police protection to future marches, President Johnson sent in 2,000 federal troops, 1,900 members of the nationalised Alabama National Guard under federal command, plus numerous FBI agents and Federal Marshals to protect marchers. This third march began on 21 March and finally reached the state capital, Montgomery, four days later. By the time that third march reached its destination, the number of marchers had swollen to some 25,000 people in support for voting rights for all citizens.
This past weekend, President Barack Obama was the main speaker at this commemorative event. Tying past with present, Obama was introduced to the assembled crowd by Congressman John Lewis, who as a much younger man, and as a participant in the original march, had had his skull fractured by the police in the melee that had followed the initial police charge into the crowd.
Watch: President Obama Delivers Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches
Reporting from Selma for The New York Review of Books, just after the marching, Elizabeth Hardwick had written poignantly of Alabama and its torments, “What a sad countryside it is, the home of the pain of the Confederacy, the birthplace of the White Citizens Council. The khaki-coloured earth, the tense, threatening air, the vanquished feeding on their permanent Civil War — all of it brings to mind flamboyant images from Faulkner. Immemorial, doomed streets, policed by the Snopeses and Peter Grimms, alleys worn thin in the sleepless pursuit of a thousand Joe Christmases, and Miss Coldfield and Quentin behind the dusty lattices, in the ‘empty hall echoing with sonorous, defeated names.’ As you pass Big Swamp Creek, you imagine you hear the yelp of movie bloodhounds. The cabins, pitifully beautiful, set back from the road, with a trail of wood smoke fringing the sky, the melancholy frogs unmindful of the highway and the cars slipping by, the tufts of moss, like piles of house-dust, that hang trembling from the bare winter trees, the road that leads at last to just the dead Sunday afternoon Main Streets you knew were there. We’ve read it all, over and over. We’ve seen it in the movies, in the Farm Administration photographs of almost thirty years ago: the vote-less blacks, waiting tentatively on the court-house steps, the angry jowls of the racists, the washed-out children, the enduring Negroes, the police, the same old sheriff: the whole region is fiction, art, dated, something out of a second-hand bookstore…”
And she had concluded her letter to the magazine, “In Alabama the cause is right, the need is great, but there is more to it than that. There is the positive attraction between the people. The racists, with their fear of touch, their savage superstition, their strange reading of portents, see before them something more than voting rights. They sense the elation, the unexpected release. Few of us have shared any life as closely as those ‘on location’ in the Civil Rights movement. Shared beds and sofas, hands caressing the shoulders of little children, smiles and this spreading closeness, absorption: this is, as the pilgrims say over and over, a great experience. The police, protected by their helmets, are frightened by these seizures of happiness. The odd thing is that it should not be beatniks and hipsters and bohemians who are sending out the message, but good, clean, downright folk in glasses and wearing tie clasps.”
Now, a half century later, after listening to Obama’s speech at this commemoration of the march, James Fallows (himself born of the South, in Texas) in an article for The Atlantic magazine had written, “Obama’s speech on race relations in America, in Philadelphia seven years ago, saved his campaign and thus was again a history-changing performance. Before that speech, it seemed possible that he would be forced from the race by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ‘God damn America!’ furore. But I don’t think its actual discussion of race relations will be studied for enlightenment in years to come.”
But this time around, after listening to Obama’s Selma address, Fallows observed, “Obama’s speech today, again declaring my bias in agreeing with him, differs from those of most other national figures, most of the time, in stating with concise complexity what is indeed exceptional about this American experiment. I first lived outside my native country at age 21, when I went to graduate school in the superficially similar setting of England. Those next few years began for me the process that has continued ever since, when living in the U.S. or abroad: that of recognising how exceptional the American ambition is, and how much my own tribal identities start with being American.” Too often, Republicans like former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani have accused the president of failing to love America (whatever that may really mean), and of failing to grasp and appreciate its essential exceptionalness. In this latest speech, it was clear to all that the president gave a ringing endorsement for such exceptionalism, but without the cloying oversimplification, mindless boosterism, or empty boasting.
Instead, Obama’s Selma speech was an effort to describe a vision of American exceptionalism embracing both the nation’s flaws together with a continuing quest to perfect itself through hard work and civil disobedience in the face of injustice, and the use of nonviolent protest to make such points stick. As Obama told his audience, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…
“The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny…
“It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America. That’s what makes us unique.”
And then Obama brought together all the strands, both universalising the Selma march experience and then tying that singular event to the entire sweep of American history. As he declared, “We were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights… Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.
“We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.
“We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.
“We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless labourers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organised for workers’ rights.
“We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.
“We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.
“We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.
“We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.”
Of course, Obama’s speech for the commemoration in Selma took place in contemporary circumstances. And these include the repetitive shootings of black men by (primarily) white police officers in a range of cities and towns across the country over the past year; the decision not to press federal charges against the policeman in Ferguson, Missouri for violations of civil rights for fatally shooting Michael Brown; even as the national government’s report on Ferguson policing pointed to persistent evidence of racially based police behaviour that would seem to represent systematic violations of black citizens’ civil rights in that town (and by extension in so many other places across the country).
In that sense, the real, enduring legacy of Selma is one of an as yet unfinished civil rights revolution, rather than a fully completed one. When the violence happened on that bridge, the three national television networks had broadcast footage on the evening newscasts watched nationwide. And the resulting uproar gave a significant boost to on-going consideration inside the administration of President Lyndon Johnson to push Congress into passing a law on voting rights. Johnson was then at the apex of his national prestige and power – before the disaster of the Vietnam War destroyed his presidency – and just days after the Selma attacks, a voting rights bill was submitted for Congress’ consideration. While some have charged Johnson dragged his feet on pushing for a voting rights bill, as seems to be the case in the portrayals of Rev Martin Luther King Jr and Lyndon Johnson in the new film, Selma, historian Bruce Watson wrote in a letter to the New York Times when that film had newly reached audiences, “As noted in phone calls recorded in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson was appalled by the violence of that summer. Within days after signing the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, Johnson began pressuring Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to ‘write me the goddamn best, toughest voting rights act that you can devise.’….”
But, regardless of the intended legislative roadmap for the Voting Rights Act, it is clear the appalling images of the Selma violence gave the administration the “oomph” to arm-twist reluctant Congressmen and Senators to support the bill. Ultimately, however, this also came at the cost of largely handing over the South to the Republican Party (initially defined in Richard Nixon’s racially-tinged 1968 “Southern Strategy”) for many succeeding elections – right up to the present.
In coming to Selma to participate in the commemorations, Obama was accompanied by his two daughters as well as the First Lady, and they, in turn, were joined by dozens of veterans of the actual Selma march and the American civil rights struggle of years gone by – as well as a hundred members of Congress. Curiously, none of the individuals being mentioned as likely contestants for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, nor Hillary Clinton, the likely frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, joined with the president for the events of that day. Interestingly, thought, the new Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former president George W Bush did, although neither had a speaking role before the assembled crowd, to the nation – and on to the world via media coverage of the commemoration.
As unfinished a revolution as it can still be said to be, what with the continuing disparities in education and income between black and white, and the on-going controversies over police violence in so many smaller towns and larger cities still, can a case be made that the press for voting rights as evidenced by the protest in Selma and its legislative aftermath also had larger world reverberations? A little over a year after the Selma march, on 6 June 1966, at University of Cape Town, the former attorney general and newly minted Democratic senator from the State of New York, Robert Kennedy, told his audience in words that had great force then (and could easily still reverberate today), “For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class, or race-discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, signs told him that No Irish Need Apply. Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Catholic to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic, or of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in slums-untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to the nation and human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?
“In the last five years we have done more to assure equality to our Negro citizens, and to help the deprived both white and black, than in the hundred years before. But much more remains to be done.”
Naturally, a direct, one-to-one causality between Selma, the Voting Rights Act and South Africa’s own liberation struggle cannot simply be assumed. Too many other things were a part of that latter movement. Still, the historical international interplay between the 19th century inspirations of Henry David Thoreau’s theories of civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha philosophy, Martin Luther King and the much of US civil rights struggle’s actions and, ultimately, their influence on many in South Africa’s liberation cannot easily be overlooked.
Moreover, veterans of the domestic struggle for voting rights have told this writer Kennedy’s visit both cheered them at a very difficult time, and gave them encouragement their own struggles were indeed part of a larger international press for greater freedom and political rights. And if those connections are true, and if South Africa’s liberation struggle similarly gave heart to some behind the “iron curtain” in Eastern Europe, can it not also be said there is a line that similarly connects back through to those terrible moments on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as well?
For America, however, the Selma commemorations also contain a terrible irony today. In 2013, a conservative-leaning Supreme Court had overturned key provisions of that 1965 Voting Rights Act that had kept voter registration processes in nine states – mostly in the South – under the watchful eye of the federal level Justice Department so as to ensure compliance with the provisions of that Act to ensure access to the voting booth. In that court decision, Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr wrote, “Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
However, dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had argued very differently. In her view, sadly, in light of the final court decision, the focus of that 1965 Voting Rights Act had properly changed over the years from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority and she added that the law had been effective in thwarting such vote blocking efforts.
From this vantage point, it seems clear the struggle over voting rights in America remains contested territory, despite the struggles of 1965. But the greatest irony of all, of course, is that voting percentages in America remain lower than in most other mature democracies. Vote totals for even hotly contested presidential elections find it hard going to get much beyond a majority of those eligible to vote, almost in spite of the efforts of all those who worked so long to achieve that right to vote for all.
Still, as President Obama told those who gathered at Selma on Saturday, “We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.” DM
Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. Also pictured are Obama’s mother-in-law Marian Robinson (from L), his daughter Sasha, first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA). With a nod to ongoing U.S. racial tension and threats to voting rights, Obama declared the work of the Civil Rights Movement advanced but unfinished on Saturday during a visit to the Alabama bridge that spawned a landmark voting law. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
- Obama says Selma a living history lesson for his daughters; at the AP;
- ‘The march is not yet over,’ Obama tells crowd at foot of Selma bridge, Selma, 50 years later; at the Washington Post;
- Obama, at Selma Memorial, Says, ‘We Know the March Is Not Yet Over’; at the New York Times;
- Urging Persistence on Racial Gains, Obama Recalls Sacrifice in Selma; at the New York Times;
- Obama says Selma a living history lesson for his daughters; at the AP;
- Assignment America: Selma — Fifty years after the police viciously attacked hundreds of marchers in a pivotal moment of the civil rights movement, Selma, Ala., defies neat story lines; an essay by Gay Talese (Talese had reported on the Selma march in 1965) at the New York Times;
- Finally I Hear a Politician Explain My Country Just the Way I Understand It; at The Atlantic;
- A Historical Controversy About ‘Selma’; at the New York Times;
- Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness; at the New York Review of Books.