When I arrived in Selma last Friday evening, I headed straight for the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I wanted to get my selfie under the arch before the crowds came. Unfortunately, I was met by a brigade of Alabama State Troopers who blocked the bridge’s entrance.
There would be no selfies that night. And from the looks of the many vehicles that were also turned around behind me, lots of other folks had the same idea.
The bridge was closed and being prepared for the 50th annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. A stage sat at its foot, where President Obama would speak the next day. Tents lined the other side of the stage and flowed down the city streets as far as the eye could see.
Even though it was late in the evening, my friend and I decided to explore the city. We saw a small crowd gathered at a historic marker. The title on the sign read: “Martyrs For Justice,” and it bore the names and pictures of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb and Vila Liuzzo. Underneath each photo was the story of how each had lost their life during the Voting Rights movement.
Around the corner at Brown Chapel AME Church, folks were taking pictures of a large monument bearing a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The landmark stands in front of the iconic chapel, marking the spot where foot soldiers often gathered to meet and discuss their plans.
Tourists were everywhere. At every turn, cell phones were held high in the air and their flashes filled the night sky.
Like me, everyone seemed eager to start the weekend celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Having a friend who lived in the heart of Selma proved to be more of a blessing than I had ever imagined. She was gracious enough to offer me weekend accommodations. “Hope you brought your walking shoes,” she said. “There will be no driving around Selma for the rest of the weekend.”
The small town overflowed with cars, vans and buses. Every hotel was full, every yard near downtown was filled with cars and available parking was hard to come by.
I woke up early Saturday morning to attend a summit presented by Emerging ChangMakers, a nonprofit that inspires young community leaders. Following the summit, we would hear an address from Obama.
At 8 a.m., I put on my walking shoes and headed downtown. A line that wrapped three city blocks had already formed, with folks eager to gain entrance to the president’s speech. His address would come some six hours later.
At the summit, conversations filled with ideas about building communities were led by inspiring speakers from across the country. They challenged me to discover “my Selma,” to learn what the weekend meant to me and how I could use its inspiration to change my community.
“Are you here for a selfie on a bridge and a glimpse at the president? Or are you here to make a change?”
Yes, I wanted my selfie on the bridge. And yes, I hoped to snap a photo of President Obama with my cell phone and boast about hearing him speak.
But for me, the sojourn to Selma was much more than that.
When I think of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights movement, I feel as if I owe a debt to Dr. King and all foot soldiers who suffered on the bridge — a debt I could never repay. I wanted to stand where they stood and pay homage.
Saturday afternoon, it seemed as if I stood for hours among people of all ages and races awaiting the president’s arrival. I watched a small group of kids hold spelling contests to pass the time while they waited to see “the first black President.”
I admired a selfless young African doctor jumping barricades to attend to many older attendees who were overcome by heat or exhaustion.
I watched as a group of teens pointed to the sky towards snipers that stood on top of buildings carrying their big guns. The teens marveled at catching a glimpse of Secret Service agents that peeped from windows of buildings overlooking the celebration. “This is no joke,” I heard one teen say.
I saw a lady wipe away a tear when it was announced the granddaughters of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and freedom fighter Hosea Williams would sit on stage together. “Selma has certainly changed,” people whispered throughout the crowd.
I was disturbed as a group of protesters who began to chant after the President was introduced. However, I was quickly reminded that this is America.
Obama continued his speech, undisturbed, reminding us all how those foot soldiers marched on and “comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung: God will take care of you.”
As Obama recited the words of the hymn, I felt a large lump in my throat. I remembered that my Grandmother loved that hymn and seemed to be comforted by the same words.
Now I have to wonder no more how they endured the tear gas, the beatings, the harsh words and more. Yet, returned another day to face the same trials.
“What a solemn debt we owe,” Obama said.
Again, my heart was stirred with a challenge to repay the debt.
Thank you Mr. President for making it plain and clear.
“Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person,” he said. “Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
On Sunday morning, I walked across the bridge, snapped my selfie and looked out among a vast sea of thousands. I recognized “my Selma” and the power of “we.”
I will no longer feel sad about owing the debt, but encouraged to continue the march. Like the president said, “Our job is easier because somebody already got us through that first mile.”