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A Lonely Hill

The blacktop ribbon unspooled through country so raw and heavy with history that it seemed to warp time. Alabama is not devoid of beauty. There is a simple cadence, an almost mineral certainty to its landscape. Hills rose gently and fell away to fields wooded at their perimeters and green with the waters of March.

“There,” she said. I won’t name the woman in the passenger seat, but she is almost certain to be elected to a top office in a Midwestern state this November. “That’s the hill.”

The driver was a close friend of mine, someone I have known for twenty years and who will also remain nameless. We were running late for the reenactment of the Bloody Sunday crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, so we did not have time to stop. On the hill, a wrought iron fence framed a heavy concrete tombstone; a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, one of the civil rights workers murdered in the Deep South in the late 60’s. The site was maybe five yards square and commanded a view of the surrounding countryside. You might miss it if you did not know to look.

The fact that I was even riding in that car on the way to the fifty-third anniversary of one of the most important events in civil rights history is evidence of my privileged place in this society. My friend’s position in the NFL and his body of work with civil rights won him an invitation to the event. He invited me. I listened silently as his partner in this work explained the history of Ms. Liuzzo’s fight for voting rights in Alabama, and how Ms. Liuzzo’s example had inspired her own life’s ambitions and recent political candidacy.

This was only the first of many humbling experiences I would have. There were some genuine American heroes in Selma that day.

On the sidewalk surrounded by pro football players, battle-scarred volunteers and politicians of local and national renown, I chafed against my necktie and shifted from foot to foot in stiff leather shoes. After hours of speeches in the historic church, the massive crowd was eager to march across the bridge. People sang, chanted and smiled, letting community and love overcome for a moment the brutal memory of that Sunday so long ago.

I looked around at the white and black people outside the perimeter of the march. Some chose to join, while others stood and watched. The crowd surged forward, underway. So many shining faces, famous and not, beautiful in the grace of the moment. For some reason I thought of that hill again, and of the dark, muddy ditch. The muzzle flashes from four Klansmen’s guns must have lit up the interior of Viola’s sedan. It was a jarring image on that blue-sky day; ugly, unwelcome, like the mildew that grows on the unpainted siding of old Southern buildings. Like its musty smell.

Some of those buildings were there in 1965, perhaps some of those people too. I tried to embrace the optimism, the victory of peacefully walking such an infamous path, but the crenellated facades of the Selma storefronts kept drawing my eye. They were strangely beautiful, small and serene, idyllic even. One could forget for a moment that they had echoed with horses’ hooves and shouts of hatred, that forces had marshaled there to attack and to maim. That once peace had been restored and the injured men had been carried away, white families had again strolled in the Alabama heat, dripping ice cream onto sticky patches of drying blood.

The hard eyes of a white man standing in the bed of a pickup caught mine. He was bearded, rough. There was not anger in his expression, but neither was there peace. I wondered what impulse had brought him there, and what he might return to when the march was over. Maybe one of the tired ranch houses along the highway outside town. Or perhaps further away, a faux colonial in a tony subdivision where he was the local eccentric in black cut sleeves. Hard to tell. But he wasn’t there to make friends. He looked like he didn’t belong, really — any more than I did.

When a woman is giving birth, there are always professionals at the periphery ready to dart in and administer care, swab a forehead, a thigh, an umbilicus. They don’t really fit such a sacred space, yet they are needed nonetheless. For me, that march was such an event, and I such a peripheral character. Congressman John Lewis was there, walking the same route upon which he had bled and birthed a movement. Without Mr. Lewis, Selma would be just another small Black Belt town, a place of silent endurance and gradual enlightenment. Without random people like me, the reenactment would be too precious, too monolithic, too easy to dismiss. The man with the beard would have one less white face to consider, one less doubt about what it all meant.

It is not the zealot at the core of a revolution who moves it to victory, but the casual bystanders who nod silently as it sweeps by, then pick up pitchforks and join in. There were many dignitaries at the march in Selma, people for whom the annual reenactment is like church on a holiday. They are the beating heart of the civil rights movement. There were people like the old friend who invited me and the new one who educated me, dedicated soldiers of kindness. There were prominent celebrities, and quiet workers. There was an army of love on the streets that day.

But the person who stuck in my mind more than any other was the white man with the beard. When he drives 80-West outside Lowndesboro through the silent, fertile land, I hope he looks up and sees Viola Liuzzo’s memorial. I hope he stops, explores, reflects. I hope he recalls the serenity on the faces of the marchers, feels welcomed by it, aligned with its peaceful energy. They were there for Congressman Lewis that day, but they were also there for him. They were there to wash the bloodstains off the streets of Selma, not to paint them afresh. They were there not to accuse but to transform, to share the grace and strength of those who absorbed hatred long ago so that it would not live on forever.

I hope that man stands there on that lonely hill, then nods silently and decides that his place is with them, fighting the good fight.

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