What Selma Teaches
I was less than a month away from my 19th birthday, a sophomore in college in New York City, when I tried to board the chartered bus for the last day of the third and court-sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery. The organizers told me I was too young and needed my parents’ permission to go. I don’t remember if I would have had to be 21 or what, but it would not have occurred to me to ask them, because I am quite sure they would have said no. They supported the civil rights movement in principle but they were pretty apolitical and demonstrating was not on their radar. To say nothing of the fact that the sight of state police bludgeoning demonstrators three weeks before would have given any parent pause. Luckily the bus was full and an older couple (well, at least 25) decided to rent a car, and that is how I got to the Selma march.
My memories of that weekend 50 years ago are impressionistic. The church rally the night before the triumphant march into Montgomery was my introduction to the power of mass protest. The freedom songs, the speeches, the collective will to force change that I absorbed that night has motivated my politics ever since. It is not just individual witness, or eloquence, or motivation alone that makes change. All of that must be organized and marshalled and directed at the right target at the right time to bend the arc a little further down toward justice. When we marched the next day on the Alabama state capitol, we certainly felt a sense of collective victory, no matter how small the role we played that day — and those of us who showed up on the last weekend played a pretty small role. But the reality was that for another four-plus months, organizing and advocacy and mobilization continued, until on August 6 President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, presaged by his March 15 speech declaring in the words of the movement, “we shall overcome.”
To be honest, I was not that impressed with his declaration back then. So much blood had been spilled, so many decades and even centuries of racism had prevailed, that the Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had to prove themselves to me and to perhaps millions of others. I identified, as did many my age, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s drive for longterm community organizing and fundamental radical economic and social change, not just reform. The mass demonstrations that swept through Southern cities and then receded like the tide did not seem to me up to the task of creating permanent change. In retrospect, the new laws did hit hard at sacrosanct values of the time — that if you owned a business, you could discriminate however you wanted, and that elections held in the unregenerate South were nobody else’s affair. The combination of organizing and demonstrating had been potent and remains so to this day.
Sadly, one can’t now envision a step so radical as an army of federal registrars flooding the old Confederacy and its ideological allies to bring the Constitution to bear. Instead we witness state after state enacting laws to make voting more onerous in order to stem supposed corruption of the individual ballot. Not the corruption that comes of systems designed to keep people from voting. Not the corruption of elections that comes when so few have megaphones so loud and campaign treasuries so enormous. That corruption persists and worsens.
At an earlier time, Tom Paine warned against “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots” in the war against the English. An ardent abolitionist, he would surely have warned against complacency in the task of uprooting racism, root and branch, that still awaits completion. What the movement taught me fifty years ago was that freedom is indeed “a constant struggle.” It is one punctuated by slave rebellions, abolitionism, civil war, Jim Crow, and Black Lives Matter. We each have to join that struggle in our time for the long haul. We need to be winter soldiers. That is the message of Selma.