We are still in Selma
John Robert Lewis has died. And barely a day earlier passed Rev. C. T. Vivian. I am not sure the present generation can really begin to plumb the depths of the raw physical courage these two men had. It was courage that makes the exploits of so-called superheroes pale and diminish by comparison.
These were men who stood at the forward ranks in the Southern Movement for Civil Rights, as Rep. Lewis’ friend Julian Bond called it. They walked unflinching into the dogs and the Alabama state troopers that Americans saw between commercials on their black and white television.
Look back through your Google for the booking photographs of a young John Lewis sitting in a Mississippi jail cell and you will see a smile around the corner of his mouth.
Find one of the tall and lanky C.T. Vivian confronting the white voting registrars refusing to let his followers register to vote.
And when you do recall that they had no buffer — they had no bodyguard but faith and determination. The “good trouble” into which they waded had no guarantees of safety or success — only a guarantee of trouble. But, they went anyway. Because they knew it was the only way to make a change.
Yes, there were lawyers and there was the N. A. A. C. P. There were Nobel laureates. But at bottom, until John Robert Lewis and Rev. Vivian went into the jaws of the lion’s den of segregation, America paid little heed.
It was after Selma’s Bloody Sunday interrupted a movie about the Holocaust that America sitting in its living rooms saw the raw courage of John Lewis and his movement — all for the right to cast a vote.
It was after Selma’s Bloody Sunday that Southerner Lyndon Baines Johnson would declare with presidential determination that “we shall overcome.” And, for a moment, we did overcome.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act cast the mold for justice in those States that after rejoining the Union had determined to set every obstacle in the path of Black voters.
Yet, a naive and dangerously conservative Supreme Court one day would decide that voting rights must take second place to a constitutional doctrine made from whole cloth and a determination to maintain white majorities in the South.
John Lewis and his generation like every Joseph-like dreamer before him saw a new pharaoh arise in the Land who would say that the march of freedom had traveled far enough.
But we know it is not so. We know that both North and South we are still in Selma. We know the right and opportunity to vote is still under assault in subtle but still deadly ways — just as it was when C. T. Vivian and John Lewis risked personal freedom for long-lasting liberty.
If you think we are not in Selma, then take a closer look. Look at Wisconsin. Look at Georgia. Look at Portland. And look at Florida. The fight for the vote begun so long ago by C. T. Vivian and John Robert Lewis is not over.
Let us meet them at the bridge.