Thursday: Selma

It seemed hardly real that we would get to go home the next day, especially after Selma.

Selma, Alabama is a world apart from what most of my fellow students are used to. A sleepy Southern town is one thing, but Selma’s Deep South, and that’s a whole other animal.

There certainly is a lot of loveliness to it: historic homes, for example, or the gorgeous cemetery, where Confederate soldiers’ memorials hide under Spanish moss. Actually, the town is very proud of its Confederate heritage. No joke, I have heard people in the 21st century refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, or, if they’re feeling politically correct, the War Between the States. My stepfather’s father would really get into it with his friend from Pennsylvania: damyankies this, rise again that.

So, it’s hard to miss all the Confederate flags flying around town. Almost immediately, that creates a threatening environment, what with the KKK adopting Confederate pride. I’ve never seen blatant signs of KKK activity in town, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed.

Most white people in Selma just want everyone to forget the violence that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement, because, frankly, it’s embarrassing. Many associate the phrase “Civil Rights” with Black Panthers (the group got started here, during the Selma-to-Montgomery march) and racial divisiveness, rather than Martin Luther King, holding hands, and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

My classmates, especially those who are black, expressed that it was the first place on this trip where they felt unwelcome, like they didn’t belong. We went to lunch at the Downtowner.

(“Why’d you go there?” my stepdad, a Selma native, asked, “That’s the place where the locals eat.”
“Where else would we eat?” I countered.
“Good point,” he replied.)

People were looking at us like we were from another planet. First, we were a large group of young people, which is something I’ve never seen in Selma. Second, our dress was starkly different from that of the local residents (some girls had pierced noses! How scandalous!). Third, we had a very racially mixed group, while the only local black person in the restaurant was the elderly gentleman who cleaned our table (I don’t have the heart to call him a “busboy”).

A table of locals actually asked what a white student what we were doing there, and she told them about the Civil Rights Bus Tour. A man leaned over and said, “They’re brainwashing you.”

An older lady wanted to make sure that we knew she didn’t have anything to do with “that mess on the bridge.” She means Bloody Sunday, when the Selma police teargassed and trampled Civil Rights activists on the Edmond Pettus Bridge.

The PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize presents that event beautifully: no music, no commentary, just an old black-and-white video. Marchers come up to a line of policemen in gas masks. There is a pause–dead quiet. Then the line breaks and the screams start.

We walked across the Bridge ourselves in complete silence, two-by-two. I kind of ruined the moment for myself by stopping to pick up discarded plastic bottles and other trash, because keeping the place sacrosanct was more important than preserving the solemnity of the moment.

At this point in the trip, I was hardly sentient. The heat, the fatigue, the sheer amount of information that has been crammed into my head–I no longer knew anything about anything but the Civil Rights Movement. I was a living container for the Civil Rights history. Rebekah, my classmate, told me she was totally sure she has seen tears in my eyes when we finished walking the Bridge, but I don’t remember crying.

P.S.  The first three pictures have been taken by Margie Brandwein-Gensler, a family friend and a great photographer, who was not on the trip, but has visited Selma with my mom.

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