11/05/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

The Other Berlin Wall -- and What It Can Teach Us Today


Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. The images of young people dancing on the Wall, which separated the free world from a particularly brutal subset of Communism, are forever burned in our collective memories. Fueled by the BBC, the Voice of America, and rock 'n' roll, the revolutions of 1989 freed much of Eastern Europe. For all of the dangers currently facing the nations of Eastern Europe, it is good and right that we celebrate the fall of this bloody symbol of oppression.

Fifty years ago, however, few people anywhere envisioned the collapse of the Communist regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the other oppressed states of Europe.

Fifty years ago, a small band of freedom fighters in Selma, Alabama, were being attacked on all sides and simply couldn't spare energy to worry about events in Europe... or anywhere else.

In the spring of 1964, a long line of people in Selma stood before an equally dangerous and recalcitrant foe. On that cold, raw morning, they walked to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a small army of policemen, highway patrol officers, deputized irregulars and armed civilians. They sang "God Will Take Care of You" as they walked. They had come to nonviolently protest official oppression and the state's efforts to deny them the right to vote.

Rampaging "peace" officers overran and then beat and tear-gassed the helpless demonstrators, even as some lay helpless and bleeding on the banks of the Alabama River. What came to be called "Bloody Sunday" lasted long into the night.

That evening, Americans watching A Judgment in Nuremburg - a powerful drama about the trials of Nazi leaders following World War II - saw ABC News interrupt the movie to show horrific images of roving patrols beating helpless marchers.

In the days that followed, thousands of outraged blacks and whites flooded into Selma to support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the local civil rights leadership. Soon, the small town was filled with an array of pastors, priests, and rabbis, along with many more ordinary men and women, wanting to march to Montgomery.

As legal wrangling delayed the proposed march, a strange stasis enveloped Selma. One smaller march turned back at the now-infamous bridge, even as more people poured into the city. At last, the more moderate of the city's lawmen, Wilson Baker, roped off the intersection that separated Brown Chapel and the primarily African American part of Selma, and urged demonstrators to stay behind the rope and avoid the violence that awaited them elsewhere.

The rope was soon dubbed the "Berlin Wall" and became the site of nonstop peaceful demonstrations. The most popular song at the intersection was the protest spiritual, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," complete with new lyrics to mark the occasion:

We've got a rope that's a Berlin Wall, Berlin Wall, Berlin Wall,
We've got a rope that's a Berlin Wall, in Selma, Alabama.
We're gonna stand here till it falls, till it falls, till it falls,
We're gonna stand here till it falls, in Selma, Alabama.

The singing continued day and night, the lyrics continually evolving:

Hate is the thing that built that wall, built that wall, built that wall,
Hate is the thing that built that wall, in Selma, Alabama.
Love is the thing that'll make it fall, make it fall, make it fall,
Love is the thing that'll make it fall, in Selma, Alabama.

Baker eventually complained that he was "tired of them singing about it all the time and making such a symbol of the damn thing" and removed the rope. He then asked the demonstrators to voluntarily stay in their neighborhoods until the judge had rendered his decision on the next march.

The protesters happily complied, remained at the intersection, cut the rope into souvenirs, and then improvised still more new lyrics:

The invisible wall, the invisible wall, the invisible wall,
The invisible wall is a Berlin Wall, in Selma, Alabama.

When a few highway patrolmen moved their patrol cars into the intersection, the words quickly changed again:

The trooper's cars, the trooper's cars, the trooper's cars,
The trooper's cars are a Berlin Wall, In Selma, Alabama.

Eventually, the judge did lift the injunction, and the Selma to Montgomery March is one of the great, triumphant events in the history of the civil rights movement.

The protesters at the Selma intersection sang many protest spirituals and freedom songs besides "Joshua Fit the Battle," of course, including "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome," even as they prayed for their oppressors.

They also understood the concept that a wall doesn't have to be a physical entity composed of concrete blocks, stones or bricks. A wall can be a rope.

Or an idea.

History is littered with examples of failed walls. Walls between nations. Walls confining a certain people group into a ghetto. Walls between neighbors. Walls rarely survive. And, while the Great Wall of China still stands, the imposing barrier was overrun repeatedly in the course of its history.

The other walls - the walls of prejudice, of intolerance, of hate - also remain for decades, sometimes even centuries. The walls we can't see often divide people even more effectively than chain link fences topped with barbed wire. The walls that don't allow us to respect the worth and dignity of people who don't look like us, who don't believe the same way we do - those walls sometimes seem to endure forever. And that's a shame.

Busting down walls is an ancient and honorable profession. When they weren't singing about the Berlin Wall, the protesters in Selma serenaded the guards who half-heartedly manned the barricades with "I Love Everybody in My Heart":

I love the troopers in my heart, in my heart,
I love the troopers in my heart.
You can't make me doubt them,
In my heart, in my heart.
Cuz I know too much about them,
In my heart, in my heart.

Even the notorious Sheriff Jim Clark was thus serenaded: "I love Jim Clark, in my heart, in my heart," always with a heavy emphasis on "heart."

In time, only love can break down some walls.

Which brings us back to November 1989, with joyous protesters swarming over the Berlin Wall, singing and dancing in what had been a killing field where East German soldiers once machine-gunned their own fleeing citizens. Certainly, the progressive regime of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had something to do with the events of twenty-five years ago.

But in the end, it was the people who toppled both the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, the East German government.

And yes, in the days that preceded the fall, and even on the Berlin Wall itself, there is TV footage and numerous reports of individuals and massive crowds singing "We Shall Overcome."

Some walls just take longer than others for love to tear them down.

Robert F. Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)