Reflections on Selma: 50 Years Later

My father took me and my brothers with him to the polls when he voted for Barack Obama during his first campaign.  We were late to school, but he thought it was important for us to be there.  The second time around, I was a sophomore at Howard and I voted for Obama myself. 

This past weekend, President Obama delivered a rousing address to thousands at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the incident which spurred then-President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That fateful day, police officers in Alabama brutalized 600 peaceful Black demonstrators attempting to march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery.  The march was held to protest the murder of a young Black man Jimmy Lee Jackson by a White police officer following an attempt to register to vote.  Seventeen marchers were hospitalized.  Many more were bruised and bloodied.  All recognized the necessity of their sacrifice for the right to vote – for racial equality.

Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured by police as he attempted to cross that bridge 50 years ago, introduced President Obama at his speech.  Both called the occasion a time to celebrate the progress that has been made in 50 years.  Indeed, much has changed: then, Blacks were widely denied the vote.  Today, the president is Black.  Black people attend historically White colleges and hold public offices.  Still, we are reminded day in and out, that though much has changed, much has not. 

Much progress remains to be made.

We are reminded by Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, whose murders echo eerily the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson.  We are reminded by the deaths of Mariam Carey and Rekiya Boyd that we still live in a society that devalues Black lives, and protects a privileged class of largely White power wielders from prosecution for their crimes against Black bodies. We are reminded by the DOJ’s report on the Ferguson Police Department, that hostility and systematic abuses of power and rights violations still characterize American law enforcement in relation to the poor and people of color.  We are reminded each time police successfully apprehend White mass murderers without firing a shot, yet justify the killings of unarmed Black men.  We are reminded by the mass incarceration of Black men, women, and children. 

We are reminded of the work that remains by the murder of Antonio Zambrano Montes, a Mexican immigrant apple picker shot five times by three officers for throwing rocks at them in Pasco, Washington, in February; by the killing of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez in Denver, Colorado in January.  We are reminded by the experiences of Hispanic Americans who are harassed because of assumed immigrant status.  And the thousands of Hispanics who languish in private prisons while fighting to prove legal status and avoid deportation.

We are reminded by the Chapel Hill murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha; by attacks on Sikh temples, mosques, and Somali natives; and government policies that monitor Muslim American families in New York City. 

We are reminded by sales by the US government of sacred Native American grounds to foreign mining companies. 

We are reminded by the prevalence of these things in the experience of being a person of color, and their near absence from the White American experience.  

Indeed, racial otherness is criminalized and assaulted in modern America. 

We are reminded by the Black unemployment rate which is twice that of Whites, and the fact that poor students of color continue to trail their wealthy White peers in academic achievement.  We are reminded by renewed efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters in states across the South, and in conservative states across the country.  We are reminded by Congress’s failure to repair the Voting Rights Act. 

We are reminded by Mitt Romney’s 47% comments; by Rudy Giuliani’s remarks to White donors that President Obama “wasn’t raised like you were raised and I was raised;” and, most recently, by the video of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity gleefully singing chants about lynching niggers at the University of Oklahoma; that many people in spaces of power, those making decisions that impact us, and who will one day go on to make those decisions, carry race hate towards people of color.

We are reminded of these things.  Daily, we are reminded. 

Those who marched across the Edmond Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, wanted nothing more than equal protection under the laws.  Fifty years later, that goal has not been achieved. Fifty years later, people are still treated differently in political, economic, and social spheres and discriminated against because of their race, simply because they are different. 

Many deny this reality.  They allege we live in a post-racial society, or at least that colorblindness can bring and is bringing us closer to one.  But American society is not post-racial. Nor should that be our goal.  Nor can colorblindness be the weapon with which we fight racism.  Indeed, colorblindness defeats the purpose of diversity.  Our goal should be to embrace and celebrate differences, and to treat people the same despite them, not to make them disappear by pretending they don’t exist.  Not talking about race and racial disparities won’t make them go away.  That can only perpetuate and exacerbate the problem.  We must face it head on if we are to solve it. 

So now is less a time to celebrate racial progress and more a time to recommit ourselves to making more of it.  We must hold America to the values that our Constitution alleges this country stands for.  Generations of Black people fought and gave their lives to bring us to where we are today.  Now a new generation must fight to bring us even further.  A new generation that affirms that Black lives matter.  A new generation that exercises the power won us by those who died so we could vote.  New abolitionists who reject the mass incarceration of Black bodies.  We are the heirs of a rich legacy of resistance, and we must continue this legacy and this narrative.  We must support each other, and the struggles of allies who support ours.  We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to those who sacrificed for us. 

Now is a time to act.  To get involved.  To use whatever talents you have to contribute to the liberation movement.  And to demand and be an agent for the change you claim you want to see, just like those who marched on Selma decades ago.

For if we stop now, all their efforts may be in vain.  But if we press on, we can create a world of tomorrow which we could only imagine today.

Selma was then.  But, truly, Selma is now. 

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He is a weekly opinion writer for Politic365 and an aspiring journalist.


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