We knew we would go to march in Selma this March, even though we had no idea what to expect. This turned out to be no mere commemoration or empty celebration. It was neither dreary nor overly dramatic nor angrily defiant but that rare mix of unflagging love and courageous determination on which revolutions are made.
While a range of social and political views were surely represented, a collective spirit connected everyone, the spirit saying the dream lives on, not in some abstract utopia but in a variety of everyday struggles. Even though the crowd represented every age, race, religion, or region one could imagine, its majority was African-American. Marching in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the historic “Bloody Sunday” (and the two marches that followed)—this weekend adventure transcended every anxiety and anticipation.
The official sponsor of our journey was the Tree House Living and Learning Village at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, and our village officers collaborated with the faculty and administrative leaders to make this trip a reality; this was our first-ever proper “alternative spring break.” Our 17-person contingent—that left very early on the morning of Saturday, March 7 and returned in the wee hours of very early Monday, March 9—included two Tennessee Tech professors, three administrators and staff, ten students, and two guests, the seven-year-old daughter of one staffperson and my 74-year-old mother. My father, who passed last year after a long struggle with Parkinson’s, had attended the second march on March 9, 1965 known as “turnaround Tuesday.”
Because of the generous hospitality promised us by Immanuel Presbyterian Church, we planned our trek to start with Montgomery, Alabama, and some of the historic sites there. The highlights of our first phase included seeing Dr. King’s first pulpit and the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Based on some Cookeville connections, we had been prompted to seek a tour at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), where we were warmly greeted by some staff attorneys, including one John Dalton, a graduate of Cookeville High School.
This organization’s brave work both shocked and impressed us as they labor on behalf of the wrongly incarcerated, on behalf of the victims of poverty, racism, and strange sentencing practices. But it felt right going here after seeing Dexter Church, because of the way EJI embodied the Kingian values of reconciliation and redemption in a secular sphere, the way they tirelessly advocate for the too-quickly castoff and cruelly-charged people, not just on the margins of society but behind bars.
Sunday morning, we decided to wake before daylight and depart promptly at dawn. This meant, among other things, that we were able to secure some free parking on the street and close to the event. Driving from an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery where we had slumbered, we found ourselves in sleepy Selma, the stunning smell of paper mills and the sight of dilapidated dwellings waking us to the reality that people still suffer from the institutional ills that motivated marchers then and must continue to motivate us now.
I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the importance of churches in the struggle then or now, so since we made it to Selma early on a Sunday, checking out some of the religious observances connected to the movement seemed more than appropriate. While walking the streets near the Edmund Pettus Bridge before the big crowds descended, we took a detour down Water Street to find the memorial marker for the Rev. James Reeb, who had been badly beaten the same day my Dad was in Selma and died later that week. Having so many white allies join the movement was a critical turning point in Selma, and some paid the ultimate price for their solidarity. It turns out we showed up at Reeb’s tribute stone at just the right time to participate in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery’s services.
At dinner Saturday night, our group members shared a little bit about their backgrounds, and our group included several different traditions and identities, from secular humanist to southern Baptist. Situating the struggle for civil rights in its historically sacred context is a profound reminder of the sufferings wrought by slavery and segregation alongside the ancient stories told as inspiration for modern liberation. One of our students attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Cookeville, so meeting her new friends at the Reeb memorial site fit nicely with my Presbyterian sense of providence.
From there, we wandered just a few blocks to the historic Brown Chapel AME church, the moral launchpad of many historic marches, including the ones that we were remembering from 1965. Even though seating in Brown Chapel was limited to its members and invited guests, a huge crowd had gathered outside and the proceedings were being broadcast onto the street where a large screen had been set up. It was at Brown Chapel where many living leaders, like the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were scheduled to speak. Thanks to an invitation from my friends at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, we were prompted to walk just a couple more blocks to Shiloh Baptist Church, where we were able to get seats for a profoundly moving and motivating service.
When we arrived at Shiloh, a small men’s choir was just getting started with some acapella songs and chants as deep as the river of history and hope that the entire weekend represented. Like other African-American services I have attended over the years, this two-and-a-half hour experience ebbed and flowed between scripture stories, scripted speeches, more spontaneous sermonizing, and sanctifying songs. For the anniversary on the day’s agenda, it was difficult to determine the boundary between religious observance and organizing for the rally, but this blending was so anchored in the biblical foundation of the historic black church and its profoundly embodied deep south spirit, that it was impossible to not feel the spirit moving within us as the crowd swelled to standing-room only and shouted and sang, clapped and cried. The closing sermon by the Rev. Timothy McDonald from Atlanta roused us all and was followed by a freedom song and finally a Dr. King impersonator who provided a chilling rendition of the speech given at the conclusion of the third march in 1965, on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery.
After a brief break to head back to the van for our sack lunches, it was finally time to march. With a crowd swelling close to at least 70,000 and perhaps as much as 100,000 people, it took all afternoon for the people who wanted to cross the bridge to make their way. The several blocks of Broad Street facing the bridge and the Alabama River were simply packed with people. The students had left lunch a few paces before us and spent most of the afternoon in some of the thickest sections of the throng. As I walked with my wife Jeannie, my colleague Troy Smith, and my mom Barb, they suggested turning right at Lauderdale Street. This turned out to be a great idea, which allowed us to join the march towards the front, blending right in at the foot of the bridge.
The spirit on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was breathtaking. The shape and structure of the bridge itself on the banks of the Alabama River immediately stings us with a sense of what those first marches might have been like. The bridge still bears the name of a deceased Confederate general and staunch supporter of slavery who won a seat in the United States Senate because of (and sadly not in spite of) his role as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. This ugly irony was just one of many harsh reminders that this last weekend’s marchers embodied a struggle that remains incomplete. It’s no wonder why this embattled bridge has become one of the foremost symbols of the legacy of the 1960s and our conflicted struggles for freedom and justice.
At the time of our crossing, the bridge wasn’t too crowded or congested. People would leave their contingents to observe, take pictures, or greet friends and strangers. As we were taking our obligatory snapshots, we saw an elderly man approaching, with a cane. Both he and the one helping him along, who turned out to be his son, were dressed impeccably in suits with bowties, as many other marchers were. It just so happens we were suddenly standing next to this pair as another group stopped to talk with them. As they were posing for a picture, we overheard that the older man had been here in 1965, on the Tuesday march, and had come from Chicago.
I asked excitedly, “Were you on the same plane with my Dad? The one with Martin Marty?” The older man replied, “I am Martin Marty.” This elder of the movement is a widely respected and retired religion professor and prolific scholar. He also helped charter the plane that my Dad boarded at 2am on March 9, 1965, in response to King’s call. “Martin Luther King asked if we could recruit twenty people,” Marty recalled. “I made sure we found at least one hundred.”
It’s hard to imagine that Professor Marty remembered Ken Smith, the then 24-year-old Chicago Theological Seminary dropout who was a math whiz and later became an actuarial consultant, but he acted as though he did. Kindly he asked us, “Where is Ken Smith now?” We explained that we were here on his behalf, since he had crossed the bridge to heaven last year. I excitedly told Martin Marty about my current studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the rainbow stole from More Light Presbyterians that I wore that day, and about bringing a vanload of students from Tennessee Tech. He seemed genuinely interested and gave me his email and website addresses. Meeting Martin Marty and so many others on the bridge seemed more than fitting. We also met his son Joe Marty, currently a state senator in Minnesota. It was the kind of day when seasoned friendships were deepened and new friendships began.
Not that many marchers carried signs on Sunday, but the ones I saw were mostly profound, some reminding us of the ongoing, unfinished work of civil rights, especially in Alabama. The one declaring “Someday is Today” sticks with me, echoing and intensifying the refrain of “We Shall Overcome.” It’s not that all our dreams have been realized or that we live in a post-racial utopia. Sadly, nothing could be further from true, and we must resist congratulating ourselves. But the dream does live and thrive in the bodies of the marchers, some of us descendants of the original marchers.
It’s because we showed up on Sunday that we know we will not forget the past, and we will peacefully fight for a better future, for freedom and fairness and for the dream itself, the Beloved Community. Sometimes despite the evidence, King believed not in a never-neverland but in the fierce urgency of now, hence his mantra at that famous speech in Montgomery at the conclusion of the third march: “How long? Not long! How long? Not long!” May it be soon. May it be so!
Andrew Smith is a poet, blogger, activist, teacher, preacher, and the Faculty Head of the Tree House Learning Village in New Hall North at Tennessee Tech.