Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Our destination today is a few miles up the Alabama River - to a place where Highway 80 crosses the river on it’s way from Selma to Montgomery. Our destination is the National Voting Rights Museum at the east foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The museum used to sit on the other side of the bridge, on the west bank of the river in downtown Selma - but the building foundation got rotten and there was not enough money to fix it. The museum operates on a very tight budget.
So the decision was made to move it across the river, to the side where the Bloody Sunday beatings actually took place. Police beatings usually took place in alleys or jail cells - places where only the victim and the perpetrators would witness the crime. But on March 7, 1965 Alabama’s finest showed the world their faces. Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies, aided by Alabama State Troopers and a goon squad known as 'Clark’s Posse' attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators. This time there were cameras and the crime did not go unrecorded.
The reason for the beatings was a good one. Black residents of Alabama believed they should be allowed to register and vote like other Americans - a dangerous idea that had to be stopped! Whites knew they couldn’t stop it with argument and logic, so they fell back on beating and killing. It was all they knew - and it had always worked in the past. This time it backfired.
The march on Bloody Sunday was the culmination of a voter registration project that had been going on without success for several years. Alabama’s white power structure was determined to keep blacks from voting, and they enlisted the Ku Klux Klan as well as state and local police departments to threaten and intimidate the movement. In this they were encouraged and assisted by Governor George Wallace, and the white politicians of the towns and cities.
For two years this tactic worked, but in February 1965 a young black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper. Jackson, his mother and his 82 year old grandfather had been attacked by police during a peaceful march in Marion. When a trooper clubbed the old man to the ground his daughter tried to protect him. The trooper then began clubbing her and Jimmie Lee tried to protect his mother. The trooper shot him twice and killed him.
Outraged blacks needed a focus for their anger, and a march was planned from Selma to Montgomery - to lay responsibility for the murder at the steps of Governor Wallace and the state capital. Wallace denounced the march and said he would do everything in his power to stop it. State troopers were deployed to Selma, to assist the deputies of Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. As marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way out of town, this army of state and local might was waiting for them on the other side.
When marchers reached the police line they were told to turn back. Some knelt to pray and moments later police charged the marchers and started shoving them back. Police used horses, tear gas and clubs on peaceful and unresisting citizens, and photographs of the beaten and bloody victims were broadcast around the world. Evil won that battle - but Wallace, Clark and the troopers would lose the war.
The following Tuesday a second march was attempted, but it turned back peacefully when ordered to by court injunction. Twelve days later the injunction was lifted and a third march crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This time it was met by a federalized National Guard that protected it for the five days and nights it took to reach Montgomery. The march ended with a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered from the steps of the state capital where Jefferson Davis was once sworn in as President of the Confederacy. In that speech Dr. King assured his listeners that freedom would be ‘not long’ in coming. He was partially right, if a little optimistic.
45 years later Dr. King’s promise of 'freedom' is still not fully realized, but in less than six months after his speech President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Voter Rights Act outlawing state interference with voter registration. Dr. King and Rosa Parks attended the signing.
Today Selma and America have a black President. While that reality seemed impossible in 1965, the Selma to Montgomery march had set the stage. Visual images of the brutality being perpetrated by the State of Alabama exposed the South’s big lie. Radical segregationists were not innocents trying to preserve a charming and harmless social order, they were criminals carrying out state sponsored terrorism against non-whites.
This morning we found the National Voting Rights Museum and we parked on the other side of Highway 80 next to a small memorial park. A sign beside us said Welcome to Selma, and behind it stood the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A woman welcomed us at the entrance to the museum, and she gave us a brief introduction to the exhibits, which are still in the process of being set up in their new location.
In the interests of preserving photographs the lighting is low. Pictures are easier to view than text, which is small and hard to read. An Eyes on the Prize episode is playing on several videos, and there are artifacts and recreations that help tell the story. The following facts emerged from our conversation with the docent.
George Wallace eventually had something of a change of heart. In later campaigns he actually won the support of the black community, and in subsequent terms he appointed many blacks to offices and positions of power in the state. Sheriff Jim Clark went to his grave still claiming he did the right thing.
In it’s quest for fairness the museum has reached out to both sides and asked them to tell their stories. To this date only two whites have responded. One, the former mayor of Selma, offered a generic comment that avoids any mention of regret. The second was from a former Alabama State Trooper who had been sent up from Mobile to assist the operation in Selma. He was so troubled by what he witnessed that he resigned the force a few months later and never went back.
Leaving the museum we decided to walk across the bridge, going this time the opposite direction of the marchers and heading into Selma. To stand where so many heroes stood is a profoundly moving experience - and one we will never forget. Looking east from the top of the bridge one can imagine what the marchers must have felt when they first saw that wall of anger and hate. Would we have had the courage to march toward it? We can never know.
Our visit ended with lunch at the St. James Hotel, a venerable old structure on Selma’s riverfront. This afternoon black people and white people dined peacefully together, and the food was good. On our way out of town we stopped at a traffic light, and a billboard across the street was pasted up with an ad for the upcoming election. The candidate appeared in a picture with his family. They are black - and how fitting it is that this is our last image of Selma, as we leave it and head for Birmingham.
It should be noted that the National Voting Rights Museum represents all voting issues. While it focuses primarily on the events in Selma, it includes the battle for Women’s, Latino, Asian and Native American voting rights. It also strives to celebrate the common and unsung participants as well as the leaders.