Demonstrators march in the streets, hoisting signs and chanting lyrical slogans for rights, for protection, for justice. Some signs bear poignant phrases, others throw accusations, and still others note grievances. There are lawyers out there, and late-night custodians. There are school teachers and students and mothers. There are pastors too, and sheiks and rabbis. And it feels strange when the police lines come out to meet them, looking across the thin invisible line at their own preachers.
The risk, however small, of desire and anger bursting into violence is overbearing and ever-present. There is a palpable tension, a fuse that might spark in the heat. Will the day explode, or will it hum along in fragile peace?
It’s been a half-century since “Bloody Sunday” saw the brutal repression of the peoples’ right to speak and assemble in Selma, Alabama, and still the people are marching.
It was a cold rain on the second day of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, the seat of something like power. …The second day of the third march. Fifty-three miles on open asphalt.
Commitment. Resolve. Resilience. Literally thousands of demonstrations across the country, little flickers of light trying to root out a sometimes brutal darkness, a sometimes painful passivity.
The times have changed, but have the people marched with any less resolve in our own time?
Thousands came, came to go marching. And have the numbers dwindled across the decades? Or are the masses still combining, coalescing?
And when they finally arrived in Montgomery, their tired feet moved to the sound of Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter, Paul and Mary, all come to sing a welcome song of freedom.
How many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
But when they arrived in Montgomery, weary, no doubt, they walked in without Jimmie Lee Jackson. He had been killed. They walked in without many of their number, imprisoned as they were, or wounded, or afraid.
When they march today, they go on without so many. So many wrongfully imprisoned, so many wounded, so many afraid, or tired, or surrendered. In a sense they are still marching for Jimmie Lee Jackson. The people are still marching.
And it’s a long way to Montgomery.
* * *
The flashpoints that set these marches in motion have changed. In Selma in 1965, the people were marching for the right to vote, to be represented, to claim some semblance of equality, to ask Governor George Wallace what he was going to do about Jackson. In 2014 the people marched for the reformation of a legal system that is biased and a police force perceived to be too often brutal.
It’s been 50 years, but the sentiment of disenfranchisement, the fear of harassment, the sense of separateness is still here, if in different symbols and to different degrees.
We are still a country trying to balance on a precipice of old –isms. Racism, sexism, classism. The manifestations change, but the isms remain. And as long as there are isms, the people will march on.
The road ahead is still cold asphalt. The lynch mobs prowling along the way are almost all gone, but still there are systems that can kill, if not men, then dreams.
And it’s a long way to Montgomery.
* * *
As a white Protestant male, it is easy for me to say we have made progress. It may be an example of my own privilege that I can read history books and newspapers, and watch TV and Selma, and say the country really has come a long way. I may lack credibility, but it is not because I have turned the other way.
The hard thing for me is that I don’t always agree with all the marchers. But, really, how much does that matter? I don’t always agree, but I will always agree with their right to march.
And that itself is an example of my privileged place: that I can jump in and out whenever it suits me. Oberlin College freshman and civil rights activist Martha Honey wrote this from the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and it rings true to me:
As a white northerner I can get involved whenever I like it and run home whenever I get bored or frustrated or scared. I… despise myself when I think that way. Lately I’ve been feeling homesick and longing for pleasant old Westport and sailing and swimming and my friends. I don’t quite know what to do because I can’t ignore my desire to go home and yet I feel I am a much weaker person than I like to think I am because I do have these emotions.
Then and now, we can always go home. Home is easier and safer than dealing with systems and institutions. Home is easier than dealing with looters and talking heads. Home is easier than facing facts and facing fears. Home is easier, because there I can find people on the same page.
But sometimes marching, even beside those we disagree with, beside those who are farther Left or farther Right, beside those who are “guilty” and those who are “pure” is the only way forward.
Still, it’s a long way to Montgomery.
* * *
It’s a long way to Montgomery, and how will we know when we are there?
Maybe we will know when we don’t repress the memory anymore, because to repress the memory is to repress the people all over again.
Maybe we will know when we feel the end of wounded justice, when it no longer lies limp on the sidewalks of Staten Island, the streets of Selma and Englewood, the marble floors of Washington, the inner reaches of so many lonely, helpless hearts.
Maybe we will know when we hear the echo of Dr. King’s words:
‘When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long.
The people are marching.
It’s a long way the Montgomery.
How long? Not long.