Monday, March 09, 2015

Visiting Selma, Seeing President Obama, and Remembering the Civil Rights Movement

President Obama speaking
President Obama in the front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge

This past Saturday, March 7, I was among the thousands who traveled to Selma, my hometown, to hear President Obama’s address honoring the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. On March 7, 1965, peaceful demonstrators in Selma were beaten by law enforcement officers intent on stopping their march to Montgomery. The demonstrators were marching to demand their right to vote. As a result of their bravery, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. I was too young to be involved in the original march, but this year, I was determined to be there. After all, I do work in the Southern History Department, so it seemed especially appropriate to witness this historic event. My sister and BPL’s Director of Development, Olivia Alison, also joined me on the adventure. So, at 8:00 on Saturday morning, we found the end of a four-block-long line and began the wait.

BPL's Olivia and Fontaine Alison
BPL's Olivia and Fontaine Alison
The mood was congenial, lit with excitement and anticipation. Folks of all ages and races from near and far shuffled along together toward the security scanners. I talked to people from Beloit and Orrville (communities near Selma) and others from Chicago and Washington, DC. The positive, patient attitude of attendees brought to mind lines from a favorite Langston Hughes poem, “Daybreak in Alabama:”

And I'm gonna put white hands 
And black hands and brown and yellow hands 
And red clay earth hands in it 
Touching everybody with kind fingers 
And touching each other natural as dew 

Marching across the bridge in 2015
A symbolic march across the bridge in 2015
The city of Selma managed the event fairly well, but inevitably there were frustrations: contradictory information about security regulations (would I have to pitch the precious snacks in my fanny pack?) and crowds of people cutting ahead in line (while sheriffs shrugged their shoulders—Nothin’ we can do, ma’am). As the wait dragged on without any clear updates from authorities, folks grumbled but resigned themselves to wait…the only other option was to leave and miss out. Later, thinking about those minor irritations brought home to me the far more serious and dangerous obstacles faced by those who gathered in Selma in 1965. On that fateful day in 1965, around 600 peaceful Civil Rights activists marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met with state troopers armed with clubs and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Many marchers were injured during the protest march, and it became known as “Bloody Sunday”. How brave they were.

Bloody Sunday in 1965
Bloody Sunday in 1965
President Obama’s rousing speech was worth the wait. I left Selma with a joyous feeling of community and with pride in the progress of the last 50 years. But the President’s message reminded us that there is still work to do in overcoming the racial divide symbolized by the Edmund Pettus Bridge:

 …the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. 

One way to do this work is to learn more about history and pass the knowledge on to others. The Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature includes some of the best resources in the country. We invite you visit us and explore:
  • Learn about your own history with our genealogical resources and workshops
  • Learn about your local history in books, newspaper clippings, and archived documents about Birmingham, Selma, and Alabama
  • Learn about your country’s history through our impressive collection of civil rights materials. 
Come in and learn more about history: yours, mine, and ours.

Fontaine Alison 
Southern History Department
Central Library

Photo Credits:
President Obama in front of Edmund Pettus Bridge- Justin Sullivan/Getty
Symbolic Walk- Bill Frakes/Associated Press
Bloody Sunday- Library of Congress

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