SELMA. A few days ago, an estimated 40,000 people descended on Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and recently portrayed in Ava DuVernay’s film) and of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights legislation passed in its wake.
The Selma Jubilee was festooned with all the contradictions of American society circa 2015: it had dozens of corporate sponsors, a speech by President Obama, and the thrilling presence of Rep. John Lewis, who at age 24 almost died from a beating by Selma police. In a CNN interview on 6 March, Lewis said, “The bridge at Selma is almost a holy place. It is a place where people gave up their blood to redeem the soul of America…. We came to the highest point, and down below we saw a sea of blue, Alabama State Troopers. And behind the Troopers we saw men on horseback…. They came at us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, I went down on my knees. My legs went out from under me. I thought I was going to die.”
Gratitude isn’t a strong enough word for the awestruck admiration that hitches a ride on a tidal wave of love—for justice, for the human beings who are owed justice—that sustains such courage, determination, and vision. The power of that love got President Johnson to send troops to protect the marchers on their next attempt to cross the bridge and to sign the Voting Rights Act that August.
ALOHA. We visited my husband’s family on Oahu last week, spending hours looking through old family photographs and hearing the stories that went with them: plantation workers who took on extra jobs to better their families’ lot, women who made cottage industries out of the scraps others left behind. We had coffee with friends who shared tales of children born in mainland internment camps and the beautiful lives they made despite the insult and injury of official prejudice that locked them up, cared nothing for their homes and possessions, treated them as enemies in their own land.
One of the Selma marchers both in 1965 (the events on the bridge moved him to journey to Alabama) and last week was Todd Endo, himself born in an internment camp, who when he marched this month wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Still in Pursuit of the Dream.” “I went in as a Japanese American in support of African Americans on issues that they determined to be their civil rights, even though that wasn’t me, or my people, or my ethnic group.” He told The Washington Post that “what was going on in the South during the 1960s bore similarities to what had happened to Japanese Americans during the 1940s, when about 120,000 were stripped of their rights and forced into internment camps.”
Endo wasn’t the only Japanese American who took part. Have you ever wondered why Dr. King and others leading the march in Selma were wearing leis? Read the story of Reverend Abraham Akaka’s loving gesture of solidarity. “Aloha” has many meanings, including peace and love. I think it must also encompass this enormous gratitude for compassion in action.
AHAVA. A year before Selma, three civil rights workers who were part of Mississippi Freedom Summer were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were abducted on their way home from investigating the destruction of the Mt. Zion Church in Longdale, MS. Chaney was African American, a local activist from Meridian. The other two were Jews from New York. President Obama conferred posthumous Presidential Medals of Freedom on all three last year.
Goodman’s family set up a foundation to support the work for which he gave his life. John Lewis invited Goodman’s brother David to the Bipartisan Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage last week in Selma. The foundation’s vision: “Every person will take action to create a peaceful, just, and sustainable world.” “Ahava” is Hebrew for love.
In a few weeks, it will be Passover. Of all the stories associated with that holiday of liberation, the one that moves me most is the tale of Nachshon ben Amminadav. The Israelite slaves escaped from Egypt only to find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea, unable to move forward. With Egyptian chariots at their backs, they must have felt the bitter irony of escaping into a trap. Moses assured the people that they would be saved, but no one stepped into the water until Nachshon ben Amminadav “sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea.” The story is told that even as the others debated and speculated, Nachshon stepped into the sea up to his knees, then his chest, then his chin. Finally, when the waters reached his nose, the sea parted, allowing the escaped slaves to cross on dry land. The slavemasters pursuing them drowned as the waters closed to cover them.
Critical, generative moments in history invite just such risk, stepping into waters that represent both danger and redemption. Stepping onto a bridge where “a sea of blue” awaits.
The only hope of freedom and justice for any of us is to cross the bridge to a society in which these essential goods are equally available to all. Otherwise, we’re just asking for special favors, and the terrible thing about favors is that they can always be withdrawn.
Selma, Aloha, Ahava: it has the ring of a chant, does it not? To me, it is a prayer of thanksgiving.
Elmore James was born in Mississippi and died in Chicago a year before Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Here’s his version of “The Sky is Crying.”