I was blessed to have been at the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday back in March in Selma, AL. The atmosphere was quite different than when Hosea Williams and John Lewis led hundreds of brave-hearted men and women across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. In stark contrast to that day laden with apprehension, fear and doubt, the 2015 landscape was filled with honor, thankful hearts, amazement and wonder. An unspoken and tacit respect spilled out among the people in the streets of Selma.
In 50 years time, our nation’s first black President, Barack Obama, stood at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a former symbol of brutality and hatred. Addressing a sea people, he movingly declared, “There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war… others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Selma is such a place.”
With my 10-year-old daughter in tow, we converged on Selma with 70,000 other people – black, white, young, old, famous and not so famous. We all came to Selma – on our own pilgrimage. We all came in peace – seeking healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and truth. My daughter and I came to be a part of the future – a future of continued hope, change and freedom.
Because barriers of prejudices and narrow thinking were broken down that fateful day in 1965, we walked about on this Jubilee weekend without the fear of being arrested or beaten with billy clubs. We engaged, talked easily and freely. Everyone was courteous, kind, and… curious. We shared each other’s stories, our reasons for coming to... such a place. Where, in 2015, we came to honor the courageous heroes and celebrate America’s character that was forever changed 50 years ago on that bridge.
My daughter and I had the privilege of meeting many fellow pilgrims from all walks of life. Bobby Arrington, who in 1965 was a 16-year-old living in Montgomery, was never deterred by discrimination. He registered to vote in Montgomery two years after the Voting Rights Act was passed and graduated from Tuskegee University. He went on to graduate school and has enjoyed a successful engineering career with Dow, AT&T and several notable financial institutions.
Another gentleman we met, who stood 10 feet away, offered to snap a photo of my daughter and me. I graciously accepted and after chatting at length, I introduced myself and learned that I had been talking to Stephen Colbert, donning his new beard. He will be debuting as the new host of the Late Show on CBS in September. He, too, came to be a part of history.
A teacher from Norfolk, VA, Buffy Meador Driskill whose parents were both born in Selma came to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event to share with her students. For over 20 years her passion has been teaching about the Civil Rights movement. Inspired by this 50th anniversary, she developed a simulated march for her students to experience first hand the black American struggles prior to the Voting Rights Act. She met Civil Right's Activist Ralph Abernathy’s widow, Juanita, as well as Amelia Boynton who had been knocked unconscious by a state trooper in 1965, but was amazingly pushed in her wheelchair (age 103) by President Barack Obama across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015. Driskill got a great story to share with her students.
We discovered that Selma is indeed such a place. It is a place where its people are keeping its painful past in the past and looking forward, focusing on the positive change and growing the good. Operating in downtown Selma off Water Avenue, Ryan Bergeron, founder of Revival Coffee Company felt the Lord leading him “to stop asking for change and start being the change.” Bergeron’s passionate vision for the fledgling company is “to bring a physical revival to everyone each morning through coffee and to bring a spiritual revival locally and abroad.” By donating 10 percent of all coffee purchases to local and global non-profits, Bergeron shared, “We are investing in and sowing back into the lives and minds of the youth – into the next generation."
Perhaps the most meaningful and heart changing encounter was meeting Christina Freeman and her family who came from Atlanta. We met in the middle of Water Avenue at the intersection of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I eagerly learned of her story of how and why she and her husband felt so strongly about their children experiencing history -- not just reading about it. Freeman shared, "All my life my parents stressed the importance of the vote because Daddy, who was from a town run by the Ku Klux Klan in Mitchell County, Georgia learned that freedom was not free. In order to obtain his right to vote, he and his brother were forced to hide in a crawl space for 48 hours before being transported at night in a wagon to the next county where they found safe passage to Atlanta. He never returned to his hometown." For the Freeman family, the price of freedom was returned 100 fold 50 years later.
In this historic time – full of such raw, intense emotion, the most humbling moment for me was on Sunday, when my daughter asked, “Mom would it be okay if our new friends (the Freemans) walk the bridge with us?” With both our eyes welling up with tears, Christina and I both agreed that we would. We met back at the same intersection, and with our children, we walked hand-in-hand – black and white – across that bridge together singing, “We Shall Overcome.” As Spider Martin, renowned Civil Rights photojournalist, said, “United we stand; divided we fall.” He was right. They did fall in 1965; and because of the sacrifice and bravery of those who went before us, in 2015 we stood united and marched once again over a bridge in such a place… called Selma.