Saturday, March 07, 2015

Voices in the crowd at the Selma jubilee

There were some great speeches today at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, as part of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and all that followed. Here are a few additional thoughts from other everyday people around me in the crowd - which was unlike any other sea of humanity I've ever found myself in, by the way. Incredibly massive, friendly and hope-filled.

68-year-old Erskine McKinnon, who marched 50 years ago, was just ahead of me in line.
"In 1965 I was a student at Alabama A&M University … We were able to come to St. Jude Catholic School and march all the way to the state capitol in Montgomery. So this is something that, after retirement, that I just had to come back to, to reminisce about the time when we were here, in the beginning ... Things have changed, but not changed. I think right now the state of Alabama is going to need to look at more economic development and trying to develop rural communities like Selma and Tuskegee – some of those counties – Dallas, Macon, Wilcox – are some of the poorest counties in the nation as far as minorities. They’re a large population but economic development is not what it should be. So hopefully this gathering at Selma will put a new look at the needs – even though we have the president here, there are some needs that are greater than President Obama as far as economic development and job opportunities."

Olympia Vernon (at right), a high school teacher in Louisiana, brought along three students eager to attend after watching Selma on a recent band trip.

The 11th graders each recited a stanza from Edna St. Vincent Millay's 1934 poem "Conscientious Objector," which begins, "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. / I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. / He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up."

High school sophomore Terrance Allen traveled in from Demopolis, Alabama, to understand more of the history of the civil rights movement. The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, also spurred him to attend.

"I have to come out and support, because there were people who didn't have the right to vote, and here today I have the right to vote ... we need to move forward and not take two steps back or ten steps back."
Eldridge Allen of Covington, Louisiana, told me he's struck by how "we're still so divided in this country."

"An event like this is great, but you don’t stop for one day. It should happen every day. And every day a person should voice their opinion about the ills in this country. They always say 'black and white,' but I try not to use that, because if you look at each and every individual as a human being,then, you know,  you have more respect for that person.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what kind of job you have, where you live – you're still a human being. When my kids were small, I used to tell them, ‘When you leave out of this door, you're representatives of this family. And you have to treat and respect everybody that you come across. And I think if our whole of society would start doing that, I think we would have a whole lot better country than we have now, that’s divided. You don’t have to look any further than the Democrats and Republicans in Congress."

Beverly Bunting of Slidell, Louisiana, said it was a historic moment for her (at right, below).

"I felt like this would be something I could tell my grandchildren and children about."

Two students from an interfaith group in Boston each described the experience of being in Selma as surreal. The one pictured on the far left, below, called it sacred ground.

"I think that the battle against discrimination, the battle for racial equality when it comes to policy and healthcare policy, educational access, urban development and the disenfranchisement of economically underprivileged folks, and also the criminal justice system and law enforcement – there are a lot of issues still to be tackled. I think it gets overwhelming to think of them all at the same time, but as long as we sort of find our niche, whether it’s through interfaith work, social work, policy related, or teaching, I think everyone plays a part."

Laura Hill, at far right in the picture above, is with the League of Women Voters and met up with friend Carey Cauthen (second from right).

"I was registering people to vote before I turned 18," Laura said. "And the first thing I did when I turned 18 was register to vote. Voting rights is what’s driven me for most of my life ... I am grateful to the people who experienced the trauma and the heartache on this bridge 50 years ago, because it changed the world I grew up in, and it’s a better world … I love seeing all the people here from across the state and around the country. It seems like so many decided like within the past week or two to do it, and it’s just really exciting."