The annual Selma bridge crossing commemorates a singular moment in history known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when over 500 black men and women marched across Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand the right to vote. They were met by dozens of state troopers and posse-men on horseback who brutally beat the demonstrators with nightsticks and tear gas. Bloody Sunday became a national symbol of racism and violence against black communities, and was one of the leading events to prompt the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We remember having the honor and gratitude of participating in the event’s 50th anniversary. It all began at a diner, sitting with two of our SocRogueScholars contributors (Lillian Nahar and Ricky Guzman). We had just left the local movie theatre after watching the film Selma (2014), and we were discussing the historic significance of Bloody Sunday, the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Little did we know what would happen next when a phone call with one of Lillian’s relatives and foot soldier during the civil rights movement led us to being invited to Selma to attend the 50th anniversary at Selma, Alabama.
Our six-day journey in Selma was an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling experience. Rosa does it justice as she writes:
Walking toward the Edmund Pettus bridge early in the morning before the massive crowds came, I stood there taking in the moment, I was in Selma, Alabama. I was standing in the same spot where fifty years ago an event took place that would change the lives of people of color forever. It was an event that made it possible to see a black president in office; where young adults as young as twelve and fourteen risked their lives for a cause they believed in wholeheartedly. What thoughts occurred in their minds at that moment? What gave them strength to take that first step?
I will never know the answer to these questions. I have seen the images. I’ve heard the stories. Yet they will never allow me to be in their shoes. I imagine voices saying “take the step, move forward, walk with me.” I imagine someone reaching out for my hand, linking arms with me, and giving me their support as fear engulfed me with the knowledge that we were all at risk.
I’ve walked over many historical bridges but none have left me standing there with my feet cemented firmly to the ground like Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was standing in the same spot where lives were lost, blood spilled, and tears shed. I knew all of this to be true but the truth was all the more powerful while being where many had stood for what they believed. They walked with the weight of their communities on their shoulders, but they nonetheless walked with strength and faith. Their steps perhaps were heavy, yet they stayed determined to cross and make their presence known. This was a journey that I never imagined I would make: to stand in a place where history was made decades ago. It is a place where you hear the voices in the silence that surround you; where you feel the strength in the concrete beneath you; and where you sense the pain the demonstrators felt as they took each step forward.
While we would never truly experience the trials, sorrows, and the cruelties of those demonstrators back then, we were nonetheless witnesses to their victory. We walked on history as we crossed that bridge, remembering the lives of a community who bravely said no to injustice. We felt the spirit of resistance as we stood before the steps to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church where many meetings were held during the movement as well as where the demonstrators gathered before marching across Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. We felt that spirit in the social justice workshops, the sermons, the theatre and film festivals, and the local culture that drew from and embraced a mission toward a socially just society.
We heard the voices of the people, from both the Selma community and across the nation, joining in conversation to support action against the inequalities we face today. Nowhere were those voices heard more strongly than at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as thousands gathered to stand and celebrate under a hot midday sun. We watched and listened to many of our government leaders speak on what Bloody Sunday and the movement in Selma represent today. We had the privilege of seeing President Obama address the crowds before walking across the bridge himself, as the nation’s first black president in honor of a movement in which blacks fought for the right to vote.
It has been over 50 short years since Bloody Sunday, and still the struggle has remained strong since the time of this nation’s founding and presses forward into the future. The anniversary of the Selma bridge crossing commemorates not just the struggle of the past, but the one that continues to this day as well. We saw people from all walks of life, across race, gender, and class gather as one in a movement for social justice for all. It is not limited to a particular day or year, or to a community. It is a constant fight for justice and equality in which everyone has a stake. Bloody Sunday is a living testament to the oppression faced by people of color yet it is also a symbol of hope and unity as we inherit the struggle, fighting forward together.