Try to tell a 6-year-old about Selma
Television news reports have shown old video footage of the original marchers trying to make it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The footage all ends the same way, of course: men and women beaten about the head and face, falling as the blows rain down.
How do I explain that march fifty years ago to a six-year-old? How do I explain to my daughter that police officers — police, supposedly the good guys — attacked unarmed men and women for the “crime” of trying to vote?
How do I tell her that those state troopers and sheriff’s deputies were terrified that a day might come that looks much like the present, when a black president would sit in the Oval Office, when a black Attorney General would go to court to protect the powerless, when the city of Selma, Alabama would have a black mayor?
It’s not easy to explain that time, even though it’s not so very distant. But I’m grateful for the challenge. It’s a good problem to have.
So much has changed in the last fifty years. The Alabama in which my daughter will grow up is not the same one in which I came of age.
Born in 2008, Carly has only known one president: Barack Obama. For her, there’s nothing special about seeing two adolescent black girls roll their eyes as their father pardons a Thanksgiving turkey. She has sat, bored, through many a news report showing a brown-skinned First Lady giving a speech or visiting a wounded veteran. She’s met black Congress members and state legislators, black mayors and school board members.
She has never lived under the lash of Jim Crow, never been told she couldn’t go to school with her white pals, never seen a sign outside a public restroom that says “WHITE.” She wouldn’t know what to make of it.
I reject the premise of a post-racial America. Bigotry is alive and well, if no longer a supreme power. I know that Carly will face racism in her lifetime, whether from potential employers or police officers or schoolmates. Still, I know her life will be so very different from mine, in part because of the bravery of those men and women — led by the late Hosea Williams and my former Congressman, John Lewis — who dared to try to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Recently, Carly looked at a photograph shot by the famed Gordon Parks somewhere in Alabama during the 1950s. Part of an exhibit of Parks’ work at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the photo showed a public restroom entrance with the sign, “COLORED,” above it. “What’s that word?” she asked. “Colored,” I said.
She stared for a moment more. Then, “colored how?” She had no context for a word that had nothing to do with her Crayola box. “How do I explain this?” I thought. It’s a good problem to have.
Even as young adults, my parents were allowed to vote in Monroeville, Ala. They were among a few black Alabamians granted that right — in numbers too small to make any real difference. Throughout much of my childhood, the political powers remained resistant to change.
The lack of racial diversity among elected officials was only one part of the problem; equally damaging was the fact that white politicians didn’t appeal to black interests. Because most black citizens weren’t allowed to vote, they didn’t need to. They upheld the social and civic order of the day, which dictated an allegiance to Jim Crow.
That’s why that march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was so important. Once all black Americans were able to exercise their constitutional right to vote, politicians were forced to consider our needs and desires. Black voters wanted good schools, paved streets and a fair system of criminal justice, just as white voters did. And once the Voting Rights Act passed, the accomplishments of the civil rights movement came into full bloom with a political structure forced to accommodate its black citizens.
I’ll find a way to explain that to Carly. I’ll tell her that the courageous men and women who walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a chilly March Sunday helped to create the world in which she lives.