Today, on the third Monday of January, we take a holiday to observe the life and legacy of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a fitting coincidence that today StoryCorps Griot arrives at Tuskegee University from Selma, Alabama; we travel from the site of one of the fiercest battles in the long struggle for the right to be counted as equal citizens to an institution established to develop responsible citizens who would make remarkable contributions to American life.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama was the site of one of the most significant protests in American history. The incident, known as “Bloody Sunday” emblazoned the Edmund Pettus Bridge as an indelible image of violent American oppression. Bloody Sunday sparked national attention on racial discrimination in voting, eventually leading to the passage of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On February 18, 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death by state troopers as he tried to protect his mother and grandmother from a vicious beating during an attack by State Troopers on a nonviolent civil rights demonstration. The demonstrators were attempting to walk half a block to the Perry County Jail in support of James Orange who was jailed for his voter registration activities. A StoryCorps Griot participant explained that sometimes it was good to keep watch over jailed brothers and sisters to make sure they made it to the morning alive. After the murder of Mr. Jackson, residents and local leaders attempted to bring attention to the civil and human rights violations taking place by marching 50 miles, along US Route 80 to the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. (42 years later, in May, 2007 the officer was finally indicted for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson.)
Sunday, March 7, 1965 500+ marchers set out to Montgomery. Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were met by a blockade of State Troopers, the Dallas County Sheriffs department, and posse men. Some were mounted on horses, some on foot and some in cars. Reputedly, Sheriff Clark adorned his “NEVER” button, advertising his opposition to integration. In full view of national news media the law enforcement officers attacked the nonviolent marchers with tear gas, billie clubs, whips, and garden hoses with nails attached to the end. They beat the nonviolent demonstrators back across the bridge. Brutal images of the attack were broadcast across the country rousing a nation-wide outcry and renewed public support for the Civil Rights Movement.
In response to the attack Dr. King called for a Minister’s March urging clergy of every creed to come to Selma. Late that night he blasted a telegram to every corner of the nation declaring:
“No American is without responsibility, All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. . . In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of Democracy everywhere in our land.”
Many of the participants who came to the space StoryCorps Griot created for people to share their stories remembered how they had been affected by Bloody Sunday and the entire period surrounding the turbulent drive for equal rights. One group of participants was Johnny L. Flowers and his 13 year old grandson, Johnny Flowers II. They spent the day of their StoryCorps Griot visit touring the march route and the Lowndes County Inteperative Center museum; a grandfather explaining to his grandson the turbulent transformation he was a part of. Johnny L. was grateful for the opportunity to record a conversation with his grandson. Lately, he said, they rarely have the opportunity to sit and talk. It was the first time the elder Flowers had a chance to tell young Johnny about his own grandfather, who had been a slave in the area.
Johnny II used his time with StoryCorps Griot to ask his grandfather about Bloody Sunday, segregation, and the right to vote. He asked his grandfather how he felt standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that afternoon:
Johnny II: ” When the first time ya tried to go over the bridge, what did you think about when they started beating the people, what was the first thing that came to your mind?”
Johnny L.: “Nonviolence was our motto, and Dr. King had taught nonviolence. And thats a tough thing, to be able to see someone beat up somebody and you don’t fight ‘em back. I’ll never forget that. It is tough, but we did not fight back, and that was tough, we were always tempted to fight . . . I was afraid. I guess I was too scared to run and too scared to do anything but walk.
We went to the church that night . . . tear gas was in our clothes so we couldn’t stay in the church ’cause the whole church was full of tear gas. They quarantined Selma, wouldn’t let anybody in, nor out. I couldn’t go home, I was stranded. Well, you can imagine what my momma and daddy thought about me being in Selma. They figured I was down in front so they imagined that i got hurt, so they cried practically the whole night. A guy – I don’t know who he is to this day – had mercy on us and he let [my brother] and I spend the night with him.”
As they closed their conversation Johnny L. asked his grandson, now that you have been here, seen the museum, learned about the Struggle firsthand, would you ever not vote. He replied “I will register to vote to have thanks for the rights that they died for.”
Can you call it democracy if any one member of society is denied the right to stand and be counted?