The late U.S. Congressman John Lewis has crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge for the final time as remembrances continue for the civil rights icon. A processional with Lewis' casket was carried across the bridge where he and other civil rights marchers were beaten fifty five years ago on "Bloody Sunday," a key event in the fight for voting rights for African Americans. Lewis will lie in repose at the Alabama Capitol on Sunday afternoon. Lewis figured prominently in Alabama Public Radio's international award winning documentary "More Bridges to Cross."
“At that time, we’d been singing songs, we shall overcome, and before I’d be a slave…be dead and buried in my grave,” says Bennie Lee Tucker. He’s seventy four years old, and he spent the last fifty five of those years here in Selma. “And we gonna let nobody turn us around, no more Governor Wallace…no more white folk,” he says.
On the front porch of his home on Eugene Avenue, Tucker recalls March 7th, 1965. It was the height of the voting rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior wasn’t the name on everyone’s mind that day.
“They were saying, John Lewis, and James Austin, let’s go to Montgomery. And, we’ll take the body of Jimmie Lee Jackson and put it on the state Capitol, and let Governor Wallace know what he had done, and his people.” Civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson died nine days before after being shot by an Alabama state trooper… . “And so, it was decided that the casket was too heavy to carry fifty miles, so we’ll just walk,” says Tucker. “And, we started to walk and we were met with the tear gas.”
State troopers met Tucker and the other voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge that connected Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery. The lawmen used tear gas and clubs to beat back the crowd. The day became known as “bloody Sunday.” Fifty years later, the day we sat down with on the porch with Bennie Lee Tucker, an estimated crowd of seventy thousand people were gathering on Water Avenue and Broad Street in Selma to remember “bloody Sunday.”
“Hello, this is Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. And, I’m going to leave you with my mother’s words…’which is struggle is a never ending process, freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.’ And, I say to you we have been called into this freedom struggle. And , we have a responsibility to do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has the right to vote, and it is protected, and also that everyone is able to prosper in this American economy. And, so we have tremendous work to do in this generation to ensure democracy and equality for all people…”
“This is the reverend Jesse Jackson. The victory at Selma was the protected right to vote, which had been denied since 1870. And since section four (of the Voting Rights Act) has been gutted, the Voting Rights Act oversight, and because of that, they’re impacting the black districts, and marginalizing the black vote. Even though they are being elected, they’re being marginalized. There’s nothing much to celebrate…we’re under attack. We should be protesting, not just celebrating. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted.”
“Hello, this Governor Robert Bentley. I was at the University of the Alabama when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, to keep black students from entering. So, I’m been a part of this for a long time, and I’ve seen it progress, it’s somewhat ironic that fifty years later, that young student at that time is now governor of the State of Alabama, because we are a different State, and I’m proud to say we are a different state than we were then.”
“If some had told me when we were crossing that bridge, that one day I’d be back here today, introducing the first African American President,” said Congressman and Civil Rights Activist John Lewis. “I would have said you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about…(introducing) President Barack Obama.”
“So much of our turbulent history…” said Obama. “The stain of slavery and anguish of Civil War, the yoke of segregation and the tyranny of Jim Crowe, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dreams of a Baptist preacher…all of that met on this bridge.”
“This is what we call history,” says Veronica McMillan who grew up near Selma. “Fifty years since Dr. King crossed this bridge and ‘bloody Sunday,’ and all that our people went through. I can’t say I did, I was one year old at that time. But, my grandparents did, and I’m walking in honor of them.”
“My name is Terri Sewell. And, I would wish everyone today to realize the message of Selma, which is a message about social change. It means all Americans, everyday Americans can do extraordinary things.”
“I can’t tell you exactly when,” recalls Sewell. “But, I can tell you, I was five years old, and my mom told me about segregation and the bridge, as we were crossing the bridge. We had just left Lowndes County, my mother grew up in Lowndes County, and we were visiting my grandparents.” Sewell grew up in Selma. She’s also the first African American woman ever elected to Congress in Alabama. “And, from a very young age, I was cognizant of the importance of the bridge. But, for us it becomes the conduit to get home,” says Sewell.
A few days after the Bloody Sunday remembrance, Sewell was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Alabama’s Women’s Hall of Fame in the town of Marion near Selma. One of the inductees wrote Alabama’s state song, which the crowd sang before Sewell’s remarks. Today’s event was for Alabama storyteller the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. A plaque for Coretta Scott King hangs on the hall of fame here along with one for Rosa Parks. Outside is another marker. It’s on the spot where Jimmie Lee Jackson was gunned down. So, Selma was high on everyone’s mind…
“My Daddy’s Selma didn’t have many African American voters,” Sewell told the crowd. “My Daddy’s Selma…he learned how to play golf as a caddy at midnight at the Selma Country Club. My Selma, I was nurtured and loved and told I could be anything I wanted to be.”
For Sewell, the Selma she grew up in prepared her for law school and Congress. Women’s soccer star Mia Hamm and Michael Johnson of the NFL are from Selma. Sewell says she sees the town differently from other people.
“I don’t think that we, who are the caretakers of the civil rights movement, view the Edmund Pettus bridge with such awe and excitement as others. Once a year, people come and commemorate that bridge and celebrate the significance of that bridge, and I believe the commemorations are great. But, the best tribute we can give the foot soldiers who sacrificed so much on that bridge is to vote in as many elections as we possibly can.”
The Selma that welcomed thousands of visitors and reporters from around the world appeared rundown. Many home and buildings were abandoned and windows were broken. Local residents worried aloud that the bright light of media coverage would paint their town as a community in shambles. One couple from Atlanta doesn’t see Selma and its history as a bad thing. And, their optimism is prompting plans for a different kind of march and that’s raising eyebrows locally. APR’s Stan Ingold explains…
This is how the world remembers March 7, 1965 in the town of Selma. Voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge met by State Police Troopers and a Sheriff’s posse armed with clubs and tear gas. News footage of the attack poured out of black and white television sets and into living rooms nationwide. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“It may have started out as something so negative but it depends on how you look at it, cause the strength of the people made it more so a beautiful thing.”
I met Sonja Houston at the Saint James Hotel right next to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. She grew up here and she wants to associate some positive memories with the iconic bridge and its place in civil rights history… “A year and half or two years ago, I thought it would be so beautiful if I could have my wedding ceremony someday, I wasn’t engaged yet, have my ceremony out here, it’s just beautiful.” If Houston gets her way, her wedding photos will include the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the backdrop… “Because it has so much character, history, it’s the main focal point of Selma, when you think of Selma or any outsiders think of Selma. Why I want to come home to Selma is because it is home to me.”
Like any bride-to-be, Houston has enlisted help in getting everything organized for the big day. Rebecca Nichols is the couple’s wedding planner. She and her husband help plan and organize weddings all over the state, but she says using the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a first… “When Sonja called me and said she wanted to get married down there, I was so excited because we love a good challenge. It’s different and no one has done it before so it’s exciting, and it’s exciting for Selma because if we can get some kind of policy in place for this, Selma could really become a destination wedding place.”
We make our way from the St. James hotel around the block to the City Walk where Houston hopes her wedding can be held… The City Walk runs alongside the Alabama River and provides a clear view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge… Couples who get married in Selma typically flock to neighborhood parks or stately plantation homes for the big day.
Nichols says Houston’s goal of using the Edmund Pettus Bridge carries more complications than where to put the flowers and the dance band. “The city’s concern is that they have no way for us to actually reserve it because you can’t block it off or keep people from coming down here and I think their concern is because it is public area and there is a walking trail right by the river that there will be public coming in and out and I don’t think we’re that opposed to it, they’d get to see a beautiful ceremony.”
And Houston’s big day isn’t the only thing on the minds of city leaders in Selma. The town is going into high gear for the fiftieth anniversary jubilee of bloody Sunday. This is where we find James Benderson, he is the Director of city planning and development. His office also handles special events for the city.
“So if someone wants to have a wedding, bar mitzvah, or baby shower, whatever they want to do in the park, you know, depending on the season they would just make application at the mayor’s office typically and it would get funneled down to planning and development.”
Benderson says the application process is actually pretty easy… “It’s kind of simple, just fill out the paper work and we look at it and see if we can accommodate you and make sure, we want to know when, where, how many people, if you need police presence, if you need chairs, tables that kind of thing and the amount of staffing it takes, determining what the fee and cost is.”
He says he isn’t shocked someone wants to be married there, he says what does surprise him is the lack people asking… “Believe it or not a lot of people who live here in Selma, a lot of times they don’t even recognize the amenities they have in their own back yard. They don’t even know that “Oh that’s a beautiful place, I could have a wedding, or a family reunion or something like that,” I probably presume that is why we haven’t gotten a lot of requests about it.”
Houston says while the Edmund Pettus Bridge conjures images of brutality and struggle it also represents the beginning of something good and what she believes ultimately is beautiful…
“The people who made it such a beautiful thing are people I am related to, they are the people I come from, they’re the people we have attachments and bonds too and why I was able to grow in Selma and go to integrated schools and walk the whole city it seems with no problem.” And Sonja hopes to add to this beauty by beginning her married life in the shadow of one of the most infamous sites of the Civil Rights Movement…
“We were beaten…tear gassed…some of us were left bloody right here on this bridge,” recalled Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis who was among the foot soldiers on ‘bloody Sunday.’ “Seventeen of us were hospitalized on that day. But, we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing that the truth we stood for would help to follow us there,” said Lewis. “ This city, on the banks of the Alabama river, gave birth to a movement that changed this nation forever. Our country will never, ever, be the same because of what happened on this bridge.”
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama compared Selma to sites of historic change like Appomattox during the U.S. Civil War. Historians says that’s appropriate, since 1865-- and not 1965-- represented Selma’s first march to freedom…
Once the crowds commemorating the voting rights marches go home, another event is planned. Next month is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Selma during the civil war. During the 2013 re-enactment of the campaign, Civil war buffs in full costume fire blanks at each other to re-create the fight between Union general James Wilson and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1865. It’s where events in 1965 and 1865 intersect that has the attention of historians…
“Well, the first thing is that I got goosebumps all over my body…”
Linda Derry is one of those historians. She met us at the Cahawba archeological site not far from where the battle of Selma took place. Derry is the director. The reason for her excitement takes a little explaining… Derry and I tramp through the forest to an archeological dig where the Alabama and Cahaba rivers meet. She says after Union General Wilson beat Confederate general Forrest, they met at the house that once stood here…
“And what did they do, they get together and they have dinner. And after dinner, they went into parlor and I imagine they had cigars and cordials, I don’t know, and I betcha that what they did, and had a nice sit down conversation and they sized each other up…”
It’s an entry in General Wilson’s memoirs about what happened next that Derry says gave her goose bumps.
“…but a great number of fugitives from the surrounding country flocked into the town and our march to the Eastward had hardly begun when it became apparent that new crowds were following us, which made vigorous measures necessary for getting rid of them."
And by fugitives, historians say Wilson meant freed black slaves…
"The rear guard could keep them behind, but could not prevent them from taking the path to freedom…”
“And then looking at where they were marching,” says Derry. “They were marching from Selma to Bentonville to Lownesborough to Montgomery and those are exactly, the exactly the same route, that the civil rights marchers took.”
“Now, during the Selma expedition, thousands of slaves did, in fact, fall in with Wilson and were led out of slavery," says Edward Longacre. He's a retired historian with the U.S. Department of Defense. He’s written over twenty books on the Civil War. His first was a biography of General Wilson. “Anytime Union armies invaded the south and were in such numbers to offer protection and security, hundreds if not thousands of slaves fled local plantations and joined the army in the hope of being led out of bondage…”
And then there were the battles where things didn’t turn out so well. One year before the battle of Selma, General Wilson’s cavalry fought in the battle of Staunton River Bridge in Virgnia. Longacre says slaves flocked to Wilson’s troops for help, but that time the Union side was losing the fight…
“Wilson’s men had, basically, to flee every man on his own. And they left behind hundreds of slaves who had fallen in with the columns, and they were quickly captured and returned to their masters.”
Despite the local popularity of the battle of Selma, Wilson’s trek to Montgomery along the same route as the 1965 voting rights marchers might have been lost to history. It was mentioned in a couple of paragraphs in his memoirs written in 1912. Longacre has a simple answer on why both Wilson was almost forgotten along with the battle of Selma…
“It lacks strategic importance. It didn’t really contribute anything to the Union causes because the South was already on the ropes, and its armies were surrounding. For that reason, his main accomplishment to the war was overlooked.”
Despite that fact, Civil War re-enactors will gather in Selma next month to remember the battle of Selma on it’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary—one hundred years before “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge..
“We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans, willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod,” said President Obama. “Tear gas, and the trampling hoof. Men and women, who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone, would keep true to their north star and keep marching toward justice. They did as scripture instructed….’rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation…be constant in prayer.”
“Bloody Sunday” and the Selma voting rights marches may be fresh in the memories of our parents and grandparents, but what about young people born this time in the civil rights movement? In the days leading up to the remembrance of events on the Edmund Pettus bridge, journalism students at the University of Alabama got the chance to experience the story themselves. This includes Alabama Public Radio newsroom intern Sarah Sherill…
Asking directions in a strange town is never easy, says Sherill. My classmate Katie Shepherd and I aren’t looking for a restaurant or a hotel. We’re in search of history. We’re in Selma and we’re trying to find places like Ebenezer Baptist Church. That’s where people like Dr. Martin Luther King Junior helped to inspire the voting rights march in 1965. But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Our trip began weeks ago during class at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa…
“One of the things I really love is getting out of the office,” says Justin Averette. He’s one of the editors of the Selma Times-Journal. He came to class with a question… “How many of you are from out of state?”
Almost every hand went up, but mine didn’t. I’m from Decatur. But, the only stories I ever heard about the days of the civil rights movement came from my grandmother’s caregiver. She’s black and in her eighties, so was she was an adult when Bloody Sunday took place.
“My grandmother mentioned that she actually was in Selma…” That’s my classmate Katie… “But, I don’t think they participated…being white people,” says Shepherd. “But I know that my grand dad was there for the stand in the schoolhouse door. And they were in Selma…”
“Back in January, we decided to do a commemorative edition on Selma…” Averette continued during his visit to our class. Justin Averette came to our class to get help covering the fiftieth anniversary. Katie and I signed on to do interviews and write copy.
That’s how we came to be asking directions from strangers in Selma. During the drive to Ebenezer Baptist Church, we did pass the man selling veggies out of his truck… Reese met us at the door. He was a gray suit. And, his deeply wrinkled face looked tired. It was a sharp contrast to the black and white photos of him in the 1960’s alongside Dr. King. He was jailed during the voting rights march…
“How many days do you stay in the jail?” Katie asked. “I forget how many days I stayed in there,” responded Reese. “But, certainly we were in there several days. There were those of us who couldn’t sing as well as others. But, those who could sing . We would sing in jail, pray in jail, and hope something would happen.” “I heard stories about while ya’ll were in the Selma City jail, that you refused to eat baloney sandwiches and collard greens, It that a true story?” Katie continued. “That’s true,” said Reese “Could you tell me more of that?” she asked. “They were trying to indicate that because we were in jail, that our main food, collard greens and corn bread and so forth, so were determined to not eat the food they had prepared,” recalled Reese. “And then look forward to the time we were going to get out of jail, and eat of that good home cooked food.”
“It was…I mean who gets to do that?” said Katie as we drove onto our next stop. ”Who gets to interview the man who invited Dr. King to Selma. It’s humbling and I’ll never forget it in a million years. This is something I'll tell my kids.”
My story came next and the woman we’re talking to grew up among iconic images of the civil rights movement. Her name is Tracy Martin. Her father was Spider Martin. He was a news photographer who spent five weeks covering Selma and bloody Sunday… “I would just see dad’s stuff in his studio for years, and I knew what I knew. But then there was all this new interest in it…”
Martin says the opening of the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery in the 1990’s put the spotlight on her father’s work. His photos include images of King giving speeches and the attack on civil rights marchers. Tracy says it was a far cry from the reception her dad’s pictures got in 1965…
“They didn’t want it in the newspaper anymore. They would sabotage his film so it wouldn’t even get the opportunity to get it in the newspaper…” Spider Martin’s photos are now part of a photographic archive in Texas…
With the day drawing to a close, we made one last stop before heading back to Tuscaloosa. We went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It forms what looks like a gray steel cage over the Alabama River. It seems strange that drivers go to and from work every day over such an iconic landmark. We walked the length of the bridge just as the voting right’s marchers tried to do in 1965. An official march is planned to remember the fiftieth anniversary of bloody Sunday.
“It’s amazing! A big turnout! It’s a lot of confusion.”
Tony Bennett, no relation to the singer, came from Atlanta for the 50th anniversary remembrance on the Edmund Pettus bridge. He wasn’t alone.
“You know, I wasn’t expecting this huge a number of people. It’s really difficult getting in and getting out.”
An estimated seventy thousand people crowded three blocks around the bridge…
“We’ve come a long, long way. But we have a long way to go and many more bridges to cross.” Back on the porch with Bennie Lee Tucker in Selma, he recalled the second march that happened days later. Tucker says he had a job to do that day. “Reverend Tucker,” he says. “We want you to stand up and guard him. And if you see someone going to shoot him, you throw your body over him and take the bullet. And, I said I’ll do it.”
The Voting Rights Act was signed in August of that year. Tucker says it’s up to the next generation to take it from here.
“If they don’t register to vote, they’ll be right back where they started back in slavery again. But, now they have to make up their minds, there’s no turning back. They got to stop the killing, pull up their pants, go to church, and realize they’re all brothers and sisters.”
And, Tucker wonders what fifty years from now will be like.