Events In Selma Changed Our World

The recent re-enactment of the Selma to Montgomery March commemorating the 1965 Voting Rights March created reflections and caused comparisons. Older people reflected upon their lives thirty years ago, while young people tried to grasp the significance of that historic event.

Much has changed in thirty years. Then, Governor George Wallace was determined to maintain white privilege through state-enforced racial segregation. It was a time when relatively few non-white citizens could have voted for the Governor of Alabama. He shunned marchers, and refused to protect them from hostile, vicious, white law enforcement officers. State Troopers and mounted Dallas County Sheriff Deputies manifested the State’s official response to the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

As a result, President Lyndon Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent U.S. Marshals to protect one group of Americans from another.

Federal troops were not enough to protect Viola Liuzzo, a young mother from Detroit, ferrying a young marcher back to Selma from Montgomery. A marker along the route distinguishes the place where a nameless coward, intoxicated with racist rhetoric and feeling threatened by the concept of racial equality, shot Mrs. Liuzzo dead. Now, thirty years after her death, Viola Liuzzo’s devotion to racial equality lives, while the racist political venom that caused her death seeps from only the lowest quarters of white society.

Ironically, the white violence directed against civil rights demonstrators served as a potent force for civil rights. Within months after ‘Bloody Sunday,’ Congress enacted the 1965 Voting Rights Act guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote.

The blanket franchise for violence against non-white people, that some politicians routinely granted through their rhetoric to a certain class of weak-minded whites, is no longer valid. Bryon de la Beckwith found this out. Last year, a Mississippi court sent him to prison for murdering Medgar Evers, a Mississippi field representative for the NAACP, three decades ago. Morris Dees and lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center have made racial violence costly for its perpetrators. This is not to say that racial violence is behind us. What it says is that when racial violence does seep out, we have the political structure to manage it democratically.

Today in Alabama, government-sanctioned violence directed against black people is not the issue it was thirty years ago. Integration of law enforcement agencies arrested most of this type of violence against African American citizens. Bull Conner’s fire hoses and police dogs are no longer standard equipment at the Birmingham Police Department. Jim Clark’s mounted Posse and deputies, along with state troopers, utilizing baseball-bats as nightsticks are long gone from the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Selma is a different city today. It is not the same city where, thirty years ago, law enforcement officers fractured future Congressman John Lewis’ skull because he wanted the right to vote. Selma has changed. Today, Mayor Joe Smitherman, who tried his best three decades ago to chase voting rights marchers out of Selma, welcomed them with a key to the city.

In 1995, Alabama is different. America is different. The world is indeed different, all because of what took place in Selma, Alabama thirty years ago. These events in Selma ignited a burning desire for freedom and liberty that flamed across South America leaving democracy in its wake. The people of the Soviet Union, imbued with the desire for freedom flaming out of Selma, reconstructed their nation of totalitarianism into one of democracy. Africa caught freedom’s fire and democratic flames destroyed South Africa’s dehumanizing Apartheid system. Oppressed people all over the world learned to view Selma, Alabama as a paradigm of the struggle for freedom.

In Montgomery, the more some things change, the more they remain the same. In 1965, Alabama’s Governor refused to meet marchers. Then Governor Wallace, acting on what he called a mandate from the voters of Alabama, used all his power to obstruct the marchers. He has since expressed his regrets for trying to prevent the original march. He has since apologized for what he did as governor to inflame racial animosity against African American citizens. To make some amends for his conduct in 1965, Governor Wallace waited at the City of St. Jude in 1995 to welcome marchers when they arrived.

Just as Governor Wallace refused to meet with the voting rights marchers in 1965, Governor Fob James refused to meet with the 1995 marchers. However, Governor James’ situation in 1995 isn’t quite the same as Wallace’s 1965 situation. Then, a white electorate put George Wallace in office. Wallace didn’t feel any obligation to share the honor of the governor’s office with a group of folks who could not vote. It is not yet clear why Governor James, who received a significant black vote, refused.

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Originally Published: 22 March 1995, Montgomery Advertiser

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