The arc of the moral universe travels east from Selma to Montgomery
On July 26, 2020, a horse-drawn caisson carrying the flag-draped casket of the late Congressman John Lewis left Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama. Surrounded by crowds of mourners, news media, the well-known and the unknown, it traveled a short distance before it crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The bridge was covered with red rose petals for the occasion, signifying the blood that was spilled there by Lewis and others more than a half century before.
A military honor guard waited on the other side of the bridge, ready to transfer the casket to a hearse for its transport east along US Highway 80, through Dallas, Lowndes, and Montgomery Counties and on to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, where the Congressman’s body would lie in state. Alabama State Troopers accompanied his body all the way to Montgomery. It was a somber and symbolic route, retracing the footsteps of a peaceful five-day, 54-mile journey in March 1965 led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis, and otherCivil Rights leaders that directly helped bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It also followed the route of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, established by Congress in 1996—and first introduced in Congress by Lewis in 1993— to commemorate the famous march for voting rights. The five-day journey was one of three marches occurring that month. The first, on March 7, was known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at that time, and Hosea Williams, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Dr. King’s organization) led a group of almost 600 protestors from the Brown Chapel AME Church and up to the Emmett Pettus Bridge with the
intent of proceeding to Montgomery.
As they crossed the top of the bridge and left the boundary of the city, they were met by a vicious attack by the County Sheriff’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers, some on horseback, who used tear gas and Billy clubs (and, by some accounts, electric cattle prods) to stop the marchers. More than 50 people were injured and 16 hospitalized, including Lewis, whose skull was fractured. The violence was covered by news media around the world, in vivid photos and news film.
The second protest, called “Turnaround Tuesday,” was two days later. Dr. King had been in Atlanta on Sunday, but he was back in Selma and led the Tuesday march. The marchers went over the bridge but did not interact with the law enforcement. Dr. King wanted to keep the momentum but did not want a repeat of Bloody Sunday.
The third and final protest was March 21-25. With a restraining order against the Alabama State Troopers and the Dallas County Sheriff in place and the National Guard federally mobilized to protect them, Dr. King led 4000 marchers from Selma on a journey that would end with25,000 people on the steps of the Alabama state capital. Dr. King requested to meet with Alabama’s Governor George Wallace—but the request was refused. He then gave his inspiring “Our God is Marching On” speech, also called the “How Long? Not Long” speech.
History, like life, is dynamic, not static as we often study it in books. This dynamic nature, with the past and the future giving the push and the pull that make our history a living thing, is what provides the hope that a country learns from its past and gives the lessons that move future generations forward.
The Selma to Montgomery marches focused on the vote. Black Americans in many places in the United States, particularly in the South, could not vote. They were not allowed to register to vote, and as is the case today, if you don’t register, you will not cast a vote on election day. It might seem absurd that people simply were not allowed to register, but it was a fact of life then. In Selma itself, about half the voting age population was Black, but only 14 blacks had been added to the voting rolls between 1954 and 1961. It had seen 19 lynchings between 1882 and 1912. The first half of the 20th century had been relatively quiet, but also had seen no advances in civil rights.
A look across the legal landscape would have left a legal observer scratching his head. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865, banned slavery in the United States. Suddenly, an eighth of the country’s population was free. But the Amendment did not grant citizenship or the right to vote for Black Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified on July 9, 1868, granted citizenship to those born or naturalized in the United States and guaranteed freedom, due process, and equal protection under the law to all Americans, by both the federal and state governments. But no vote. Then the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, banned the denial or abridgment (my emphasis) of the vote on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude—this one finally gave Black Americans (men) the right to vote, no doubt about the language of it.
The effects were seen almost immediately. Especially in southern states, where there were large populations of former slaves, Blacks registered to vote in record numbers, and were elected to many positions at the local, state, and even national levels—an environment and situation that was to be short-lived. Those who had been in power prior to the Civil War developed new ways to disenfranchise Black Americans when Federal officials left the South after Reconstruction. Such means included “Jim Crow” laws like poll taxes and literacy tests, and violence by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Crow laws were local and state laws intended to show both Blacks and whites that Blacks were inferior. They covered areas such as voting, education, jobs—every aspect of life in which the laws could marginalize Black people. But Jim Crow laws were also more subtle.
Although I was a very young child at the time, I remember seeing “white” and “colored” water fountains and restrooms in movie theaters, bus stations, and other public places. These practices were very effective segregation tools—they immediately tell people in shared public surroundings that the races are different and must be kept separate.
Dr. King was very aware of this historic background and how it had affected Blacks—and poor whites— in the South. Through his writings and speeches, he shared this knowledge with other Blacks for their self-esteem and to better understand how they had ended up in such a place in society. Black Americans in the 1960s were only a few generations removed from having the vote and serving in leadership positions after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Dr. King’s leadership and vision contributed immeasurably to the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated Jim Crow laws and finally ensured that Americans of all races had the right to vote.
The land that is today the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is part of the Alabama Black Belt. The Black Belt referred to, initially, a description of the land—dark, nutrient rich soil where cotton grew so well—and then to the African slaves who were brought in to work the cotton on that land.
According to one source, by 1861 nearly 45 percent of the population of Alabama were slaves, and slave plantation agriculture was the center of the Alabama economy. Cotton made up over half of U.S. exports at the time, and southern plantations produced three-fourths of the global cotton supply. It was a lucrative business model for the rich, white landowners, and they were willing to go to war for their slave-based plantation economy. After the war and Reconstruction, there was no incentive for these same landowners to allow the newly freed and enfranchised slaves to hold elected positions in government.
While universal voting rights have been a work in progress in our history, the philosophy of representative government has been at the center of our beliefs. The American’s Creed, recited as part of the opening ceremony at Daughters of the American Revolution meetings, addresses the relationship between Americans and our government: “… a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed.” That fundamental embrace of representative government is apparent in many DAR activities: in the ways the DAR focuses on citizenship and helps people prepare for the American History and U.S. Government exams, attends naturalization ceremonies, and hosts receptions for new citizens; in recognition of the patriotic or civic volunteer services of individuals or groups within their community; in promotion of the Constitution and the U.S. flag—to name just a few! The DAR also reaffirms its commitment to equality, prominently displayed on its national website, acknowledging that “examining history helps us to better understand our nation’s long struggle to provide equality, justice and humanity for all Americans.”
Representative government, which is built upon the right to vote, is the underpinning of America’s War of Independence. It’s why our Patriot Ancestors took up arms or in other ways supported the effort, beginning with the Boston Tea Party and the cry of “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny!” Though our Founding Fathers saw a voter as a white male landowner, that definition has evolved over time.
About a half century after Bloody Sunday, I was assigning Black History Month interviews for our magazine to my staff at the Army Corps of Engineers Office in Dallas. One interview was with our Chief of Staff, a Black senior civilian and retired Air National Guard officer named Frederick Olison. The staff member who interviewed him came back in a state of awe. Our Chief of Staff had been born in Selma. His mother, pregnant with him, had been a protestor during Bloody Sunday. As the crowd was beaten back by law enforcement, Frederick’s mother fell in the crowd. A State Trooper came riding by her, cattle prod in hand, about to strike her. He saw that she was pregnant and decided to ride on. That one decision changed Frederick’s life—perhaps saved it—and affected many others, including his children. History reached out from Selma to Dallas and touched all of us, and all who read the article. During the time of the Selma to Montgomery marches, I was a 15-year-old high school student in Austin, Texas. The public schools in Austin had been integrated since the late 1950s (though school busing had not been used) so I had a mixture of classmates. We were held spellbound by the coverage of the marches, as we had been by the other televised events that were changing our country. (The year 1963 had been particularly hard on us, with the assassination of a President and civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that included the use of high-powered water hoses and vicious dogs on protesters, as well as a church bombing in Birmingham that took the lives of four little girls.)
What we needed—but she had not been born yet—was Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who penned these words for the 2021 presidential inauguration:
“For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.”
In the years since the Selma marches, many efforts have been made to ensure that the legacy is passed on to new generations of Americans. The biggest effort is, of course, the establishment of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. The three Interpretive Centers (Selma, Lowndes, and Montgomery) that are parts of the National Park Service’s formal structure offer a treasure trove of information to those seeking to learn more, with a focus on children and educators.
In an interview with a local television station, a park ranger from the Selma Interpretive Center discussed some of the ongoing activities, such as recording oral histories from those remaining in Selma who were there for Bloody Sunday. The purpose: to capture the legacy of Selma and to ensure that it is there for coming generations of Americans.
“There will be a day when they are not here anymore. Is that why this center is so important?” the reporter asked.
“Yes, people who have gone on to glory and to be with the Lord. So that their stories will still be left behind,” the park ranger answered. “And
we have social media and the website too. And the new Selma film!” he continued.
The ranger was excited with all that the center had to offer, and he knew what young people wanted.
This video is Betty Strong Boynton, "In their own words," Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, courtesy the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Another film has been produced by the Conservation Fund called “54 Miles to Home.” The video, about the three Selma to Montgomery March Campsites, is a portrait of the individuals and their families who still own these lands along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. These families feel they have a sacred commitment to preserve these
historically significant lands so that the full story of the march does not “fall through the cracks of history.”
“My dad loved this community and would do anything to help people,” Cheryl Gardner Davis, whose parents owned the Gardner farm, said. “He didn’t have the right to vote. My mother, a college educated teacher, didn’t have the right to vote. But they wanted their children to have the right to vote.”
Another present-day owner, Ceola Hall Gayle said, “His (her father’s)hope was that the whole United States would be better, especially the voting rights. And bless his heart, he died before he could vote.” In the background, a national cable news was running a current news segment about politicians working to restrict voting rights.
A free people should never become oblivious about their rights, whether voting rights or any other rights. Those who are the descendants of the brave souls who took part in the Selma to Montgomery marches, as well as those who are the keepers of the historic trail, will guard its history and maintain its story, passing it on to future generations.
None of them were with the weary marchers who accompanied Dr. King on those 54 miles back in March 1965. But it is as if they were there, listening to his speech, his famous oratory flowing, as he asked “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Part of that arc travels from Selma east to Montgomery, reflecting our nation’s past, defining its future.
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