The streets were almost back to normal in Selma, Ala.
For two straight days, tens of thousands packed the city to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, highlighted by President Barack Obama’s visit Saturday afternoon.
But Monday morning, a group of about 70 people of all races kept the spirit of the movement alive as they began the 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, that foot soldiers, led by Martin Luther King Jr., completed on their third attempt half a century ago.
“The movement is not over; we have just crossed another bridge,” Charles Steele, president of SCLC, said.
Young and old gathered at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin the journey.
Ninety-year-old Corine Crayton substituted her wheelchair for a walker saying she will march until she is physically unable to.
Meanwhile, Desiree Robertson, 11, and her brothers, Tosh and Zion Small, ages 7 and 9, respectively, walked together.
Robertson and her siblings are Selma residents and know the history of mistreatment black people in their city have experienced. Even though they didn’t live through the thick of the civil rights movement, Zion Small said it’s still important for her generation to stand up and take a stance.
“Just because segregation is over doesn’t mean it’s really over,” he said. “We can still march for our freedom and rights.”
Others were actual participants in the 1965 marches, including both Bloody Sunday and the successful journey to Montgomery.
The celebrities, food vendors and national media had all come and gone. That meant this march lacked the spotlight of other events that rocked the city Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
But that didn’t matter to the marchers who departed Monday.
Wilfred Hope was 3 years old in 1965. He was in Selma all weekend with his daughter, and after kissing her goodbye earlier in the morning, he took to Highway 80 himself to support the people in his life who helped give him some of the freedoms he enjoys today.
It’s important, he said, to keep the movement of the foot soldiers and civil rights activists alive, which is why he was walking Monday.
“Yes, we’re talking 50 years since the initial march of Selma to Montgomery, but still, there’s that generation of us that came up, and we were young when it happened,” Hope said. “We have to encourage our youth.”
The marchers are expected to get to Montgomery Friday night, officially ending the 50th anniversary events in Selma. But just like in 1965, the marchers hope the message of racial, social and economic equality extends far beyond the capitol steps.
–Nick Erickson with Elyssa Larson
It was a new march for a new movement.
“This is the movement of the future,” said Mark Duke, one of the sponsors of an impromptu march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge Sunday morning. Duke also is founder of the Freedom Foundation, a non-profit serving Selma youth.
Invoking the words of John Legend and Common’s Academy Award-winning song, “Glory,” he added, “It’s going to take the wisdom of the elders and the energy of the youth.”
What had been planned as a peaceful protest march from Selma Community Church in Selma, Ala., to a historic public cemetery where a monument honoring civil war general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest stands, quickly morphed into a march across the famed bridge hours before the schedule re-enactment of the march for voting rights known as Bloody Sunday.
As supporters gathered in the pews of the church, organizers met in the back discussing how to respond to news that members of Friends of Forest, Inc., the group responsible for erecting the monument, were waiting at the cemetery to confront the protesters. Duke explained that, in recent months, the city sold an acre of the public cemetery to the group as a site for their memorial to Forrest. Rather than draw attention to a cause of hate, Duke said, Students Unite and the Freedom Foundation decided to shift the focus to an SU campaign to change the name of the bridge. It too, is named after a confederate general and Klan member.
Students Unite is a recent addition to Selma. As a branch of the Freedom Foundation, its primary organizers, John Gainey, Jack Townes, Brandi Hatter and Kylie Jones, work to help young people promote equality and justice. The group models itself after the principles of nonviolence and direct action.
Roughly 300 people lined up along the sidewalk outside the church arranging themselves by twos. Children marched with adults and many carried signs calling for “Unity” as organizers passed out American flags.
“Remember to follow the traffic rules,” called out one line marcher.
Rafael Johnson, a Georgia Tech grad, served as flag bearer leading the group alongside 15-year-old Maddie Duke.
As marchers moved down Franklin Street before turning on to Alabama Avenue and heading for the bridge, visitors in town for the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march looked on – a bit confused by the sight. Still, from across a parking lot where mobile campers were parked, applause could be heard as the protesters marched in silence.
A curious press, gathering early footage for the day and working on stand-ups, scrambled to catch up to the march unfolding before them. One local TV reporter called to a colleague that he wanted to go “live in two.”
The marchers walked over the bridge, turned around and then paused at its crest as Duke addressed the crowd.
“This is not a white thing,” he said. “This is not a black thing. This is an American thing.”
The bridge, Duke told the marchers and onlookers, should be named for the freedom it represents.
“We should not honor a Klan leader.”
One marcher, Kerron Stokes, who was visiting from Colorado, called out to the crowd. “We don’t stand here for ourselves, we stand here for freedom.”
Marchers formed a circle and locked arms, as Ron Brown, pastor of Selma Community church, known as Selma’s integrated church, kneeled to lead the group in prayer. They invited visitors on the bridge to join them as they sang the iconic civil rights song, “We shall overcome.”
Duke said the march was needed because the city is “not changing.” He cited the existence of a segregated country club, its nearly all-black public schools and the refusal of local white leadership to support equality efforts as evidence of continued problems.
“This city won’t change it,” Duke said of the bridge name. “Alabama won’t change it. We’re asking the world to help us change it.
— Jan Larson
“Friends of Forrest” block off area around Confederate memorial; student equality group moves protest to historic bridge
A group of white Selma, Ala., residents lined the perimeter of a Confederate soldier’s memorial with “do not cross” tape Sunday, after a Selma-based youth group planned to hold a prayer in protest of the memorial in Old Live Oak Cemetery.
The group of residents, who call themselves Friends of Forrest, said they blocked off the cemetery grounds, which holds the memorial of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, to “protect our property” and for “scheduled maintenance,” according to President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Chapter 53, Pat Godwin.
Students Unite, a Selma-based organization that advocates for equality and social justice using non-violence, planned the peaceful protest saying Forrest was Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I have no proof he was in the Ku Klux Klan but I have high regard for his military genius,” Godwin said of Forrest. Historians often identify Forrest as one of the founders of the KKK.
Months ago, the city of Selma sold one acre of land in the public cemetery to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which included Forrest’s memorial grounds.
Students Unite caught wind of the Friends of Forrest at the cemetery Sunday morning and decided to march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge instead, where foot soldiers marched for voting rights 50 years ago.
Members of the NAACP Alabama State Chapter, based in Montgomery, Ala., asked the Friends of Forrest questions about their Confederate heritage.
“I just wanted to get their side of the story,” NAACP Alabama Chapter Vice President Sean Freeman said.
Paul Lewis a reporter for the London-based newspaper, The Guardian, asked Todd Kiscaden, another Friends of Forrest member, whether the Selma to Montgomery march was his history. Kiscaden answered “No.” Then Lewis asked, “Aren’t you an American?”
Kiscaden’s response: “I’m a Tenneseean.”
Meanwhile, Selma residents and visitors a few streets over were gearing up for another day of celebration of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Kiscaden said he was not attending the jubilee this weekend.
“It’s not my history,” Kiscaden said. “I’m over here with my history.”
— Breane Lyga
Fifty years after non-violent protesters marched two-by-two over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to fight for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, President Barack Obama said there is a need for better voter turnout and fewer laws that keep people from voting.
“If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples,” Obama told a crowd of 40,000 on March 8, at the 50th Anniversary Jubilee in Selma.
One hundred members of Congress attended the jubilee, including Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind.
“If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore (the Voting Rights Act),” Obama said.
Meanwhile, Obama celebrated the legacy of the foot soldiers who were poked with cattle prods, trampled on by horses and beaten with billy clubs on Bloody Sunday because they paved the way for an African American president today.
“The change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office,” Obama said.
Political leaders of both parties spoke at the jubilee, including Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, and Selma natives Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. and Rep. John Lewis D-Ga.
Sewell is Alabama’s first black congresswoman and said foot soldiers like Lewis allowed her to believe she could make a difference, though, she said the next generation needs to carry the torch and vote.
“We cannot acknowledge how far we have come without acknowledging how far we need to go,” she said.
Lewis echoed Sewell’s call to action and said people often asked why he was returning to Selma for the anniversary. “We came to Selma to be renewed, we came to Selma to be inspired,” he said.
Lewis, who was 25 at the time, was one of many civil rights leaders who marched on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago.
Students and the movement’s youth were core contributors to many civil rights demonstrations.
“And that’s what young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day,” Obama said. “You are America.”
— Breane Lyga
Thursday evening soulful music resounded through Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Ala. The church, made famous in the ’60s as a meeting place for nonviolent student activists, was packed wall to wall.
With a bag full of extra batteries, chargers, pens and notebooks on my back and a camera around my neck I crawled on all fours down the center aisle of the church and made room for myself among my fellow journalists.
Soon after the mass meeting commenced the Rev. Frederick Reese approached the microphone. The man who introduced the 85-year-old civil rights activist said he stands on the shoulders of giants and none is greater Reese.
Reese is among a group of activists commonly called the “Courageous 8″ that was responsible for bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma and was heavily active with the Dallas County Voter’s League.
He only spoke briefly that evening but from my spot on the floor I could tell the immense respect surrounding Reese. The next day, I learned why.
Friday afternoon I sat in the well-lit living room of Reese’s Selma home with two recent UW-Eau Claire journalism grads. We talked with Reese about his involvement in the movement, how he wants to be remembered and his time since Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery.
A few common themes prevailed: Reese, a former school teacher, is a man of strong faith. He told me his spiritual life started when he was a child and he is quick to credit God for all he has done.
It was also clear from our conversation Reese was called to be an activist because he wanted people to be judged for their character, not the color of their skin.
Just before we left his home, Reese — who donned a button on his lapel that read “I was there” with a depiction of the Edmund Pettus Bridge — sang two of the songs common among nonviolent activists.
I had goosebumps then and I have goosebumps as I recall it. It was one of those truly special moments where you pinch yourself to make sure it’s really happening to you. It was obvious we were in the presence of a very humble giant in American History.
— Courtney Kueppers
Joe Jones looked death in the face.
Marching near the front on Bloody Sunday, Jones and his fellow foot soldiers were quickly and violently turned away as they descended the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Alabama state troopers beat the peaceful protesters with billy clubs and whips while launching tear gas to disperse the mostly black crowd marching to demand the right to vote.
Amelia Boynton, then 43 and a prominent member of the black community, was beaten unconscious. Jones, a student at R.B. Hudson High School in Selma, found her with blood streaming down her face. He knelt beside her scooping her up in his arms.
“My reaction was that I thought she had died.”
Bloody Sunday and surrounding events played a pivotal role in passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
While Selma changed the nation, signs of race tensions remain. In August of 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson gunned down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. That November, a Missouri state court cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing. The U.S. Justice Department announced in March 2015 that it would not seek criminal charges in the case.
The court rulings prompted racially driven riots in the city.
But despite looking death and violence in the face 50 years earlier, Jones said the way people are protesting right now won’t lead to anything. It will just cause more people to get hurt. He has a clear message for people looking to protest today.
“What I’d tell them today is protest, but nonviolent,” Jones said. “It’s best to try and do it peacefully. It’s best to stay nonviolent and go through the system of (Martin Luther) King (Jr.).”
Jones marched on Bloody Sunday because he wanted to make a change. He helped save the life of a woman who was there to make a change. There’s more work to be done, he said, but people have to understand how to get the message across.
— Nick Erickson
On a cool Sunday evening in 1963 Charles Bonner was on his way home from church in Selma, Ala., when his mother’s green ’54 Ford broke down. He and his friend, Cleophas Hobbs, began pushing the vehicle home.
It was then Bonner saw a young man in a shirt and tie just beyond the red and white Coca-Cola sign of a local store. By the way he was walking, Bonner could “tell he wasn’t from Selma.”
The man was Bernard Lafayette and he was there to recruit students for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Lafayette sat with the two teens on the porch of the Bonner family’s big yellow home and told the 16-year-old boys, “we’re here to organize the students.”
It took some time but Lafayette persuaded the young Selma natives to join SNCC’s nonviolent approach to social change.
That evening on the front porch changed Bonner’s entire life: it was the onset of his life as a foot soldier for civil rights.
The next evening he assembled his classmates at the Tabernacle Baptist Church where Lafayette taught them freedom songs, nonviolent techniques and helped them prepare to engage in direct action to take to the streets with picket signs. Their task would be to stand against a segregated society.
Bonner, who now works as a San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, used those techniques he learned in the basement of Tabernacle Baptist Church when he participated in Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march, he said.
On the morning of March 7, 1965, the day that became known as Bloody Sunday, Bonner and others who had been to jail before were trying to calm everyone down by assuring them it was going to be just like they had done many times before.
However, word of horses, whips and tear gas had spread and the group had a sense it wasn’t going to be “just another day.” When the marchers reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus that day Bonner recalls seeing “a sea of blue” law enforcement officers.
“I’m thinking as I can hear my foot print get out of sync with my heartbeat, which is now racing that I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “I’m scared. I am so scared. I don’t know what is going to happen but I know we’re going to continue. We have to continue.”
Today, Bonner still hasn’t come to grips with the anger he felt against white people and God for the oppressive and violent events he and black Americans experienced, he’s just learned to “live within the confines of my own tolerance of them.”
He referenced recent police brutality events across the country to note that there is still “no justice” and called upon people — especially young people — to make change where they can.
“This movement is just the extension of a movement that started the first time they laid the first hand on the first slave,” Bonner said. “It was only passed as a baton to me at age 16 through Bernard Lafayette.”
— Courtney Kueppers
We headed to the Alabama capital Wednesday morning retracing the historic route voting rights marchers took from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
From Martin Luther King Jr.’s home to where he preached, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we visited sites of the civil rights era. Our first stop was a meeting with the staff of the Freedom Rides Museum. The museum opened in 2011 and is housed in the Greyhound Bus Station where an angry white mob attacked Freedom Riders on May 20, 1961.
On the walls of the museum hung portraits of 1961 Freedom Riders jailed in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison. Hundreds were arrested in Jackson, Miss., that summer on charges of breaching the peace with their effort to desegregate Southern facilities. The exhibit features both their mug shot from Parchman and a modern-day photo taken by photographer Eric Etheridge for his 2008 book “Breach of Peace.”
We chatted with the staff about how the work we’re doing for our ongoing Civil Conversations project can enhance their museum. As a group we are encouraged our suggestions were well received and are all quite excited about this opportunity to share our work and the stories of the Freedom Riders we have interviewed. If all goes well, our interviews with Freedom Riders William Harbour, Ed Kale and Henry, “Hank” Thomas will hang on the museum walls by the end of the year.
Editor’s note: A group of UW-Eau Claire students traveled Tuesday, March 3, to Selma, Ala., with Associate Professor of Journalism Jan Larson to report on civil rights issues and the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. They will be in Selma until Tuesday, March 10, and will post updates of what they experience.
Almost immediately after arriving, we headed over to the Selma Community Church, where Lynda Blackmon Lowery gave a presentation to a small group of students from the University of South Florida, as well as us.
Lowery has lived in Selma for her entire life and was 14 years old when she marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She was 19 rows back when mounted state troopers stormed the crowd with tear gas and billy clubs.
Her experiences that day — running from troopers, being beaten so severely that she required 35 stitches, finding her little sister injured and seemingly dead in the arms of another marcher, and ultimately helping her escape danger, inspired Lowery to want to march to Montgomery to personally show Gov. George Wallace the bandages around her head.
She was scared, but it was something her grandmother said that kept her going, and that was determination over fear. As Lowery said, ‘d’ comes before ‘f’ in the alphabet.
Fifty years later, Lowery now works as a case manager for a mental health institute in the city, but she continues to talk about her experiences from 1965 and promotes her grandmother’s message of mind over matter to continue the fight today.
Lowery will be on stage with President Barack Obama Saturday when the commander in chief visits Selma as part of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.