On receiving an Academy Award for the song “Glory” that he wrote with John Legend for the film Selma, the rap singer Common told the audience in Hollywood that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, that was a focus of the movie “was once a landmark of a divided nation,”
No question. That was the bridge that civil rights workers in 1965, led by John Lewis, crossed in an ill-fated attempt to begin a march to Montgomery seeking to assure African-Americans the right to vote. The march was cut short by police and volunteer deputies who savagely beat the protesters and drove them back. The steel arch had been built only 25 years before and named after a former Confederate general, U.S Senator and Alabama Grand Dragon (chief leader) of the Ku Klux Klan.
But, 50 years later, Common told the audience, the bridge “is a symbol for change.” The now-aging steel structure, he said, has become a reminder that determined action can bring about justice. For, not a week after civil rights workers were turned back, they marched again, and this time a path was cleared for their march to Montgomery and eventually the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It was a hard-won victory, and two Unitarian Universalists, Rev. James Reeb and Violet Liuzzo, among others, died to bring it about.
So, it made it all the more sweet to hear Common declare that, “The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and social status. . . . This bridge is built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated with the love for all human beings.”
This coming Sunday I’ll be joining what could easily be thousands, including hundreds of Unitarian Universalists, in a ceremonial crossing of that bridge. In the days before I’ll be part of a Living Legacy conference that will examine those times, what’s been achieved for civil rights and the work that remains before us. I’ll be there with Clark Olsen of UUCA who was attacked with Jim Reeb in 1965 and has spent so much time since telling the story of Selma and working for civil rights.
I wanted to be in Selma not just to mark an important anniversary but to remind myself, as I hope we will remember, that, as John Legend told that Oscar crowd, “Selma is now, the struggle for justice is right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is now.” I look forward to our conversation about how we in this congregation can be a part of this struggle.