I had the privilege of being in Selma, Alabama on March 7. It was a privilege because I knew what had happened there 50 years ago, but what made it really special was that I drove down with my friend Bob Sherrell, an Oak Park resident, who had been there in 1965 and was kicked and tear-gassed by some white folks who weren’t very happy with the prospect of their black neighbors getting the vote.
Some folks got in touch with what happened a half-century ago at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by watching Selma, the movie. But I got to go back in time with my friend who had actually participated in that historic event. In many ways I experienced history through his eyes.
On the drive south from Forest Park, Sherrell talked about how he felt half a century ago as he rode through what many African Americans called the “Cotton Curtain” at the Tennessee/Alabama border.
“Now that I’m in the Deep South,” he recalled, “I’m remembering my parents leaving that part of the country and their reason for leaving it was out of fear. What I was dealing with, then, was partly fear of the unknown because I had heard so much about the intimidation. I was on edge thinking that at one point that was going to happen to me, and ultimately it did.
“When I came into Alabama, the first thing I saw was the White Citizens Council billboards and signs that the KKK was active. My stomach started churning. The thought of Emmett Till being lynched came to mind. My fear was, “What have I gotten into?” but it was too late to turn back. My Uncle Eddie would talk about driving to Alabama at night to hide the Land of Lincoln license plates being seen.”
After Sherrell got off the Trailways bus, he was kicked from behind by a white woman and tear-gassed as the group of about 600 activists attempted to cross the bridge just outside of Selma. State police clubbed the fleeing protestors with batons. My friend limped back home on another Trailways bus feeling defeated and very disrespected.
Fifty years can make a difference. When people at the gathering a week and a half ago learned that Sherrell had “been here” in 1965, they treated him as a hero and a celebrity, even though he felt like neither 50 years ago. People posed for pictures with him and asked him to tell stories of what it was like.
This time around he wasn’t alone. Friends were with him. Neither were his surroundings so out of control, dependent, for instance, on what a bus driver would be willing to do to accommodate his needs.
This time he was driving his own car.
And this time there was snow on the ground in Alabama! Even nature seemed to be helping make the transition into the Deep South a little more familiar.
What we encountered in Selma, first of all, was a huge traffic jam. We saw license plates from Georgia, Virginia, Minnesota, Maryland, Louisiana, Ohio, California and Kansas as we sat for an hour in traffic on Lurleen B. Wallace Blvd. as we inched toward the center of town where a throng of 70,000 was gathering. A film crew from Germany was part of the huge crowd of media people all aiming their cameras at America’s first African American president.
White participants were clearly a minority on that sunny Saturday. I estimate that the gathering was 95% African American, yet strangely I didn’t feel like a minority. Many of the people I encountered were wearing T-shirts printed with “Hands Up” and “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” and the most popular, “50 Year Celebration,” but I didn’t feel like they were angry at me personally. In fact, no one seemed angry.
What I sensed was not anger but a bit of vindication and celebration and pride and comfort in their own skin. When Pres. Obama walked to the podium with the bridge in the background, a roar went up that I could not only hear but feel even though I was four blocks from the stage. The crowd was that large.
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this,” he said, “what greater form of patriotism is there, than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
“This is like a dream,” Sherrell said during the 14-hour drive home that night. Fifty years ago he felt disrespect and terror. This time he felt respect, not only from African Americans, but even the mostly white security and police officers addressed him as “Sir.” When he had a drop in blood sugar and was feeling faint, a woman ran to get him a coke. Fifty years ago, he had been tear-gassed. This time he felt cared for.
And so did I. Many times people in the crowd asked if I needed help getting my walker over a high curb. They even let me cut in line at a porta potty.
On the way home, Sherrell noted, with genuine satisfaction, that the struggle had not been in vain. The Voting Rights Act had been passed and he himself had been elected a village trustee in Oak Park and had helped change the culture of the police department there.
That said, he hastened to add, “When you write the story, make sure you note that Selma is still very poor and blighted.”
The march continues.