By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“History matters … The truth matters – notwithstanding what the other team is trying to hide. They’re 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 – of who we are as a nation. And everyone should know the truth of Selma.”
On Sunday, President Joe Biden spoke at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That was the day in March 1965 when John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and 600 others who had set out 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 Grand Dragon of the KKK. They were on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery to claim their fundamental right to vote, laid in the bedrock of our Constitution, but stolen by hate harbored in too many hearts. With unflinching courage, foot soldiers for justice marched through the valley of the shadow of death, and they feared no evil. The forces of hate conspired to demise, but they endured. They forced the country to confront the hard truths and to act to keep the promise of America alive.”
The televised images of the attacks on the bridge and the savage beatings of the marchers – including John Lewis, whose skull was fractured, and 53-year-old Amelia Boynton (later Boynton Robinson), who was tear gassed and beaten unconscious – did indeed force the country to confront hard truths. They became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and in 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 killed in Marion, Alabama days earlier when he, his mother, sister, and 82-year-old grandfather attended another nonviolent voting rights demonstration where marchers were brutally attacked by racist Alabama law enforcement officials. Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot trying to shield his mother from a police nightstick.
This week’s release of the Justice Department report documenting the Louisville, Kentucky police department’s pervasive patterns of racial bias, constitutional rights violations, and excessive use of force against Black residents was a reminder of the tragic and deadly through line that connects Jimmie Lee Jackson to Breonna Taylor and thousands of other Black citizens, then and now. Just as voting rights are under renewed attack in Alabama and elsewhere, buoyed by those who are still trafficking in lies about the last election and fighting desperately to find new ways to suppress and challenge votes in the next one, we are still fighting to keep the promise of America alive. The struggle towards progress is only compounded when we need to divide our energy to fight those trying to hide the truth about our nation’s history.
Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, I traveled from Mississippi, where I was working as a young civil rights lawyer, to Alabama to join John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and about 25,000 fellow citizens to resume marching the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery.
As King spoke from the steps of the state’s capitol at the end of the exhilarating march, he said we needed to keep going, “Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream. Let us 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 sanitary housing. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past … Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat … Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men [and women] who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”
Biden ended his own remarks in Selma this way, “We know history does not look kindly on those who deny the march across the bridge to redeem the soul of America. Let me close with this: In many of your faith traditions, Sunday is the Sabbath, a day of rest. But on that Sunday morning, on March 7th, 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 righteous. So she would go on to say, ‘You can never know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.’ We know where we have been. And, my fellow Americans, on this Sunday of our time, we know where we’ve been and we know, more importantly, where we have to go: forward together. So let’s pray, but let’s not rest. Let’s keep marching. Let’s keep the faith.”
This is what we must all still do.
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.