While in Selma, Alabama for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorating the historic 1965 voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery last weekend, I thought a lot about bridges. Bridges are a powerful metaphor for how we think about our lives, how we shape and realize our dreams.
Personally, politically and socially we tend to think of bridges as moving us forward not back, and as signifying that we are ready to cross over into a new concept of ourselves. The 25,000 people who made that march in 1965 wanted to, and in many ways did, force America to cross a bridge into a long-denied and long-promised Promise Land of equality for African Americans.
This annual reenactment of one of the most pivotal events in American history, popularly known as Bloody Sunday celebrated its twentieth year. Vice President Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden joined Congressman John Lewis, other civil rights icons and thousands of others singing We Shall Overcome as they marched to remember and honor a struggle and its known and unknown heroes and heroines.
The Sunday bridge crossing culminated a week rich in symbolism as a sculpture of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Capitol Building, (joining a bust of Sojourner Truth unveiled two years ago), and Congressman Lewis accepted an apology from the current Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy for the department’s failure to protect Lewis and other Freedom Riders during a 1961 attack by a white mob. There was also the more disturbing symbolism of the skeptical questioning of some Supreme Court justices during oral arguments before the court in Shelby County, Alabama v Holder that seeks to gut one of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
All this got me thinking about the real and symbolic bridges I saw in Selma and the bridges of our shared American history that I brought in my spirit with me. There was the Edmund Pettus Bridge itself, named for a white post-Reconstruction Alabama senator and upholder of the south’s racial status quo, reclaimed each year by those who turn it into a bridge to freedom. There is the bridge built by the Voting Rights Act which changed the complexion, face and meaning of politics and power in America. Like many I wonder if this is a bridge the Supreme Court is ready to essentially burn. For striking the provision being challenged, gives a green light to the bold and reenergized efforts at voter suppression witnessed in the 2012 election.
The plaster cast footprints of some of those who marched 54 miles “through pain and rain” as they say in Selma, after crossing the bridge all the way to Montgomery are displayed in the city’s civil rights museum. The dedicated group of private citizens in Selma and Montgomery who plan and present the annual bridge crossing each year is evidence that they have literally stepped into the footprints and shoes of their activist predecessors. The Bridge Crossing itself bridges the gaps between people of different races attracting attendees from around the world to a town the planners are determined the world will never forget.
When I spoke with some of the college students from Tuskegee and Vanderbilt, and heard their awareness of the significance of the activism of the past and their commitment to carry on that tradition in their professional and personal lives, I crossed a bridge from skepticism to optimism about the generation that will inherit the job of keeping both this celebration and as Jesse Jackson would say, “hope alive.”
I doubt if anyone marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 dared imagine a black president. But that’s the thing about bridges, you never really know what is on the other side, even when you have crossed them.
Marita Golden, a Prince George’s County based writer, is the author of “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex” and many other award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction.