Monday, January 19, 2015

Selma: Queen City's time to be remembered

They sang, marched and celebrated in Selma, again, yesterday. 
With Oprah Winfrey and movie star company coming to town and John Legend and Common singing "Glory," an Oscar-nominated song from the movie Selma, right there on the famous bridge, it was enough to make me wish I was still a cub reporter with the Selma Times-Journal.
Yes, Selma, Alabama -- where I lived, reported and learned for more than 10 years -- came to mind and media again and again in recent days.
Publicity around the new movie Selma, produced by Oprah and telling the story of the voting rights efforts in Selma that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, took me back to my days as reporter in Selma, a small town with a big news draw and huge impact in the civil rights movement. The talk of all things Selma brought to mind the times when we (Janet Gresham, Jeannette Berryman, Nikki Davis Maute, Jean Martin, Alvin Benn, Chuck Chandler and many others) covered marches and protests, power struggles, school woes, more power struggles and the city’s economic and historic preservation ups and downs. There are power struggles still, I’m sure, and certainly economic downs and ups.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, at night, photo from Selma
Times-Journal website.
      Selma was always a town that attracted famous people, datelines and news coverage, be it about the marches, the flamboyant late mayor Joe T. Smitherman or the architecturally lovely Edmund Pettus Bridge, built in 1940 and named for a former U.S. Senator. Site of violence then triumph in 1965, the bridge is now a national historic landmark.
As for the recent Selma publicity, most delightful was when I heard J. L Chestnut on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program. The late Selma attorney and rabblerousing columnist for The Selma Times-Journal had been recorded in the mid-1990s talking to Terry Gross about Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights March that prompted the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Chestnut was Selma’s first black attorney and one of the few attorneys working with the movement; he didn’t march so much as be ready to bail folks out. He said on NPR that Bloody Sunday’s violence stole his faith in white folks and the law he was sworn to uphold. However, he added, the federal-court protected successful march two weeks later renewed that faith. 
But Chestnut, who I saw sway juries with animated prose and aggravate the establishment, white and black, with his column and later, radio show, never lost his misgivings and suspicions.  He called a racial spade a shovel every time.
Selma being in the news also reminded me of some the truths I learned there.
A primary made-in-Selma truth was a lesson learned from J. L. Chestnut himself and from true life experiences. Racism still exists, and whether we want to admit it or not, race still plays a major part in some of today’s power struggles. Regarding Chestnut’s specific lesson to me back then, it happened when I wrote an opinion column that basically said: Does it ALWAYS have to be about RACE in Selma? Then, Chestnut answered the question in his column, calling me a “naïve young white woman.”
J. L.’s argument to me and to anyone who would listen was that in Selma, in Alabama, in the world, IT is sometimes, quite often, still about race, at least in part.  I have seen his point ring true too often, especially lately, but the always-about-race hypothesis has been proved wrong many times, too.
Other recent Selma publicity also struck a chord.  A Birmingham News front page story on Selma, the movie and town detailed the city's loss of population and white folks since the heydays before Craig Air Force base closed in 1977. Compared to back in the day, Selma struggles as a smaller, poorer and less integrated town. The movie folks come and go, and what’s left for Selma? Maybe more tourism for the town that touts its civil war and civil rights history out loud and has a Civil Rights museum and an Old Depot Museum at an old train depot not far from the remains of Confederate munitions works.
Then, in that same News issue was a column by Frank Sikora, former Birmingham News reporter who wrote the book Selma, Lord, Selma that tells the Selma civil rights story through the eyes of an 11-year-old African American girl named Sheyann Webb. I met Sikora covering Selma – reenactment marches every spring and court cases and murder trials. He was a favorite among the “out of town” press and taught me a thing or three and saved me once when I ruined some Tri-X film filled with images from an anniversary commemoration, but that’s another story.
Sikora’s column talked about the way it really was in Selma in 1965, how the state troopers “dispersed” the crowd on that Bloody Sunday march, using clubs and tear gas. Eighty-four people were injured. The next day, lawyers, probably Chestnut and others, filed suit in federal court. Federal Judge Frank Johnson (whom Sikora has written a book about, too), after several days of testimony, issued an order to allow the march from Selma to Montgomery. He ordered state, and if need be, federal officials to provide protection.  Martin Luther King Jr. was in front on that march to Montgomery that began on March 21, 1965. Congress passed the Voting Rights in August of 1965. Sikora's Selma, Lord, Selma was made into a television movie in 1999 and nominated for awards.  Oprah didn’t produce that one, however.
We Selma reporters covered more marches and protests than I can remember, and I learned to respect anyone’s right to protest, to speak out. It doesn't matter if we agree.  That’s one of the great things about Selma’s legacy.
Today, with all the publicity and to-do over Selma, I am struck anew with the importance of the moral and constitutional message of Selma’s movement – especially as the world sees daily and weekly mass shootings and car bombs by terrorists who hate the idea of “us.”
From an early assignment at the Selma Times-Journal, when an elderly white voter registrar told me that “A (n-word) would rather be in the courthouse than heaven….,” this naïve white woman has seen extremes and a host of  ’’isms”  in a rainbow of people.  Racism, sexism, extremism…..rightism? leftism? Terrorism.
And, these days, the always-about-race truth continues to slap older and supposedly wiser me hard across the face.
Some 50 years after folks got killed and beaten for using non-violent protest to seek the freedom to vote and equal treatment in America, we see folks strap explosives to their bodies to kill themselves and others and take videos of hostages’ heads being chopped off   -- all in the name of…..race….and religion. “Freedom” marches of the 1960s, I believe, take on new meaning amid today’s brutally expressed belief by extremists of varying stripes that there is no room or right to life for those who are “other” from them.
Selma, Lord, Selma.
In Selma, the movie, and in Selma, the town, a group of brave folks stood up for the right to vote and the right to protest, the right to be “other,” and  the right to express your opinion without fear for your life or livelihood. That’s still a huge deal in this crazy world we live in.
The rest of the world does not live by free speech and equal rights – FREEDOM – guarantees that we have (and should treasure) here in our United States.
Selma made a difference across this country in the 1960s, and in many ways, it still does, as a symbol for the little guy who will fight for your right to fight for your rights. “Otherness” and freedom remain under fire across the globe – as long as there are martyrs with machine guns. With each tragedy, I am afraid we lose another battle with the right to be who we are or to speak about it.

I’m glad Selma is getting credit for being Ground Zero for civil rights, even if some folks are saying the movie makers stretched the political truths in a few places in the movie Selma. It’s a movie, after all.  I haven’t seen it yet but look forward to it. I hope the movie tells the stories of the regular folks who were involved, not just Martin Luther King Jr., the official hero of the movement recognized with his own national holiday, today. 
I heard a lady, Lynda Blackmon Lowery, still of Selma, quoted on NPR, too. The youngest of the marchers then and author of the book Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, said the spirit of the march stays with her still. “Every day you can create change,” she said. I liked that.

Mostly, I hope the movie helps remind me and all Americans to cherish and guard closely the freedoms that were cemented in SELMA -- that Queen City of the Black Belt, on its Edmund Pettus Bridge and along the long road from Selma to Montgomery. 

Song of the Day: 
This Little Light of Mine
written by Harry Dixon Loes, circa 1920

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine. All the time. Let it shine."

Picture of the day:
At a protest in Selma, circa, early 1980s, that's me looking
 the other way -- perhaps for a better place to shoot pictures
from. Below me, left, is the late Paul Davis, editor and 
ground-breaking writer, who hired me at my first 
two jobs out of AU, at Auburn then Selma.  
In front of me with the fluffy hair and glasses is Alvin Benn, 
then STJ  managing editor, later to  become Selma's super reporter 
with his work for The Montgomery Advertiser. 
I just bet Al was there on the bridge with Oprah yesterday.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece & very personal. My mother was born in the Queen City and lived there briefly as a child.