By Will Brown
It was a Sunday night in suburbia. The much-promised rain finally came and few people were on the roads.
The movie, featured a man, Martin Luther King, who is only discussed for 31 days a year — the weekend before his national holiday and during Black History Month — before being neatly packaged back into our comfortable history.
The recently released movie “Selma” has renewed attention on the small Alabama town that played a pivotal role in illuminating America’s moral failings during the Civil Rights Movement.
How far have we come when it takes a movie to educate us about something that occurred a half century ago?
As historically accurate as the movie may be, it’s an indictment on all of us that it took a movie for some to be enlightened about the darkness that descended on the American south for decades after the War Between the States. This was not antiquity, this was Alabama.
I have visited the Sixtheenth Street Baptist Church, the post-Katrina Louisiana Superdome, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, seen Robben Island with my own eyes, witnessed America inaugurate a black president as well as read countless books about America’s peculiar institution and its ramifications. None of those experiences stirred my soul like my drive across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It was May 2004. I was driving to Shreveport, Louisiana to spend the summer interning at a newspaper.
I was heading west along Highway 80, the famous Highway 80, from Montgomery toward Meridian, Miss. I was on the phone with a friend from college because it was a Sunday afternoon and my mind was wavering.
As I approached, I asked her to give me a minute as I drove across the bridge in silence.
As my gold Nissan Stanza reached the crest of the bridge, a feeling came over me that I have never experienced before or since. The chills started at my shoulders and ran all the way down to my lower back. I looked out at the Alabama River and wondered why people would inhumanely treat others as was the case on Bloody Sunday.
It didn’t make sense to me, as a 19-year-old college student at the time.
I was upset, but not angry; sickened, but not spiteful; emboldened, but not embittered. The souls who risked their lives, and those who did not have the opportunity to live long enough to see the peaceful protest of power spoke to me as I drove over the bridge.
For nearly two miles I was alone in my thoughts. My moving car ensured I did not remain locked in the past, but focused on the future. It was not until I looked down that I realized I had abandoned my conversation.
Hate and racism are taught.
Hate is less tangible than a cigarette, but there are parallels between the two staples of 20th century America. Both are consumed in private, clandestine places because it is now uncivil to do so in public. Both eventually kill you from too much consumption. Both have featured numerous legislative and social attempts to eradicate them. Both have infected second-hand consumers.
The new century has not eliminated either.
We are more secretive about our consumption. Both are deadly. But, those who choose to self-medicate with poison, do not want others looking down at our failings.
Discrimination may have been the vice in vogue five decades ago. As that has dissipated, others have replaced it.
“This dignity cannot be found in man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.”
President Johnson’s words in March 1965 were just as prescient today as they were when he challenged Congress and the rest of us to do better.
That day, Johnson told all of us that we shall overcome. Five decades later, we have overcome many of the rivers that segregate us, but not enough of them.
Laughs and liveliness,