Fifty years ago I traveled from Mississippi to Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965 to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of fellow citizens marching the 54 miles to the steps of the state’s capitol in Montgomery.
Millions of Americans now know about this march thanks to the movie “Selma” and the recent 50th anniversary celebration. Selma was the site of a courageous voting rights campaign by Black citizens that was met by brutal Southern Jim Crow law enforcement and citizen violence. The nation was shocked two weeks earlier when John Lewis and Hosea Williams set out on a nonviolent march with a group of 600 people toward Montgomery to demand their right to vote and were brutally attacked by lawless state and local law enforcement officials at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
‘The American Promise’
The televised images of “Bloody Sunday” and the savage beatings of the marchers – including Congressman Lewis whose skull was fractured – were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and in America’s struggle to become America. It provoked the thousands of us (ultimately about 25,000) who came together later to finish the march, safer thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.’s order that we had a right to peaceful protest and with federalized Alabama National Guard protection. And we were buoyed by President Johnson’s March 15, 1965 address calling on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In that speech – “The American Promise” – President Johnson said: “This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: ‘All men are created equal’—‘government by consent of the governed’—‘give me liberty or give me death.’”
President Johnson also said: “Should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
Fifty years later, speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama echoed the same themes: “[Selma is] the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents… These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.”
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.