On the first Sunday in March, as they have for 48 years, civil rights leaders crossed the bridge to commemorate “Bloody Sunday,” when citizens seeking the right to vote were violently assaulted by mounted troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s volunteer deputies.
As a direct result of that officially sanctioned violence, the Voting Rights Act was passed, ending legal racism and the civilization that supported it.
This past Sunday’s ritual crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was led by Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero badly wounded on Bloody Sunday.
The story did not appear Monday in the national edition of The New York Times or among the top headlines of The Washington Post.
Has Selma been forgotten, a rugged cross of the movement that has lost its character, an icon worn slick and smooth from being touched too often by too many hands?
Maybe as a national story, but Selma for me has had the immediacy of a local story because at the time I was editing a small-town Alabama paper, The Anniston Star.
The year of the melee at the bridge in Selma, 1965, was a rough one at home. A Mother’s Day Ku Klux Klan march downtown was followed by “White Men’s Rallies” on the courthouse steps and a nightrider murder of a black man.
Marshaling the forces of decency, a local doctor and I in a single night raised a $20,000 reward for information leading to conviction of the killer; nearly 300 donors signed an ad announcing the reward.
The reward led to the arrest and conviction by an all-white jury of a young thug named Damon Strange.
Conviction allowed our town to escape being another Selma. Leaflets had already been printed announcing the start of protests and veteran protester, Atlanta’s Hosea Williams, said the movement needed “a good ass lickin’” and it could get one from some of the “mean folks” in Anniston.
A national civil rights campaign coming to a small town is like a great ocean liner, its decks filled by throngs of crusaders and the apparatus of television networks, photographers and reporters; its giant propellers churning through local mores, habits and institutions.
It is a helluva story to cover and The Selma Times Journal did its best. Jack Nelson, a star reporter for The Los Angeles Times, praised editor and publisher Ross Falkenberry.
Arlie Schardt of Time was more than generous, “Many members of the national and world press were in Selma during the 1965 marches, and it was a common occurrence to hear them discuss the Times-Journal in very complimentary and flattering terms,” Schardt continued. “Not only was the news coverage of the highest caliber, but I also distinctly remember several editorials which were notable for their calm, reasonable and thoughtful approach.”
In the wake of the subsequent march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Sheriff Jim Clark and his irregulars were swept away, along with the civilization that supported them.
In time a calming, context-giving normality returned and the community, now led by a black mayor, George Evans, welcomes visitors to what he and tradition have crowned as the “Queen City” of the Black Belt.
A festival air since 1993 has grown around the annual commemoration, a “Bridge Crossing Jubilee” with parades and battling bands. The chamber of commerce and local merchants welcome the visitors and the historic St. James Hotel fills up.
It is the nexus between solemn national affairs and the normality of local life that makes the issue of extending the Voting Rights Act now before the U. S. Supreme Court seem to be fighting the last war in new and different times.
The marchers of 1965 did a very great thing. By 1970, moderate, nonracial Democratic and Republican governors were elected all over the South, except Alabama which reelected a somewhat altered George Wallace again.
The marchers’ feet did not stamp out bigotry and evil everywhere for all time, but they put real muscle in our democracy, which doesn’t need a vast national apparatus to function.
An example of how finely the voting rights bureaucracy grinds in the nine Southern states it covers was our petition to bring our house and wooded acres into the city limits as a civic obligation to the city where the paper is published.
That petition had to go all the way to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Maybe it’s time for the justices to let the fruits of Selma wither away, and let local mayors and district attorneys and newspaper editors see if they can’t keep justice alive all by themselves.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.