I was a toddler when iconic civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Selma, Alabama to march for, among other things, accessibility for African-Americans to exercise the civil liberties granted in the Voting Rights Act.
So, born on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, it has always lived in my spirit as a time of grave injustice and darkness trumped only by what came before it: slavery and segregation.
Because it makes me mad, sad, and a veritable hot mess of other emotions I cannot even name, I do not lightly revisit those times in literature or film, but I do revisit them, both for understanding and inspiration.
Even as I bought my ticket and solemnly trudged into the theatre like I was on my way to a funeral, I knew there would also be light and triumph. How could I not? I had freely entered a non-segregated theatre, undeterred by state troopers – enduring bennies of the hard-won basic human rights struggles I was there to witness on the big screen.
With a lump already in my throat, I skipped the concession-stand popcorn. Too many carbs anyway. But I did grab some napkins since I forgot my Kleenex and I needed them right away. Even though I knew the story line, other physical reactions followed—jumping, flinching, tight jaws—from the horrific images of little girls blown up in a church in nearby Birmingham by White supremacists; Black residents humiliated, bullied and denied at the courthouses when they tried to register to vote; Civil-Rights marchers clubbed, tear-gassed and shot. Some scenes I unconsciously watched with balled fists as if somewhere in my psyche, I figured I was going to have to fight my way out of the theatre.
For longer than I know, I felt the need to be held and rocked until I remembered that it was okay to feel my way through the pain of the times to embrace the undeniable courage, tenacity and dignity it must have taken to rally day after day for years to overcome those hard-as-hell mountains of racism.
That happened in my lifetime, I thought again as I left the theatre, emotionally drained, but head held proud to have witnessed one of those monumental breakthrough moments where dreamers bring everything they’ve got to forge a shared dream.
As race relations go, we are not there yet. We have a Black president, relative voting ease, and MLK Day, but disparities in income, education, opportunity and police protection in Black communities continue to fall short of the American dream.
I have never been to Alabama, much less Selma, although I recently discovered through Ancestry.com that my great-great-great grandparents were born there. Frankly, the South is almost like another planet to me. I know it’s there, but not so sure I could breathe there with my free-spirit, liberal ways.
Selma, though, gave me a chance to pop in the Way-Back machine for two hours and pay homage to the brave people who marched so I could walk the country comfortably in my own caramel skin and casually ink in my election ballots without having to pay a poll tax or answer a zillion questions about the Constitution that I would fail.
I can’t help but wonder if I could have fit in their shoes because some days I can barely fit my own. Have I ever had that amount of purpose, vision and commitment? Could I have protested non-violently; fighting without fighting in an effective, strategic way that raised consciousness not fists?
It is right to do right, so I believe I would have marched, shared encouraging words, helped fill out voter registration forms, or fed people because I’m good at those things.
Too, I remember wanting to give Dr. King’s soul-stirring I Have a Dream Speech in high school and literally not understanding why I could play Coretta but not Martin, although I admired the Queen’s quiet strength and sacrifice. I regret not seeing the value in helping with stage props, and being Rosa once, and giving an inner nod to the unsung heroes who tirelessly fought for justice and fed the dream.
Having seen the movie Selma, I kind of want to put my footprints on that Edmund Pettus bridge now and soak up whatever I can of that landmark moment in history, and try to treat any pain that arises like an anchor that reminds me that impossible-seeming things are possible. Still.