Selma-to-Montgomery March Reenacted By Old Hands, Youth
NATHAN HEAD was in his 20s when he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. He still remembers the experience vividly and grows animated when he recalls the thousands of blacks and whites who came from every corner of the country to participate.
''It was exhilarating to see that many people struggling for the same cause,'' Mr. Head says. ''Bloody Sunday literally ignited this country. Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery cleared the way for the Voting Rights Act.''
For Head and hundreds of other who reenacted the famous march last week, it was a time to look back with reverence and ahead with wariness.
Officially, the purpose of the walk, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was to commemorate the march's 30th anniversary.
But it was also a rallying cry against the agenda of the new Republican-controlled Congress, which many blacks say is threatening to turn back the clock on the gains they've made in the last 30 years. They cite drives to roll back affirmative action, ''motor voter'' registration, and congressional redistricting.
''I see us making the same fight for the same kinds of things we fought for in the 1960s,'' Head says.
The march drew many high school students as well as veterans who walked in 1965. Flanked by blue-clad state troopers, they sang ''We shall overcome'' and carried signs and banners as they walked along Highway 80 toward Alabama's capital.
Marie Foster, a Selma native, was part of the group that made history on Bloody Sunday when Alabama state troopers used tear gas and billy clubs on the men, women, and children who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River.
Ms. Foster also walked the 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery 10 days later. ''Ooooh, I would be so tired by the end of every day,'' she says. ''We stayed in tents. It rained everyday, and there was lots of mud.''
On Friday, as the marchers followed Highway 80 into Montgomery, the sun shone brightly. Along the way, people stopped to watch and cars honked their horns in support.
The group paused for nearly a half-hour at a housing project to help people register to vote. Their last stop that day was St. Jude's Educational Institute, the school that had housed the 1965 civil rights marchers before they converged on the Alabama State House.
This time, George Wallace, the one-time staunch segregationist governor who had vowed to stop the marchers 30 years ago, was there to welcome the group. Sitting in a wheelchair on the school's steps, he and Joseph Lowery, president of the SCLC, clasped hands as photographers hovered like bees a few feet away.
''You're a different George Wallace today.... You have come a long way, and we have come a long way,'' the Rev. Mr. Lowery said.
Life for blacks in Alabama has come a long way as well. Alabama boasts more elected blacks to political office than does any other state, according to Democratic state Sen. Hank Sanders. But that number is still only about 17.5 percent of the total number of elected officials.
Much, of course, has changed in Selma, too. ''We don't have white and colored water,'' Foster says. ''We have black people employed in all kinds of companies when before we weren't even able to go into food stores.''
But Etta Smith Perkins, a registered nurse from Selma, says that while blacks have made progress in Selma, many things still haven't changed there. ''We need a change in the mayor,'' she says.
Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, who was a white segregationist when he ran the city in 1965, is still at the helm, although he long ago renounced his segregationist views.
Ms. Perkins says a number of black candidates, including her son, have run against Mr. Smitherman.
The reason why he's been reelected in the majority black city, Perkins says, is that not enough blacks have come out to vote in elections -- and those who did vote ended up splitting their votes among several black candidates.