From MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“History matters… The truth matters, no matter what the other team is trying to hide. They are trying to hide the truth. No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should learn everything – the good, the bad, the truth – about who we are as a nation. And everyone should know the truth about Selma.
On Sunday, President Joe Biden spoke at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That was the day in March 1965 when John Lewis, Hosea Williams and 600 others who had embarked on a nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery to demand their right to vote were brutally attacked at the bridge by lawless state and local law enforcement officials .
Biden continued: “Six hundred believers put faith into action to march across that bridge named after the KKK’s Grand Dragon. They were on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery to reclaim their all-important right to vote, laid in the bedrock of our Constitution, but stolen by the hatred simmering in too many hearts. With unwavering courage, the foot soldiers for justice marched through the valley of the shadow of death, and they feared no evil. The forces of hate have conspired to bring an end, but they have resisted. They forced the country to confront hard truths and take action to keep America’s promise alive.”
Television footage of the attacks on the bridge and the savage beatings of protesters – including John Lewis, whose skull was fractured, and 53-year-old Amelia Boynton (later Boynton Robinson), who was teargassed and beaten until her senses – really did force the country to confront hard truths. They have become a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and America’s struggle to become America.
The Selma March was originally planned not only to gain the right to vote, but to protest the tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black church deacon and military veteran who was killed in Marion, Alabama, days earlier when he, his mother, sister, and 82-year-old grandfather attended another nonviolent voting rights rally in which protesters were viciously attacked by racist Alabama law enforcement officials. Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and killed while trying to protect his mother from a police baton.
This week’s release of the Justice Department report documenting the pervasive patterns of racial bias, constitutional rights violations, and excessive use of force against black residents of Louisville, Kentucky, was a reminder of the tragic and deadly line that connects Jimmie Lee Jackson to Breonna Taylor and thousands of other black citizens, then and now. Even as voting rights are under renewed attack in Alabama and elsewhere, championed by those who are still peddle lies about the last election and desperately struggling to find new ways to suppress and challenge voting in the next one, we are still fighting to keep the promise of a living America. The struggle for progress only gets worse when we have to divide our energies to fight those who try to hide the truth about our nation’s history.
Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, I traveled from Mississippi, where I was working as a junior civil rights lawyer, to Alabama to join John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and some 25,000 fellow citizens in marching again the 54 miles from Selma in Montgomery.
As King spoke from the steps of the state capitol at the end of the exhilarating march, he said we had to keep going: “Let us therefore continue our triumphant march toward realizing the American dream. We march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and hygienic housing. We march on segregated schools until all traces of segregated and inferior education are a thing of the past… We march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so their children can eat… We march on the polls until until when not to send to our city councils, state legislatures and congressmen of the United States [and women] who will not be afraid to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”.
Biden concluded his remarks to Selma thus: “We know that history does not look kindly on those who deny the march across the bridge to redeem the soul of America. Let me end with this: In many of your faith traditions, Sunday is Saturday, a day of rest. But that Sunday morning, March 7, 1965, Amelia Boynton Robinson and 600 of her fellow children of God chose different pews. On this bridge of her beloved Selma, they were called to the altar of democracy, unsure of their fate but certain that the cause was just. So she went on to say, “You never know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” We know where we’ve been. And, my fellow Americans, on this Sunday of our time, we know where we have been and we know, more importantly, where we must go: forward together. So we pray, but we don’t rest. We keep marching. Let’s keep the faith.”
This is what we all still have to do.
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emeritus of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind”. For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.