There is still much work to be done to fulfill our dreams of democracy and equality, says a local rabbi who returns to Selma every year.
The 1965 march in Selma, Ala., changed America.
President Lyndon Johnson wrote on March 15, 1965: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
And President Barack Obama reiterated it on March 7, 2015: “There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war — Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. Selma is such a place.”
Sitting in the audience earlier this month, listening to President Obama, echoing President Johnson, rank Selma among the most iconic moments in American history, I wondered why.
On Bloody Sunday 50 years ago, all America watched as unarmed, peaceful African-Americans marching for basic American values — equality and the right to vote — were savagely attacked by white police while they were kneeling to pray. Lexington and Concord began the struggle for equality and the right to vote. Appomattox marked the victory of the war to end slavery and the hope of the fulfillment of equality. But Selma exposed a persistent legacy of slavery, the systematic and violent repression of African-Americans.
Had that been all, it would not have become iconic. But Selma also confirmed the American belief that a small group of well-organized, peaceful citizens committed to justice could triumph over the forces of evil. The march, by exposing the very failings of America, affirmed its possibility. It directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
This was my fourth pilgrimage as a board member of the Faith and Politics Institute. We sponsor an annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the march in 1965, always leads our delegation across the bridge. This year, we were 350 strong, including 100 members of Congress. The organization also was a sponsor of the march this year that drew tens of thousands of people.
A key element of the pilgrimage is hearing the stories.
This year, Juanita Abernathy, wife of the late civil rights leader, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, described how deeply they were trained in non-violent action. The police would dig their heels into the toes of the protesters and grind them into the earth. The protesters were trained to keep looking into the eyes of the police and to not say or do anything.
Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe talked of her mother, Viola Liuzzo, who, after the march on Bloody Sunday, heard Dr. King on TV calling for people to come down and give support. Viola was a white woman, living in Detroit, married to a Teamster with three young children. She went down and marched from Selma to Montgomery. When the march was over, as she was driving black marchers back to Selma, a car of Klansmen pulled up to her car, shot and killed her. Mary has spent her life carrying on in her mother’s tradition.
Every trip, I am struck by the deference and respect that members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, show Mr. Lewis. They call him “the moral conscience of the Congress.” I think he embodies for many of them their ideal of America, that we are able to achieve progress toward democracy and justice.
However, the very right to vote that John Lewis bled for — and others died for — is now under attack. Last year the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the act. Many states are passing voter ID laws that are designed to repress minority voting; others are cutting back on polling hours, making it more difficult for poorer people to vote. In Pennsylvania, the courts have postponed attempts to impose voter ID. We need to make sure our legislators at all levels of government hear our support for voting rights.
In the background of the president’s speech, we could hear some protesters from Ferguson, Mo. I was in Ferguson in October along with clergy from around the country, as a representative of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. What I saw and heard was confirmed in the recent Department of Justice report: Systemic racism against the black community is rampant in Ferguson. This is not an anomaly, there is work still to be done.
In his speech, President Obama said that “America is a constant work in progress,” and 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 is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.”
The peaceful, yet powerful, movement to fulfill our dreams of democracy and equality needs to be ongoing.
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling is the founder and director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.