Staying on the March Right Now

Stand up to those wanting to turn back the clock

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/24/2015, 12:21 p.m.
Fifty years ago I traveled from Mississippi to Selma, Ala. to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of ...
Marian Wright Edelman

Fifty years ago I traveled from Mississippi to Selma, Ala. to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of fellow citizens marching the 54 miles to the steps of the state’s capitol in Montgomery. Millions of Americans now know about this march thanks to the movie Selma and the recent 50th anniversary celebration.

Selma was the site of a courageous voting rights campaign by black citizens which was met by brutal Southern Jim Crow law enforcement and citizen violence. The nation was shocked two weeks earlier when John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams set out on a nonviolent march with a group of 600 people toward Montgomery to demand their right to vote and were brutally attacked by lawless state and local law enforcement officials at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The televised images of “Bloody Sunday” and the savage beatings of the marchers—including Congressman Lewis whose skull was fractured—were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and in America’s struggle to become America. It provoked the thousands of us (ultimately about 25,000) who came together later to finish the march, safer thanks to Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.’s order that we had a right to peaceful protest and with National Guard protection. And we were buoyed by President Johnson’s March 15, 1965 address calling on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In that speech—“The American Promise”—President Johnson said: “This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: ‘All men are created equal’—‘government by consent of the governed’—‘give me liberty or give me death’... Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man... To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom”

Fifty years later, speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama echoed the same themes: “[Selma is] the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents... These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.”

The first Selma march was planned not only to gain the right to vote but to protest the tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black church deacon and military veteran killed in Marion, Ala. when he, his mother, sister, and 82-year-old grandfather attended another nonviolent voting rights demonstration where marchers were brutally attacked by racist Alabama law enforcement officials who broke it up. Jackson was shot and beaten trying to shield his mother from a police nightstick. What a terrible irony that in this year of celebration of the Selma marches we are witnessing the resurgence of overt law enforcement brutality and injustice in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, and elsewhere, reminding us how far we still have to go. The continuing protests against unequal justice under the law by those enjoined to protect all of us and all of our children after the deaths of teenager Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and others are a wake-up call about the deeply embedded systemic racism still alive in America. Each of us has a responsibility to root it out and stop it in its tracks.