Selma: A(nother) Defining Moment

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The Congressional Delegation with Rep. John Lewis(front center) Author (top center-blue)

“So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

I had the pleasure of catching an early screening of the movie Selma last night and while I couldn’t help but to draw parallels between that time and the current social issues and tensions around justice today. When I was younger the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement fascinated me, even though they occurred before I was born. I found myself amazed by the courage and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and so many other leaders like John Lewis. So to see a movie featuring both leaders as well as Andrew Young was a treat.

The movie Selma offers a rare, poignant and often painful (for many reasons) look into the stress and tensions of fighting and leading the movement against both external and internal pressures. Depicting a much more vulnerable King than we have seen previously, the film delves into conflicts within the movement, within the King household and within the Federal and state governments. It successfully placed me back in that time through great acting and powerful and stirring cinematography.

This however, wasn’t too far of a leap in imagination as back in 2000, I had the honor of being part of the Faith in Politics Institute’s Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led each year by Congressman John Lewis from Washington, DC to Selma. The tour which snaked through Alabama from the former powder kegs of Birmingham, to Montgomery and then on to Selma, comprised of members and congress and their staff and was equal parts historical journey and tearful bonding and remembrance.

As it was the 35th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, which saw Congressman Lewis almost lose his life, then-President Bill Clinton gave remarks and was joined by, Coretta Scott King, Ethel Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond and many other dignitaries participated in the commemoration. One additional special individual marked an awe-inspiring moment in the midst of many special moments.

mother@casketWhile aboard our bus on the way to Birmingham, we were treated to the award-winning Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. This particularly episode explained the tragedy of the murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till, who was abducted, brutally beaten and later found in a swamp, for whistling at a white woman. His mother, became nationally known when she insisted on an open casket during the funeral, revealing gruesome photos that went “viral” around the world. As the episode concluded, with many of the riders in tears, a short, mature women mustered the strength to stand, take the bus microphone and say, “Good afternoon, I’m Mamie Till.” There were gasps amongst palpable silence before she went on to explain and take questions as to why she made the decisions she did and the pain she felt when the men charged with Emmett’s death were all acquitted.

IMG_20141223_163210_editMamie Till, at the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial

The pilgrimage included a luncheon and key note speech by Coretta Scott King before the group made its way to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery and around the corner to the state capitol where King stands at the conclusion of the movie Selma in triumphant and determined celebration of the march from Selma. I had wondered what it would have been like to travel through the south as the Freedom Riders once did or Mrs. King herself knowing there were people protesting their positions. In a stunning twist of irony, I caught a real life glimpse of that. Scheduled just hours before the group’s visit to the capitol steps, were Jefferson Davis once took the oath of office for the Confederacy, 2,500 Confederate sympathizers rallied at the League of the South’s Southern Independence Day, in full antebellum attire, many in scarlet and grey Civil War uniforms carrying hundreds of full-size confederate flags. With rebel yells and chants of “Independent South”! they sought a return of the confederate flag to the top of the capitol dome.

IMG_20141223_164603_editWhile police barricades were erected and police present in case these two worlds collided again, perhaps a kind providence, delayed the motorcade at an earlier stop and spared many of the civil rights dignitaries from a literal and unwelcome re-enactment of scenes from the movement. A few stragglers remained when our buses pulled into the area, waving confederate flags, aware of the nature of the group but unaware of the presence of Mrs King. In that moment, I wondered what it must of felt like for her, some 35 years later to still be confronted with those images and sentiments.

IMG_20141223_173105_editIn a way, I received my answer to that question as I watched Selma and marveled at the marches to protest injustice that were portrayed and then reflected on the current marches taking place around the country to protest unwarranted killings, that could have been prevented. That answer? It was one of despair, anger, resolve and commitment and hope.

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