For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2009. “Marching from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Obama.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (January 14): 15A.
“Why are you going there?” my old friend Ray asked me a few days before my recent trip to Selma, Alabama. “To see the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” I replied. “Why would you want to do that?” he said. “It’s just another bridge.”
With due respect to my friend Ray, it’s not just another bridge. It’s also a symbol of hope, courage and transformation. So I went to this small southern city not to see a utilitarian structure or escape a cold Iowa winter but to remind myself of the events that occurred in there 43 years ago, to reaffirm my debt to the Civil Rights Movement, and to rekindle my faith in the power of a mobilized public to transform an unjust system.
A warm sun blessed my crossing of the bridge. With each step I tried to imagine how John Lewis, the Reverend Hosea Williams, and six hundred or so other brave marchers must have felt when they crossed it on a much colder and greyer March 7, 1965, only to find their path blocked by a line of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s mounted state troopers and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies. Could I hear the pounding of horses’ hooves as the troopers charged? Could I feel the tear gas burning my eyes? Could I hear Billy clubs cracking into heads? No, the best I could do was recall the terrifying images I saw on television as a young man.
Wanting deeper insight, I went into the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute near the northern entrance to the bridge. The friendly black woman who greeted me at the door ushered me into a small room, where two African-American families, an Indian couple and I watched a documentary about the events that transpired on and after “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis, Clark, Wallace, and Williams played crucial roles, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon Johnson, and James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed in Selma by white racists two nights after the march. The events documented in the film marked the turning point in the effort to end segregation and to ensure that black people would have the same right to vote as whites.
After departing the Museum I explored the town. Walking on its “Main Street” I felt as though I had been transported onto the set of Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But in contemporary Selma, Pottersville has taken over: empty stores line its main street and most new commercial investment has been directed to the bypass north of downtown. Whites have moved out of town, leaving Selma 70 percent black. Roughly one-third of them live in poverty, and the city’s population has declined by a quarter. Potter would be pleased.
On my way to the bypass I stopped at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. I don’t know what surrounded it in the early-Sixties when people gathered at the church to begin their march across the bridge. But it now stands on Martin Luther King Street in the midst of a low-rise public housing complex known as George Washington Carver Homes. Two blocks north of the church, Martin Luther King Street and Jeff[erson] Davis Avenue awkwardly cross paths. No homes or businesses mark their intersection.
Those who crossed the bridge in Selma were able to transform the reconstructed version of Davis’ slave society. Consequently, African-Americans can live a far better life in Selma than was possible 43 years ago. Only one percent of the black population was registered to vote back in 1960; the figure is far higher today. Eight years ago the people of Selma elected their first black mayor. No one fears being lynched. And because of what happened in Selma, Barack Obama will be inaugurated one week from today as the nation’s first African-American president.
But much remains to be accomplished, for the economic justice that King advocated so passionately near the end of his life went blowing in the Pottersville wind. As Obama told a crowd in Brown Chapel back in March, 2007, the dream has not yet been fulfilled. “Take off your bedroom slippers,” he said. “Put on your marching shoes. Go do some politics. Change this country!”
Obama’s words inspire. But, if we have learned anything over the past four decades, it’s that gaining the right to vote and electing some like-minded people to office is not sufficient. No, deeper change also requires continually pushing elected officials—Obama included—to generate forms of development that will be just and sustainable over the long run. The brave people who crossed the Pettus Bridge deserve nothing less.