We arrived in Selma on Sunday afternoon, just as the jubilee was wrapping up and the politicians were heading out of town.
This year marks the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when sheriff’s deputies attacked civil-rights marchers and drove them back from the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River.
This past weekend the town marked the anniversary. You probably heard about it on the news. Joe Biden got a warm welcome, and people turned their backs on Mike Bloomberg. Lots of Presidential candidates joined the march across the bridge, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was injured in the 1965 march, gave a stirring speech in which he urged people to honor the memory of the march by voting.
We missed it all by a day. We wanted to stop in Selma on our trip west, but we didn’t know this was the weekend of the jubilee, as they call it here. We couldn’t find a place to stay on Saturday night, so we came on Sunday, driving past a long line of cars leaving after the event.
Even though we missed the festivities, we marked the anniversary in our own way. We went to the Selma Interpretive Center, run by the National Park Service, at the foot of the bridge. They have knowledgeable park rangers and terrific exhibits on the history of the marches. (There were three: the Bloody Sunday march; a second march, led by Martin Luther King, that turned back at the bridge because of a federal court order; and the final, three-day, 50-mile march that went all the way to the state capitol in Montgomery under the protection of Alabama Nation Guard troops nationalized by LBJ.) Five months after the events in Selma, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
We also visited the National Voting Rights Museum, a private facility on the other end of the bridge. It too had excellent exhibits. As we drove across the bridge, some young people were holding up signs supporting candidates in Tuesday’s primary. One said, appropriately, “Vote or die.”
Selma is a city of 20,000 people, 80 percent of whom are black. It calls itself “The Queen City of the Black Belt,” but it was obvious that the town has seen better days. It has quite a few nice houses, many in the southern style, but many were boarded up or in varying states of disrepair. It was sad to see. I guess civil-rights tourism is not enough to build an economy around.
One thing I wondered was whether any consideration had been given to changing the name of the bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general and reportedly a top leader of the Ku Klux Klan, not exactly someone who should be honored. There was a push at the time of the 50th anniversary to rename the bridge, but it went nowhere because the bridge is such a symbol of the civil-rights movement. Lately there has been some talk of naming it for John Lewis, but even he doesn’t want that.