March 7, 2010 marked the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the first of three civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The courage of that moment has captured our national imagination. Indeed the Edmund Pettus Bridge stands as a monument of sorts - a sacred space characterized by the extraordinary sacrifice of ordinary citizens.
How we remember "Bloody Sunday" today is of critical importance. It is not enough to acknowledge the courage of Congressman John Lewis, the late Rev. Hosea Williams, or all of those unsung men and women who suffered the brutality of Alabama state police.
"Bloody Sunday" is not some easy example of the power of African American struggle. In this historical event, we find all of the elements of an interregnum, a moment of transition that, even if just for an instant, obscured the dangerous road ahead. Generations collided. The role of the federal government was questioned. And rage and disappointment would soon be voiced in the fiery rhetoric of black power.
There is nothing easy about remembering Selma.
Times were changing. Harlem had exploded in 1964 and would be followed by years of urban uprisings. The Democratic Party and Dr. King had turned their backs on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Malcolm X was assassinated in February of 1965. SNCC member, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was brutally killed that same month. Many began to question the strategies and the leadership of the movement.
Members of the Student Non-Violent Committee (SNCC) voiced their doubt about the march from Selma to Montgomery and wrote to Dr. King, "We strongly believe that the objectives of the march do not justify the danger and resources involved."
That concern was only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. King's leadership style was under question. And SNCC itself was experiencing a profound transition in its overall approach to struggle. In short, in Selma, all hell was breaking loose.
We ought not to ignore these conflicts. Attention to the deep divides that characterized Selma helps us understand more fully what happened in its aftermath. John Lewis would be replaced as chairman of SNCC. By June of 1966, Stokely Carmichael would declare "black power" in Greenwood, Mississippi. Three years after Selma, King would be dead. And the conflicts over "how to lead" continue to haunt black America even today.
Invocations of the past often motivate us to act in the present. When President Obama invokes Selma, he not only recognizes the sacrifices and courage of so many. He seeks to mobilize our passions and energies to take up the challenges of our day. Nuance often falls away in these moments. But the complexities of history afford us lessons that ought to inform how we stand in the moment we now live. Here are a few thoughts to remember about Selma:
1) Heroic sacrifice: remember the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
2) State power: as we tell the story we must not rush pass the violence sanctioned by the state or its duplicity in relation to the parties involved; remember the tear gas and billy clubs as well as the court order that blocked American citizens from demonstrating for their rights.
3) Generations: remember that young people are change agents too; that, even then, Moses and Joshua generations stood side by side struggling, and sometimes fighting among themselves, to imagine new pathways for the future.
4) Faith: remember that an abiding faith, even in the face of turmoil, stilled the hearts of so many who risked their lives to transform America.
The lessons of "Bloody Sunday" do not reside in rote references to the sacrifice and courage of those who were there. Such an approach, whether in the mouths of civil rights leaders or in the words of President Obama, can rob Selma of its political and moral power. If our stories are too neat and the moral lessons too sentimental, we end up, all too often, succumbing to hubris. Our task then is to resist efforts to white-wash such moments - to remember them, instead, with passion and intelligence.
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