The T-shirt said, “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. Martin walked so that Barack could run. Barack ran so that our children can fly.” I’m almost never a fan of T-shirt slogans, but this one really hits home.
We stood in a crowd outside Brown’s Chapel AME Church waiting for the commemorative walk to begin. This is where it had all started 45 years ago on March 7, 1965. The first march didn’t make it very far. The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did. Today, when all the congresspersons and other famous people (Terence Howard) had made their way to their places, the walk began. We left Brown’s Chapel, headed south a block, turned west to downtown and south on Broad Street. The bridge over the Alabama River loomed in the distance.
It took awhile to get there, but we walked across the bridge, remembering how the marchers had eventually made that walk all the way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. Life Magazine and the evening news caught the shocking images of people being beaten, even killed. Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, March 7, 1965. Today, maybe some 10,000 or so walked across the bridge. People from all over the place. College groups like ours.
The day’s activities were part ongoing struggle for justice, part reunion, part state fair carnival. After the walk across the bridge, people enjoyed foods and music at booths set up for the occasion: polish sausage, funnel cakes, chicken on a stick, lots and lots of CDs available for purchase. One man offered a new documentary CD of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. But what caught my attention were the little clusters of senior citizens or near that age, white and black, talking like old friends. Some of them had marched together in the original event. They were reminiscing and catching up all at the same time.
Months after the march to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Acts did pass. A Federal law guaranteed that black people, properly registered, would not only have the theoretical right to vote, but they actually could vote and did. Forty five years later, we are into the fifteenth month of the presidency of the first African American president. Considering where our country was in 1965, this is a staggering change.
Earlier in the day as I stood in front of the chapel, a man walked by me in bib overalls and a yellow vest. I noticed the name hand written on the vest: John Rankin (my paternal grandfather’s name, by the way). For the third time in my life, I had encountered an African American who shared my surname. I couldn’t resist. I spoke to John and asked him if he knew where his name came from. He had done some checking, he said, and he thinks that his family had come from South Carolina originally (well, not originally). Since Rankin is a Scottish name, I surmise (as I have done before) that some Rankins back in the day were slave owners. This John Rankin had been on the original march to Montgomery. He took off his hat, rubbed the top of his head and said, “And I’ve still got the knot on my head to prove it.”