Almost every year I make the Pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama for the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorating “Bloody Sunday” sponsored by the Voting Rights Museum under the leadership of Attorney Faya Rose Sanders. Sunday, March 7, 1965 was that fateful day when civil rights activists and courageous ordinary people were brutally turned back by the State Police as they attempted to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge en route to the Capital of Montgomery to demand the right to vote. Bloody Sunday was a milestone moment, a turning point in the history of this nation. The whole world witnessed what amounted to state authorized terrorism as State Troopers trampled innocent protesters with their horses and bludgeoned them with Billy Clubs. Their behavior was so repugnant, so repulsive that the nation and world recoiled in outrage, creating the political space for President Lyndon Baines Johnson to sign the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act put the ballot safely in the hands of Blacks in the south for the first time since Reconstruction. Since then, Blacks have marched on ballot boxes to elect thousands of elected officials in pursuit of justice and equality for all. In a real sense, without Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act that ensued, Barack Obama would not be President of the United States. So, it was only fitting that two years ago, in the midst of his campaign, Obama journeyed to Selma to make the symbolic walk across the Bridge to connect with the history that propelled him to the White House.
And, that is why I make the Pilgrimage as often as possible and encourage others to do likewise, to keep connected to the history, the Bridge that people of African descent and the beloved community of people of conscience crossed in hopes of creating a better America. John Lewis, a leader of the March on Bloody Sunday, comes each year along with Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Mark Thompson, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and scores of veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and hundreds of ordinary people yearning to stay connected. Lest we forget the blood, suffering and sacrifice that brought us to this moment in history.
This year Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave the Benediction on Inauguration Day, was the Guest Preacher at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church – where the marchers gathered on Bloody Sunday before embarking on their journey into history. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has been scorned by the media and some political leaders, was present and warmly embraced by the citizens of Selma. But, the highlight of this year’s commemoration was the presence of Eric Holder, the first African American Attorney General, who arrived to assure the nation that under the Obama Administration there will be vigorous defense and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And, in one of the most moving moments ever witnessed during the Commemoration of Bloody Sunday, Peggy Wallace-Kennedy, the daughter of Governor George Wallace, introduced Attorney General Holder prior to his remarks. She apologized for her father’s actions and told the assembled multitude that she had endorsed and campaigned for Barack Obama. Then she locked arms with the other notables on the front line and made the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It was an amazing moment!
Then it was all over until another year, the next nostalgic remembrance of the past and its relevance to the present. The tragedy is that once the commemoration is over, we leave behind a Selma that is now 70% African American, afflicted by poverty, unemployment, disparities in health and education, plagued by crime and the ongoing reality of muted racial hostilities prevalent in so many small towns and rural locales in the South. The irony is that Bloody Sunday brought political change, but too many Black people are still mired in poverty. Economic apartheid is alive and well in Selma and much of the South.
Reflecting on this circumstance, a few years ago, Mtangulizi Sanyika (one of the premier theoreticians and practitioners of Community Economic Development in the world) and I fantasized about incorporating a call to action into the Bridge Crossing. A call to the nation to amass the human and material resources to make Selma a Model City and paradigm of possibilities for a New South. This year as I witnessed the extraordinary proceedings, the idea of working to make Selma a Model City flashed into my consciousness again. What would happen if a National Call were issued for the brightest and best urban planners, educators, health care providers, financiers and marketing/public relations specialists to come to Selma to work with the community and its elected officials to devise a blueprint for the city to become a Model City?
What if Selma’s incredible cultural-historical assets like the Voting Rights Museum, Slavery Museum and Civil Rights Memorial Park were marketed nationwide and across the world on a continuous basis to encourage people to come to Selma year round? What if the countless acres of vacant lots and under utilized farmland could become the foundation for a green economy fueling the creation of hundreds of green collar jobs? What if each year scores of students, retired professionals and those still practicing their trade came to Selma to volunteer to implement the blueprint/plan for a new Selma?
The possibilities would be unlimited. The Bridge Crossing Jubilee would become a time not only to reflect on the past but a great gathering committed to transforming Selma into a new city, setting an example of what is possible in a New South. Crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge would take on new meaning as the pathway to a new future. The year 2010 will be the 45th Anniversary of the courageous March across the Bridge. Perhaps this is the moment to issue the National Call to Action. My hope is that uttering these words will spark a new movement that will fulfill the fantasy of moving Selma from Bloody Sunday to a Model City!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.