THE BLOG
01/18/2015 05:08 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

My Dad Was in Selma: What Can His Grandchildren Learn From That?

My kindergartner is learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. this week. As the nation marks what would have been the civil rights leader's 86th birthday, my daughter is sharing new-to-her stories over supper: "He was a famous person and he put speeches out all around the world. He changed bad laws."

This is also the week I went to the movies with my parents. It had been years since I'd done that -- me in the middle, holding the popcorn -- but it was important to me that I see the film Selma with them.

That's because my parents lived through Selma. They experienced the frightening marches in different ways; my dad was there, sometimes in the same room with Dr. King. My mom was home in Connecticut, praying for his safe return and putting up with snarky, sometimes downright cruel comments from fellow white elementary school teachers: "What are those rabble-rousers in Alabama trying to prove?"

My dad was a seminary student at Yale Divinity School when the first of three Selma-to-Montgomery marches took place, in 1965. The marches were part of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, and they led to the passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act. But a lot of blood was shed in the process, as the movie portrays. During the first march, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, peaceful marchers were met by state troopers and deputized citizens with whips, tear gas, and clubs wrapped in barbed wire. It was a real life horror show, and it played out on national television, thanks to the presence of news cameras.

My parents watched it. So did the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., who preached to a packed Battell Chapel at Yale the following Sunday. His message was this: "Come with me. Let's go. Let's stand beside our brothers and sisters in Selma." My dad was in a car headed south by sunset.

They weren't to stop, even for gas, once they hit the Alabama state line. Too many people with out-of-state license plates, considered black sympathizers, were being targeted, followed and beaten. Once in Selma, my dad recalls sleeping on church floors and listening to speech after incredible speech. Scenes from the movie felt familiar, my dad said: People there were on edge, for sure, but part of something big, something electric.

The truth is, I'm feeling very much "in the middle" these days, and I don't just mean from my popcorn-holding vantage point at the movie theatre.

My parents were educated in the segregated south, where the kinds of laws my children can't even comprehend were part of everyday life. I am the generation that links them. One generation. That's still astonishing to me.

Arguably, progress as it relates to race relations has been slow, and bigotry has found plenty of ways to seep through institutional cracks. If Annie Lee Cooper tried to vote today, she might not be asked to recite the Constitution's preamble. But she could be asked for a driver's license, and some would say that is an inappropriate demand (and one that disproportionately affects minorities).

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and other black men have triggered some outrage. Congressman John Lewis was a central figure in the civil rights movement, and he bravely helped lead that first march across the Pettus Bridge (and was beaten badly for it). Lewis asked recently in The Atlantic: "As a leader of that march, I wonder, if the same attack took place in Ferguson today, would Americans be shocked enough to do anything about it?"

I have wondered this myself. Fifty years ago, a county sheriff muttered, "Let the buzzards eat them," while standing over beaten black bodies. Kind of a no-brainer for many 21st century moviegoers: That's wrong. But when an unarmed black man is shot by a police officer, is the situation surrounding it too knotty for even liberal Americans to take a clear and unified stand upon? I have found myself wondering, after watching the film, whether the fact that the Selma marchers appeared calm and dignified and were dressed in tidy church clothes gave some kind of power to their message. Do T-shirts, baseball caps, and hostile faces distance observers, make them wary? And what about the fact that the evening news in 1965 had the monopoly on live action images; does the constant barrage of pictures, cell phone videos and tweets today somehow dull our senses, and thereby our consciences?

"One group of people in this country can expect the institutions of government to bend in their favor, no matter that they are supposedly regulated by impartial law," Rep. Lewis wrote late last year. "In the other, children, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, whole families, and many generations are swept up like rubbish by the hard, unforgiving hand of the law." This could have been written in 1965, and that's depressing.

Still, from the perspective of that "middle seat," I am choosing optimism. Thanks to the example set by my parents, I am trying to pay attention: What are today's Pettus Bridges? How can I train myself to "tune out" the cultural noise that might keep me from seeing them? How can I ensure my children will have eyes out for the bridges, too, and know what to do when they come across one?

My daughter explained to us last night that a lady once tried to sit in a seat on a bus, and she didn't move so she was arrested. That's one of the laws Dr. King wanted to change, she said. And then she asked: "Why was that a law?"

My kids have never known any president other than Barack Obama, and my son asked me once, "Do you need to be black to be president?"

Surely that's something.