Selma at 50
Exactly 50 years ago this March 15, I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. A few weeks before, the police had badly mauled another march of Dr. King. He asked allies in the northern states to join him in Selma, and the New York archdiocese responded by sending 25 priests, including myself.
(I have written on Selma before, but this is the golden anniversary of the event that some writers, including Dr. King, believe to be the high point of the Civil Rights Movement. It deserves whatever light people can shed on it.)
Early that day we drove by the reddish, rock-hard fields of Alabama from the airport to Selma. Nothing grew on those fields; it was too early in the year. Truly, it was a desolate scene, but there were Afro-American children waving at us, and children are always a sign of hope.
The organizers put the New York priests high up above the pulpit with the organist. Special guests spoke, including Walter Reuther, head of the United Automobile Workers, and then as Reverend King took the pulpit, the crowd roared, the photographers set off explosions of light that half blinded us, and we heard his familiar, mellow, confident voice. I don’t remember everything he said, but he talked about the dangers of the work and the possibility of death, as he often did in the last years of his life. To die a martyr in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity didn’t seem like a bad way to end up.
We lined up outside the church. We said our prayers together and then we started out. We were cheered in the area near the church, but in the central city we were met with stony silence. Nothing happened, however. I admired the young Afro-Americans around us. Some had been injured in the previous march.
Those of us from New York felt we were fortunate to be there.
The church people served us corn on the cob and Southern Fried Chicken, which was delicious. Then three of us went for a walk in Selma. We were from New York—a white priest from the parish where I worked in the South Bronx, an Afro-American priest who taught at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, and myself. It was dark now. No one seemed to notice us, and then a police cruiser raced down the street, made a screeching U-turn beside us and bounded up on the sidewalk, just as in the movies. Two deputies got out and were shouting at us. At first we couldn’t understand what they were saying. To be shouted at by armed policemen who you know don’t like your guts is numbing. I can sympathize with people who say they didn’t hear the police say, “drop your gun” or “get down on the ground.” The yelling and guns are traumatic; you don’t function well.
It was just as well we didn’t hear everything. They were telling us “to get our white and black a_ _ _s out of Selma” and variants on that theme. We went back to the church. People there told us they were used to treatment like that.
On the radio that night we heard President Lyndon B. Johnson announce the new Voting Rights bill that the civil rights groups supported had passed and was now a law. We sang “We Shall Overcome” around a campfire.
What are the lessons for the Philippines from this iconic nonviolent march for human dignity and human rights? What are the lessons for social activists?
One concrete lesson may be that we should always insist that the causes for which we struggle end up instituted in a law. What has remained operative of the Civil Rights Movement are the laws passed against racial abuse in its different forms, including the Voting Rights Law. Events like Edsa 1 have great impact at the time they happen, but when the spirit of such events is not embodied in concrete laws, they tend to fade in importance.
Shortly after Edsa, Filipinos should have insisted that a good land reform law, laws that would end forced evictions, laws creating public works programs, and other necessary measures benefiting ordinary people be enacted by President Cory Aquino, using the total powers she had then. She could also have set a debt repayment policy more favorable to the Philippines.
We hope that someday we will have racial peace in every human heart, but in the meantime let’s insist on law.
Dr. King would later write, “the paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma and like a giant X began to diverge” (“America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon—What Happened and Why” by Godfrey Hodgson). The Selma drama, together with the passage of the Voter Rights Law, was for many the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King would be dead in three years. More radical activists were already present in 1964 and 1965, challenging his leadership.
Among many ordinary Afro-American people, the feeling was, and still is, that nothing much has changed—black people still find racial problems in securing good jobs and housing. Racial bias is still widespread.
When I got back to New York City on March 17, it was St. Patrick’s Day, the day of Irish parades and parties. I took part in them, of course, but I never forgot Selma.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).