I did not attend the 50th anniversary commemoration of “Bloody Sunday’ in Selma Alabama because I have difficulty participating in these well intentioned celebrations. Seeing the vanguards of the civil rights movement, now in their twilight, is never easy for me because it brings to mind the hurt and suffering they endured to simply receive that to which they were entitled as American citizens – freedom. While the beating John Lewis and others endured eventually facilitated their crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the elusive freedom they sought was nowhere to be found on the other side of the river. Black Americans are still crossing the perpetual bridge of inequality and injustice that makes freedom a dream to be found on distant shores.
The irony of the first African-American President at the commemoration was not lost on me. Few who were on that bridge in 1965 could have ever thought they would witness a Black person, let alone a Black man, as the occupant of the Oval Office in their lifetime. Perhaps that is why, for me, the commemoration of the Selma march is bittersweet at a time when Black Americans, celebrating a Black President, are living on the margins, on the periphery in a country we can rightfully claim we built with our blood, sweat, tears and lives.
Freedom is not conditional. You can’t be half-free of half-American. Freedom is an all-in proposition that can’t be qualified. In theory, man should not be able to confer freedom. It is a God given right. Yet, in America our past and present is rife with institutional restrictions that deny African-Americans, the descendants of enslaved Africans, their divinely bequeathed right to live and breathe free. Fifty years after Bloody Sunday Blacks in Selma and throughout our nation are still not free.
Yes, there has been progress but it has been marginal and only to the point that equality is not realized. What we often forget is that the Selma movement facilitated the Voting Rights Act that should have been unnecessary had the Constitution been equally appropriated, as was the case with the Civil Rights Act one year earlier. Why must there be extra-statutory measures to confer the freedom that is our birthright? And despite those two monumental pieces of civil rights legislation, Blacks continue to battle efforts to deny our full citizenship.
We aren’t free if our own government declares a local police department is violating our rights by targeting us for arrest and prosecution and then using our supposed ‘criminality’ as a convenient revenue stream. How can we be free if the profile of ‘young Black man’ subjects us to stop and frisk, and detainment in the shadow of our homes? Are we free when young Black girls are belittled and discouraged, and targeted for suspension and expulsion from school? What type of ‘freedom’ imposes mass incarceration that strips our right to vote, ability to be gainfully employed and keeps us off juries to dispense the justice our nation exalts in its Constitution? Is this freedom when we are segregated in the most resource starved communities, exposed to environmental toxins and disproportionately die young? The one freedom we do seem to enjoy is the freedom to die an early death.
As I watched the commemoration and read accounts from media on-site, the contradiction of the scene struck me. What is the real significance of a Black President and the fact that we now have the greatest number of Blacks in Congress in our nation’s history but face extinction on the street, whether by the hands of a police officer or someone who looks like us but is so drowned in hopelessness he places little value on life; his or the one he will casually take? The appearance of freedom is not freedom, just as the trappings of power do not mean you have the power to change your condition or the society that has imposed limits on your freedom.
Selma can’t be a celebration. It must be an awakening. If we are not full citizens, we are not free. If we cannot access the same opportunities as whites in America, we are only conditionally free. The existence of a handful of Black billionaires and celebrity and corporate wealth is a concession of trivial significance if nearly one-quarter of Black Americans are mired in poverty and the Black middle class is simply putting on a front. Our children are marginalized, our young adults are dying and our men and women are engaged in a daily battle for survival.
The real celebration of Selma is when we have fully dismantled institutional barriers and can move, work, achieve financial security, and live freely as American citizens without qualification. That day is far off so we must continue to cross the bridge undeterred, unbowed and determined to absorb and deflect the blows of injustice for the sake of a future generation of fully free Black Americans.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.