Justice in Alabama

March 10, 2015 3 Comments
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Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on 3/8/15 by Jen Wilsea

The news channels have been flooded for the last few days with photos of the Obama family crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the very bridge that Alabama state troopers and local police would not allow peaceful voting rights activists to cross as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. That day is remembered as Bloody Sunday because police attacked the marchers with tear gas and billy clubs, resulting in the hospitalization of many protestors, including John Lewis.

Hour after hour ticked by as I stood on the main street in Selma on March 7, 2015. The sun was hot and I was getting sunburned. I stood in the middle of a sea of overwhelmingly Black Southerners waiting for our Black president to arrive. Words can’t describe the calm yet electric feeling in the air. It was powerful to wait, and to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge just a few blocks ahead, knowing that at any moment President Obama would stand there and speak to this crowd, this mostly Black, Southern crowd.

Every single one of us doing social and racial justice work in 2015 owes a great deal of gratitude to the freedom fighters, the ones whose names we know and the ones whose names we don’t, whose blood stained the pavement in Selma and whose feet marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were brave, they were creative and strategic, and they held a deep faith that justice would prevail. And yet we do these freedom fighters a disrespect if we simply say (as I have too often done) “nothing has changed in 50 years” and if we don’t acknowledge that they laid the ground work from which we now build. And we do these freedom fighters a disrespect if we don’t realize that “Selma is now” as Reverend William Barber says. Alabama is facing a triple threat of racist violence now that much of the rest of the nation is sorely uninformed about:

  • Immigration: HB56 is the harshest anti-immigrant legislation passed in any US state, making it a crime for undocumented immigrants to get library cards, housing, medicine and more; passed at a time when the majority of the fastest growing Latino and Asian immigrant populations are in Southern states 
  • Healthcare: 300,000 Alabamians are currently being denied their right to health care because they don’t qualify for Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act (AL chose not to expand Medicaid even though it would have been completely paid for by the federal government for three years); it is estimated that 700 people will die each year as a result
  • Voting Rights: Protections of voting rights won in 1965 as a direct result of activism in Selma and elsewhere are under threat, and disproportionately in the South

Selma is now because racist violence continues to manifest in insidious ways across the U.S.; and the South is where some of the harsher policies are being tested by legislators. Selma is now because some of the fiercest organizing is happening in the South in 2015 just as it was in 1965 while the rest of the country too often sees the South as backwards or ignores the South altogether. One of the most powerful movement building and Black&Brown power building stories I’ve heard in a long time is the story I heard this weekend of the mobilizing immigrants are leading across the state of Alabama with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. I was moved by the work the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama is doing, fighting for the right of Alabamians to health care. And I was moved by Reverend William Barber, founder of the Moral Mondays movement who is leading a North Carolina based Southern movement for voting rights, Medicaid expansion and more. 

As a white woman driving to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about Viola Liuzzo, an Italian American woman who drove from Detroit to Selma a few weeks after Bloody Sunday for the much larger march that successfully crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and ended in Montgomery, AL. Viola was shot by the KKK as she drove African American marchers home after the march. I drove past her memorial on the side of the highway as I drove home to Atlanta after the march in 2015. As a white Northerner making my home in the South in 2015, I am humbled by the depth of faith and fierceness of the fight and the warmth of heart that defines the long tradition of Southern organizing. Selma was a strategy by civil rights leaders in 1965 to make the nation uncomfortable about racial injustice, just like Ferguson is today. What risks am I willing to take? What sacrifices are we willing to make? Our time is now! May we honor those who came before, and may we fight with fierceness, joy and faith in the 21st century to end racial violence once and for all!

“With less than we had, they beat Jim Crow.
With less than they had, they were able to overcome.
If they did more with less, we can do more with more.

We must know who we are!

This is our Selma. Right now. Right here. Right now! Right here!

If you know who you are,
and you act like you know who you are,
then God will show up.

I believe that if we know who we are,
If we fight for voting rights,
If we refuse to take down,
If we stand up in this moment,
If we honor the memory of those who believe,
God will show up.

The Lord will make a way, 

Some how.
The Lord will,
Make a way,
Some how!

Selma is right now.
If we know who we are,
If we stand up,
the Lord Will,
The Lord will,
The Lord will,
Make a way,
SOME HOW. SAY YEAH!”

— Reverend Barber, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, AL 3.7.15

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To learn more about what happened on Bloody Sunday, the context surrounding that day and the significance of it in the struggle for voting rights, read this piece and watch the film Selma

3 Comments

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Jen for your beautiful reflections and powerful reminders!

  • Abe Lateiner says:

    Jen, thank you so much for reporting back from your trip. It’s powerful to be reminded that there is so much happening underneath the surface of what is commonly known to outsiders. I especially appreciate Rev. Barber’s closing words!!!!

  • Sara Oaklander says:

    Powerful reflections, Jen. And I appreciate the reminders – beyond what we know and see all around us here in the north – of how Selma is today, now ever more so in the south.

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