On Saturday, March 7th, Amelia Boynton, age 103, posed for photos with President Barack Obama and hundreds of other dignitaries on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in commemoration of the day known commonly as “Bloody Sunday.”
Now bound to a wheelchair, Boynton helped organize the first of three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand voting rights for Blacks. She and 600 peaceful protesters were attacked by state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas, as they left Selma, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Boynton was beaten unconscious, tear gassed, and left for dead. The black and white photo of her limp body being cradled by another marcher along with the murder of James Reeb, a White Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to protest, drew international criticism of the South’s treatment of African American citizens, which ultimately led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A life-long activist who is affectionately revered as a matriarch of the movement, Boynton says: “I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”
This past weekend, tens of thousands from around the world packed the streets of Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The four-day occasion featured symbolic events like crossing the bridge, panel discussions, work sessions, and church service.
President Obama stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a confederate general who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, flanked by 100 Black members of Congress, where he called for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be restored. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision, requiring that states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls be required to pre-clear any changes to voting laws with the federal government. Since then, several states have passed voter I.D. laws that will effectively prevent many African Americans, poor people, and immigrants from voting.
“In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history — the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher — all that history met on this bridge,” Obama remarked. “It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America. And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America — that idea ultimately triumphed.”
On Sunday, tens of thousands crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, many of them bearing signs with social justice messages like “Love One Another” and “Selma is Now” as well as effigies of the four little girls who were killed during the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church (Birmingham, Alabama). In addition to “We Shall Overcome” and other Civil Rights Movement anthems, chants from Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protesters, Dream Defenders, and several hundred youth contingents reverberated on both sides of the Alabama River: Once marchers arrived at the other side of the bridge, they were greeted by vendors, food trucks, photo opportunities, and a concert featuring Kirk Franklin and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
Many in attendance expressed concern about the overall tone for the weekend, noting that the civil rights that activists like Rep. John Lewis, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader risked their lives to secure, have been disbanded and deconstructed at various levels of federal government. One man was seen stalking through the crowd on the bridge loudly demanding: “What do we have to celebrate?”
Another demonstrator, who had been previously incarcerated, implored marchers to help restore his civil rights so that he could vote, work, and take care of his family.
According to Imani Perry, Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, Selma has a 43% poverty rate (down from 80% in 1961), with a per capita income that is almost ⅓ lower than the rest of Alabama. Perry pushed back against some of the underlying motivations of this weekend’s activities stating, “I just can't celebrate public figures building political capital and accolades off her history while the city still suffers from the legacy of Jim Crow.”
In a speech at the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse, North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, II challenged attendees to “commemorate not celebrate.” Barber drew upon President Obama’s speech, saying he believes the President made an open call for civil disobedience against voter suppression and poverty: “You ought to be bothered that some folk came down here and marched and talking about how they love what happened in the past while they are tearing apart what happened in the past, in the present.”
On Monday morning, a group of marchers embarked upon the 54-mile walk to Montgomery, a symbolic nod to their forbearers, and a timely call to action to reclaim voting rights and to address the various race-based social ills that continue to plague African American families, including police brutality, low-wage jobs, broken education systems, and unemployment.
Obama closed his speech on a high note, saying: “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on [the] wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”
Katina Parker is a filmmaker, photographer, and activist. To follow her documentation work in Ferguson go to www.facebook.com/dontshootsof. To receive updates about her Virtual Freedom School, a space where theory meets action, go to www.facebook.com/virtfreeschool and follow her on Twitter – @katinaparker.