Standing on a podium at the approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alambama yesterday, President Obama said, “Because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.”
He could have added the name of an Oak Park resident name Bob Sherrell.
Sherrell was 26 years old when he boarded a Trailways Bus to Selma and joined 500-600 marchers as they set out to cross the same bridge where Pres. Obama spoke 50 years later. As they approached the bridge , commanding police officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. When they did not, the state troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground, beating them with nightsticks and firing tear gas. Sherrill was blinded by the gas and, choking, fell back.
His parents had warned him not to go. His father called him and “educated fool.”
Sherrill recalled being “naïve” and feeling alone and scared as he rode the bus through what black folk called the “cotton curtain” at the Tennessee/Alabama border into the heart of the deep South. Fifty years ago he was disrespected and abused.
Half a century later, he returned to Selma not only respected but treated as something of a hero. When people learned that he “had been there,” they asked if they could pose with him for pictures and asked them to tell them what it had been like.
“Fifty years ago,” he said, “I left Selma depressed and ashamed, dour. “Yesterday I felt proud. The struggle had not been in vain. The mood of the crowd, which numbered between fifty and a hundred thousand and was 95% African American, was festive. We were like minded. When Pres. Obama was announced a thunderous shout went up, because he kind of embodied the dream we had.”
The first African American said in his speech, “What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?”
Obama added, “It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”