President Obama, speaking Saturday at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, placed Selma in the pantheon of historical sites alongside Concord, Gettysburg and Kitty Hawk. Then Obama, joined by his wife Michelle and their daughters, walked hand-in-hand with one of the original Selma marchers, Rep. John, Lewis, D-Ga., across the 1,200-foot-long, steel-and-concrete bridge where Highway 80 crosses the Alabama River to commemorate the bloody civil rights confrontation 50 years ago that transformed America. Former President George W. Bush and other dignitaries and activists joined them.
It was a particularly poignant moment for a president who has traced the events on Bloody Sunday in 1965 to raising the nation’s conscience and changing its voting laws, opening the way for his election as the country’s first African-American president. Obama spoke in the riverside town to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when police attacked marchers demonstrating for voting rights.
The violence preceded the Selma-to-Montgomery march, which occurred two weeks later. Both helped build momentum for congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act later that year. The congressional delegation included US Representative of Georgia John Lewis – an Alabama native who was among the marchers seriously injured in the violence 50 years ago. Civil rights veterans and political figures took part a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Police beat and tear-gassed marchers at the foot of the bridge on March 7, 1965 in an ugly spasm of violence that shocked the nation.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where MLK and peaceful Civil Rights marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama State Troopers and the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago is named after a Confederate Brigadier General. After the Civil War was Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and a virulent opponent of implementation of the Constitutional provisions for emancipated slaves. Before the Civil War he had been a member of a para-military militia in California which terrorised Native Americans. A lawyer in Selma this unrepentant racist and bigot became a two term Senator for Alabama, the last of the Confederate Brigadiers to serve in the upper house. Lynching’s claimed 326 African American lives in Alabama in 73 year span. Edmund Pettus’ life was a nasty life badly lived. Perhaps this bridge deserves a better name?
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868, and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” By directly mentioning the role of the states, the 14th Amendment greatly expanded the protection of civil rights to all Americans and is cited in more litigation than any other amendment.
In 1874, after several years of financial hardship, political intrigue, and continued manoeuvring by Democrats, the ex-Confederate faction of Alabama regained the governor’s office, with the election of George S. Houston. In the decades that followed, leading up to the 1901 Constitution, Alabama Democrats successfully overturned any expansion of voting rights for freed people and returned the state to the planters’ preferred focus on low taxes and minimal government regulation. This period is known as “Redemption,” so called because the white-supremacist Democrats who regained political power believed that the South had been “crucified” by federal tyranny and black rule and would now rise again to its former glory. Edmund Pettus In 1896, at the age of 75, ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat and won, beating incumbent James L. Pugh. His campaign relied on his successes in organizing and popularizing the Alabama Klan and his virulent opposition to the constitutional amendments following the Civil War that elevated former slaves to the status of free citizens. On March 4, 1897, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and was re-elected in 1903.
Reconstruction in Alabama is a mixed legacy. Freed people took advantage of the post-Civil War era to secure access to the public school system and basic equality before the law. Although less assertive in civil rights demands than in other states, the freed people in Alabama challenged the racial hierarchy effectively, which explains the depth and persistence of violent opposition by ex-Confederates, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan. The long-term result of Reconstruction was to strengthen the most reactionary aspects of southern society—vigilantism, states’ rights militancy, and Democratic one-party rule—which became embodied in Jim Crow laws that pushed blacks out of Alabama and the South during the Great Migration. These factors set the stage for another confrontation with federal authority over civil rights nearly a century later.
The issues of black equality and suffrage that had been stirred in the Reconstruction Era simmered for decades in Alabama and elsewhere in the South until they boiled over in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Alabama’s experience with Reconstruction was broadly representative of the other southern states, and the outcome was equally dire for the civil rights of the freed people and their supporters
Today, Selma still struggles to overcome its legacy. The city’s population has declined by about 40pc to 20,000 in the last 50 years and Dallas County’s unemployment rate is nearly double the state average. Public schools in Selma are nearly all black; most whites go to private schools. Blacks lead the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration; whites lead an annual re-enactment of the 1865 Battle of Selma to attract Civil War re-enactors.
For Barack Obama, the trip to Selma marks the continued celebration by the first black US president of three of the most important civil rights milestones in America’s tortured racial history. Obama’s Selma remarks touched on the issue of voting rights. Obama also addressed the issue in his State of the Union address. His administration has challenged southern states that have imposed new voting requirements, including showing photo identification before being allowed to vote and curtailing opportunities to vote early.
Critics of these moves say they disenfranchise mostly minority voters and set back the gains won by civil rights marchers, including those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A divided US Supreme Court voted 5-4 in June 2013 to remove from federal law the most effective tool for fighting discrimination against voters. Ruling in a case from Shelby County, Alabama, the high court eliminated the Justice Department’s ability under the Voting Rights Act to identify and stop potentially discriminatory voting laws before they take effect.
So perhaps for the 51st Commemoration in Selma, an 80% Black town with a Black Mayor, could take place at a bridge which is not named after a violent racist bigot who spent years leading the white population in a campaign of violent intimidation against Black People? Maybe that and stopping the gerrymander which is occurring in Jim Crow States by denying Black and poor people voting rights would be a tribute to MLK, the Civil Rights Movement and America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama?
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