Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, a 25-year-old pacifist named John Lewis and others from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference strode toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They aimed to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to press for voting rights and to protest the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man killed weeks before by state troopers.
At the bridge, police violently blocked the marchers with tear gas and billy clubs. On TV, the world learned about Bloody Sunday. Ten days later, the Voting Rights Act was introduced in the Senate. It was signed into law that August. 1965 was a remarkable leap forward in the glacial pace of justice.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge continues to evoke a cauldron of emotions. Pettus, a Civil War Confederate general, later became a major leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a U.S. senator. The bridge still bears his name, but now inspires a nobler legacy. Four years ago, I marched there with now-senior Congressman John Lewis, my own Representative Barbara Lee, and Bay Area students from the Martin Luther King Freedom Center. Most important to me, I stood there that day with my teenage daughter. Her birthday is on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Crossing the bridge with her felt like ancestry in progress.
Our nation still stands on that bridge. How can we cross it? Voting rights are still imperiled. Police brutality still exists.
In an extraordinary poem of that era, Lucille Clifton wrote: