Its really hard to put my experiences today into words. I've been to both Selma & Montgomery before, but I'm convinced that the special feeling of walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge is something that one feels every time. Could you imagine how John Lewis, Hosea Williams and 600 others felt when they could see that a sea of police officers on horseback and with gas masks were waiting on the other side? In his poignant autobiography entitled Walking in the Wind, Lewis describes some of the things that went through his mind. He recalls looking down at the Alabama River (185 feet below) and asking Williams if "he knew how to swim?" Neither did. They contemplated turning around and running, but realized that it was already too late. There were 600 people lined up in sets of two...there literally was no turning back because there was nowhere to go. So, they kept walking until they came face-to-face with Sheriff Jim Clark, local police, and Alabama state troopers. As the police charged, Lewis, Williams and others knelt in prayer...and they were savagely beaten. Ordinary people were marching from Selma to Montgomery because they were being forbidden one of our most cherished rights...the right to vote...were beaten in the world's cradle of freedom & democracy. This "event" became known as "Bloody Sunday," and the tiny town of Selma garnered attention throughout the World. Anyone with a heart felt a connection to the people beaten who ranged in age to 18 year-olds to those in their 60s.
What is often forgotten in the tragedy of "Bloody Sunday" is that a successful march (of 25,000 people) was held two weeks later, and that this event played a central role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The symbolic act of walking 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery changed life in the South forever. Even more unknown (by me, too) was the aftermath of African-Americans in Alabama being given the right to vote. When tenant farmers in Lowndes County (and other Alabama counties) registered, their white land owners immediately kicked them off the land. Tent Cities throughout these counties arose, as African-Americans transitioned to new jobs and looked for new housing. Most importantly, however, none of them gave up this important right and returned to oppression. Another great example on this trip of true courage and dedication. All of these heroes will remain forever nameless, but their willingness to take a stand for what they felt was right left an indelible mark on the CRM.
When I completed the 50-mile trip to Montgomery, I immediately thought of what might have gone through Governor George Wallace's mind when 25,000 brave Americans arrived at his doorstep. The irony of the CRM was that villains like George Wallace, Jim Clark, the KKK, and Bull Conner played an incredibly important role in pushing public opinion in support of the CRM. Not only did these racists not get what they want, they played an essential role in the exact opposite...the expansion of rights for African-Americans.
Tomorrow is a big day. I'll visit the Rose Parks Museum and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Museum and Memorial before heading to Birmingham. Its been an exhilarating 8 days, and I'm so blessed to have this special opportunity. Every American should walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Its every bit as special as the more popular places I've been (i.e. Mount Rushmore, Golden Gate Bridge, Lincoln Memorial & Smithsonian Mall).