An interracial group, including men and women from around the country, began gathering at a community college in Selma, Alabama, early on Sunday morning last week.
After a communal breakfast at which they exchanged old memories and shared wishes for a better future, they held a rally in the chapel of a nearby church, then started marching en masse across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River. By then, the number of people in the group had grown to 5,000, including members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.
The event was the annual Reenactment of the Selma to Montgomery March (officially, the “Bridge Crossing Jubilee”), which commemorates a landmark turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement.
In 1965, at the height of the struggle to grant Blacks in this country equal voting rights – among many rights that white residents of the South considered privileges they were unwilling to cede to black residents – an unarmed, 26-year-old man from Marion, Alabama, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot to death in his hometown. To protest the killing, a march from Selma, a center of civil rights agitation, to Montgomery, the state capital, was scheduled for March 7.
The 600 marchers were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state and hastily deputized local police who, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, turned the marchers away.
The “law enforcement officers” beat the marchers; the beatings of “Bloody Sunday” became headline news in the national media; the violence, and two marches that followed that month, under protection of the U.S. Army and the Alabama National Guard, were credited with marshaling national sympathy for the civil rights cause and leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act, which added millions of black voters to southern voting rolls.
To remember the march, and its role in spurring the passage of the groundbreaking legislation, a memorial march is staged each year along, starting at the bridge, along U.S. Route 80, on the 50-mile route that is known in Alabama as Jefferson Davis Highway and is designated as a National Historic Trail – “Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail.”
The reenactment energizes black and white Americans, galvanizing them for current civil rights struggles; this year, mostly white Shelby County is seeking to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The march’s impact extends beyond history. “We are not here for a continuation,” the Rev. Al Sharpton declared at the march. “We are here for a continuation.”
Biden, the first sitting vice president to participate in the reenactment, described the emotional impact that the images of beatings at the hands of police officers had on his generation.
American blacks have learned the visceral effect of such reenactments. At the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, scene of a prominent crossing point to Canada of runaway slaves fleeing southern slavery via the Underground Railroad in the 19th Century, reenactments by actors dressed in period clothing are staged each year. Participants and onlookers feel as if they are back in a time when people were enslaved in this country.
This is old news in the Jewish community.
We’ve been doing our own reenactment for 3,300 years. We’ll do it again next week when we sit down at our seder tables, when we remind ourselves that we are commanded to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, out of slavery. At many tables, the subjects of the Holocaust, of religious restrictions during Communism, of contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism – all of which has taken place in our own memory – are likely to come up.
On Monday night and Tuesday night we will realize, like the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that events that changed our history isn’t a matter of “them,” long ago, it’s “us,” today.