Here at the corner of North Laurel Avenue and Selma Avenue in the middle of Hollywood – Hollywood Boulevard is one block north and Sunset Boulevard is one block south, and Hayworth Avenue, as in Rita Hayworth, is one block east – fifty years ago is a long time ago, and far away. March 1965 – that would be near the end of that last year in high school, a soulless low-slung massive new suburban high school in Pittsburgh – and it’s hard to remember if anything particularly interesting happened that month. Pittsburgh is not Hollywood. Nothing ever happens there. All of us were just waiting for a fine summer, and then getting the hell out of there. Nothing was going to happen that spring. The college acceptance letters had come. We all knew where we’d be in September – elsewhere – so we were just marking time. And we were high school kids. We were self-absorbed, and self-absorbed high school kids don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the world – and Pittsburgh was off to the side anyway.
On March 7, 1965, state troopers and a sheriff’s posse in Selma, Ala., attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators taking part in a march between Selma and Montgomery, the state capital. The march was organized to promote black voter registration and to protest the killing of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a state trooper during a Feb. 18 voter registration march in a nearby city.
The New York Times on March 8 described the day’s events. As the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were ordered by the police to disperse. When they stood in place, the troopers charged at them.
“The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides,” The Times wrote. “Those still on their feet retreated. The troopers continued pushing, using both the force of their bodies and the prodding of their nightsticks.”
The police also fired tear gas at the crowd and charged on horseback. More than 50 demonstrators were injured. The Times described a makeshift hospital near the local church: “Negroes lay on the floors and chairs, many weeping and moaning. A girl in red slacks was carried from the house screaming.” Amelia Boynton lay semiconscious on a table. “From the hospital came a report that the victims had suffered fractures of ribs, heads, arms and legs, in addition to cuts and bruises.”
The day of violence, which became known as Bloody Sunday, was covered in newspapers across the country and broadcast on national news, outraging many Americans. A photo of Mrs. Boynton lying unconscious on the bridge became the most enduring image of the day.
Some of us noticed that, but we were white kids in a white-bread suburb far away, and concerned about other things. Well, we were concerned about ourselves, about being cool, but this changed things:
February 1965 – Marches and demonstrations over voter registration prompt Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to ban nighttime demonstrations in Selma and Marion, Alabama.
February 18, 1965 – During a march in Marion, state troopers attack the demonstrators. State trooper James Bonard Fowler shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson. Fowler was charged with murder in 2007 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010.
March 7, 1965 – About 600 people begin a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Marchers demand an end to discrimination in voter registration. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state and local lawmen attack the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back to Selma.
March 9, 1965 – Martin Luther King, Jr. leads another march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march is largely symbolic; as arranged previously, the crowd turns back at a barricade of state troopers. Demonstrations are held in cities across the U.S. to show solidarity with the Selma marchers.
March 9, 1965 – President Lyndon Johnson speaks out against the violence in Selma and urges both sides to respect the law.
March 9, 1965 – Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, in Selma to join marchers, is attacked by a group of white men and beaten. He dies of his injuries two days later.
March 10, 1965 – The U.S. Justice Department files suit in Montgomery, Alabama asking for an order to prevent the state from punishing any person involved in a demonstration for civil rights.
March 17, 1965 – Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. rules in favor of the marchers. “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups.”
March 18, 1965 – Governor Wallace goes before the state legislature to condemn Johnson’s ruling. He states that Alabama cannot provide the security measures needed, blames the federal government, and says he will call on the federal government for help.
March 19, 1965 – Wallace sends a telegram to President Johnson asking for help, saying that the state does not have enough troops and cannot bear the financial burden of calling up the Alabama National Guard.
March 20, 1965 – President Johnson issues an executive order federalizing the Alabama National Guard and authorizes whatever federal forces the Defense Secretary deems necessary.
March 21, 1965 – About 3,200 people march out of Selma for Montgomery under the protection of federal troops. They walk about 12 miles a day and sleep in fields at night.
March 25, 1965 – The marchers reach the state capitol in Montgomery. The number of marchers grows to about 25,000.
August 6, 1965 – President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Those are the basics, and it’s a bit shameful to realize all of us, way back when, hardly noticed. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson, of all people, gave his “We Shall Overcome” speech in front of a Joint Session of Congress. What?
Something was up, but since then everyone got to catch up. There was Eyes on the Prize – that 1987 fourteen-hour PBS documentary narrated by Julian Bond. The sixth episode, Bridge to Freedom, was about the Selma to Montgomery marches. That won six Emmy awards and was nominated for an Academy award, and there was Selma, Lord, Selma – the first dramatic feature film based on the Selma to Montgomery marches, a Disney production first broadcast on January 17, 1999 – but that got panned. This isn’t Disney stuff. Now we have this year’s Selma – and this dramatic feature film got it right. But it’s hard to know what to make of March – a three-part graphic novel autobiography published by Top Shelf Productions about John Lewis, that begins with his and the civil rights activists’ beating and gassing at the hands of Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was there. That was written by Lewis and his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, but it seems a bit of a curiosity. Some don’t take that comic book format very seriously – but even back in 1965 Bob Dylan was singing The Times They Are A-Changin’ – and so they always are.
Something big happened on March 7, 1965, and fifty years later it is time to remember that, and Don Gonyea discusses what that means now that we have a black president:
It’s the kind of moment rich with history – a moment to reflect on a searing date in the civil rights struggle, and to do so with the nation’s first African-American president taking center stage at the memorial ceremonies. It’s a time and place to reflect on where we have been and where we have come as a nation. But also to ponder the future for Barack Obama and whether the discussion of race and inequality will become major themes of his post-presidency, which begins in less than two years.
This weekend, the president; first lady Michelle Obama; and their teenage daughters, Malia and Sasha, will help mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala. It was there in 1965 – on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – that state troopers violently attacked a peaceful civil rights march.
Obama will speak Saturday, putting a spotlight on the issue of race relations in the United States – something he has not done frequently in his presidency.
Yes, Obama doesn’t want to be the angry or self-righteous black man – he’s everyone’s president – but he was in Selma before he was everyone’s president:
In March of 2007 on a Sunday morning, he stood in the pulpit of Brown Chapel AME Church. It was another anniversary weekend in Selma. Then-U.S. Sen. Obama was, at the time, a newly declared presidential candidate. The churchgoers who listened to Obama that day included some of those who’d been on that bridge when troopers moved in with tear gas and billy clubs. The future president was greeted with thunderous applause. “We’re in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on,” he said. He called them: “People who battled on behalf not just of African-Americans but on behalf of all Americans, who battled for America’s soul, that shed blood, that endured taunts and torment.”
Obama said those who marched that day on Bloody Sunday helped make it possible for him to stand before them as a candidate.
He said that again two years later as he took the oath as president, but then he let it go:
Once in office, race was not a front-line issue for the new president. There was an economic crisis to deal with. And two wars that he’d promised to end. Beyond that, though, he did not seem inclined to put a sharp focus on the issue of race. If it came up it was usually related to news events. Just months into Obama’s first term in office, African-American scholar and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home after forgetting his key one night and forcing the front door open. At a news conference, the president was asked about it and he offered what seemed an off-the-cuff response.
“I don’t know, not having been there and not having seen all the facts, but I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, that any of us would be pretty angry. And No. 2, the Cambridge police – uh – acted stupidly.”
That statement triggered its own controversy.
That’s an understatement, but this stuff is dangerous, so Obama is learning to modulate what he says:
There were other moments as well, including the death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer who had tailed Martin, suspecting he might do something illegal. The shooting took place in spring of 2012. At the time, Obama told reporters, “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” More than a year later, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
That very personal statement is an example of how, in his second term, Obama seems less reluctant to highlight race and to discuss his own experience as a black man in America. Still, a lot of it has been prompted by events, including the deaths of several African-American men at the hands of police. This is from last November, after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict the white police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown months earlier.
“The fact is in too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color,” Obama said. “Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”
And there’s this:
An area where the president has been very proactive is with his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, announced a year ago, aimed at finding mentors for boys and young men of color. Obama points to statistics showing that if you’re a black student, you’re far less likely than a white student to be able to read proficiently. You’re far more likely to be expelled. There’s a higher chance you’ll end up in the criminal justice system, and that you’ll become a victim of violent crime. All of that, he says, translates into higher joblessness and poverty rates as adults.
This is from his remarks at the White House the day the initiative was announced: “And the worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. That’s how we think about it. It’s like a cultural backdrop for us – in movies and television. We just assume, of course, it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”
He’s a lame duck president now. He can afford to be black now, and that means this:
For the nation’s first African-American president, it was a week of two documents that told the story of a country still grappling with its own history.
The first was a draft speech that President Obama was marking up with his distinctive left-hand scrawl to deliver in Selma, Ala., on Saturday to celebrate a half-century of civil rights gains. The second was a report he received accusing the police in Ferguson, Mo., of systematically discriminating against African-Americans.
More than once, Mr. Obama has credited the courage of protesters in Selma who were confronted by club-wielding state troopers 50 years ago for clearing the way for his own barrier-breaking election as president. But the path from Selma to the Oval Office has also led to Ferguson and back to Selma, a path littered with hope and progress and disappointment and setback.
“What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” Mr. Obama told a young African-American man who asked him about it Friday at Benedict College, a historically black school. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.”
And so, he added, “Our task is to work together to solve the problem and not get caught up in either the cynicism that says this is never going to change because everybody is racist. That’s not a good solution.”
“That’s not what the folks in Selma did,” he added. “They had confidence that they could change things, and change people’s hearts and minds.”
He’s going to tie Selma to Ferguson and that may be necessary:
To Mr. Obama’s supporters, the fierce opposition to his presidency has been fueled by race, even if that is not openly acknowledged.
And in that regard, paradoxically, race relations may seem worse today than before he was elected. A new CBS News poll found that 50 percent of African Americans think real progress has been made in getting rid of racial discrimination, down from 59 percent last summer before episodes in Ferguson and elsewhere involving police officers and black suspects.
“For many people it feels worse because we have seen such a reaction to this presidency that has been really alarming and without question from many quarters has been based in part on his race,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “His candidacy suggested we had reached a new moment in America, and I think some people overestimated the meaning of that moment.”
Many of Mr. Obama’s supporters blame his opponents. “I think the president has done all he could do,” said George E. Battle Jr., senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. “But sometimes I think once the president was elected, we thought he could do everything. But he can’t. When you have governors and you have senators and you have Congress people determined to turn back the clock, there’s not that much the president can do other than getting on the stump.”
The stump will be in Selma, but there is that fierce opposition, with its inevitable careless whiff of racisim:
Scores of U.S. lawmakers are converging on tiny Selma, Alabama, for a large commemoration of a civil rights anniversary. But their ranks don’t include a single member of House Republican leadership — a point that isn’t lost on congressional black leaders.
None of the top leaders – House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group – will be in Selma for the three-day event that commemorates the 1965 march and the violence that protesters faced at the hands of white police officers. A number of rank-and-file Republicans have been aggressively lobbying their colleagues to attend, and several black lawmakers concurred.
“It is very disappointing that not a single Republican leader sees the value in participating in this 50th commemoration of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. I had hoped that some of the leadership would attend, but apparently none of them will,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina. “The Republicans always talk about trying to change their brand and be more appealing to minority folks and be in touch with the interests of African-Americans. This is very disappointing.”
Former CBC Chair Marsha Fudge (D-Ohio) agreed.
“Not only do they have an opportunity to participate in something that is historic in this country, but certainly they’ve lost an opportunity to show the American people that they care,” she said. “Their loss.”
And the guy who was there, and was beaten into a coma at the time, is not happy:
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) this week joined the Congressional Black Caucus in complaining that none of the Republican leadership in Congress would be attending a commemoration of the 1965 march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama.
“I wish we had someone in the [Republican] leadership going,” Lewis told Politico in an article published Thursday. “President Bush is going to be there, but I think it would have been fitting and appropriate for them to make a trip.”
Late Friday afternoon, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced he would travel to Selma to commemorate the anniversary – but that was it – and Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post adds this:
It’s hard to overstate what a dumb decision this is for a party desperate to show that it is comprised of and open to far more people than just old white men. “We do dumb real well,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. “It is astounding to me that whether it is supporting the continuation of the Voting Rights Act or commemorating a pivotal part of American Civil Rights history, Republican leadership prefers to sit on the sidelines.”
“Hey Republican leadership, get your ass down there,” former Florida Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said on “Morning Joe” Friday morning. “Get down there. This is not hard. Don’t golf. Don’t raise money.”
This should be a no-brainer:
Politics is in part – and I would argue, in large part – about symbolism. Not sending a top Republican leader to Selma on Saturday suggests Republicans don’t get that. Particularly in the wake of the revelations about Scalise speaking to a group affiliated with former KKK grand dragon David Duke. If ever there was a time to say, “We’re here because we get how important this is to the country,” it’s now for Republicans.
These things matter:
No, Scalise or John Boehner standing with President Obama and 100 or so other members of Congress – Democrats and Republicans – isn’t going to fundamentally alter the politics of the black vote in 2016. The Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won more than 11 percent among African Americans in more than a decade, and it’s hard to imagine that changing drastically over the next 20 months.
But, that’s not the point. This isn’t about a single election or a single vote. Standing together to mark a moment when the country was riven by racism but emerged from it to be a stronger, better place is simply the right thing to do. And, if that’s not compelling enough a reason, Steele makes the key political point: “If our leadership can’t stand with the black community in Selma, why would they believe we will stand with them on anything?”
Sometimes in politics, just being there is the key. Showing up says a lot more than a statement sent by your press secretary.
What were they thinking? They weren’t thinking – or else they were like those of us in our senior year in high school, back in Pittsburgh, back in March, 1965, fretting about being cool enough, and unaware of the larger world out there, where big things were happening – you know, they were self-absorbed jerks.
Ah, but most of us grew up. And as for Selma Avenue here in Hollywood, just outside the door, just seeing the name on the street sign each day gets you thinking about fifty years ago. But then Selma Avenue in Hollywood has been Selma Avenue in Hollywood for forever – it’s been Selma Avenue in Hollywood since 1915, when D. W. Griffith gave us Birth of a Nation – that tale of the heroic Ku Klux Klan and those awful black folks, played in that silent epic by white actors in blackface. We’ve always had a lot to work out.