Bloody Sunday and the uses of history

History isn’t just telling stories about the past; for most of us, it’s about making sense of the present.  Politicians, pundits, and activists invoke their understandings of the past to try to affect the future.

This Friday, March 7, marks the 408th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge (which still stands, at left), leaving Selma, Alabama for a planned march to the state capital in Montgomery.  Representatives of virtually all of the major civil rights groups had been trying to organize for voting rights in Alabama–and throughout the South, and met little success.  Would-be voters were turned away from the courthouses when they tried to register, and activists were beaten by police.  One young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, was shot by a police officer, and died of an infection from the wound.

Activists set out from Selma to take their case (for justice for Jackson and voting rights for everyone else) to Governor George Wallace in Montgomery.  They didn’t get there quickly or easily.

Sheriff Jim Clark deputized every white man over 21 he could find, and massed them on the bridge, along with state troopers and local police.  The police ordered the demonstrators to disperse, and quickly attacked the activists.  Mounted police rode through the crowd, tear gassing and beating the demonstrators.  (At the bottom of the picture on the right you can see a brave, young, John Lewis, then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  He’s the one without a helmet or billy club.  He’s now a Congressman from Georgia.)

Supported by a court order from federal judge Frank Johnson, a march resumed weeks later, with 8,000 activists ready to cross the bridge.  By the time they arrived in Montgomery, on March 25, there were 25,000 civil rights activists.  Months later, in response to both continued activism and the energetic efforts of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

It wasn’t only Jimmie Lee Jackson who paid a heavy price for this effort.  Seventeen people were hospitalized after the first march.  Days later, opponents of the march savagely beat three white clergymen who had come to support the civil rights effort, killing a young Unitarian minister, James ReebViola Liuzzo, a white activist from Detroit, was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the march arrived in Montgomery.   In 1965, three men were indicted, but acquitted, for Reeb’s murder.  After being acquitted of state charges, three Klansmen were convicted of federal conspiracy charges and sentenced to ten years in prison for Liuzzo’s murder.  And on November 15, 2010 (!!!), James Bonard Fowler, formerly a state trooper, plead guilty to manslaughter for Jackson’s killing, and was sentenced to six months in prison.

The events leading up to the Voting Rights Act, long long ago, are worth remembering as the Supreme Court is now considering the Constitutionality of its pre-clearance provisions.  Last week, the Court heard arguments, and most observers saw five solid votes to strike down Section 5 of the Act, which requires designated districts to submit any proposed changes to voting rules and procedures to the Justice Department to certify that they won’t adversely affect the voting rights of minorities.

But all the action isn’t in the Court.  John Lewis returned to Selma again, as he has manytimes in the past, to commemorate the march and push the issues, and to weigh in on the Supreme Court case.  As you can see, at left, he wasn’t alone.  Just over Rep. Lewis’s right shoulder is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose record on civil rights is somewhat less developed than that of his colleague.

And Vice President Joe Biden was there as well, warning about the coming court decision, and praising the 1965 activists for their courage, for their role in shaping his political attitudes, and for making it possible for a black man to be elected president.

When we retell these stories, we make the past live today–and it’s always about the future, surely as the Selma demonstrators, including Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, would have wanted.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Bloody Sunday and the uses of history

  1. Angelos Evans says:

    great post!
    what you teach us, europeans, for the civli rights movement is really outstanding. I was motivated to start reading “Freedom Summer” which I bought recenty and left it to a bookshelf.

    greetings from the other side of the planet,

    Angelos
    Athens, Greece

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