I spent the Holidays driving. More accurately, my wife, our two children (who really weren’t excited about being in the car for days at a time), and I embarked on a cross country trip that began on the West Side of Binghamton went to Pensacola, FL and back again. The things you will do to visit family.
In order to make it easier on ourselves, we orchestrated the trip so that we wouldn’t travel more than eight hours in a day, consequently making the nineteen hour trip into a two and a half day affair. This practice necessitated several stops along the way.
One of our stops was in Birmingham, AL. Martin Luther King Jr. has long been an inspiration to me and I have relished reading his books and speeches. One of my most favorite treatise of his was written while he was in jail in Birmingham after being detained for participating in a non-violent civil rights demonstration, so you can imagine that I really liked the idea of spending some time there. But what gave me the most shivers was when I learned that it might add an hour to our time, but on Christmas Day, on the half day trip that ended in Pensacola we would be able to drive the route between Selma and Montgomery. It was here that Dr. King had led a march to protest the literacy requirements and testing that kept black people and poor people from having the right to vote.
You can guess how my children took this news. Having been in the car for two days, even though they were shorter and we filled in the hours we weren’t traveling with good food and some fun things to do, they were not thrilled to learn that they would be in the car for an extra hour. But when they saw how excited I was to visit the historic Brown AME Church and to travel the fifty mile route the marchers took on their way to Montgomery, they agreed to go stating that they could use an extra hour of sleep. One might say that history and struggle is lost on the young.
Every ten miles along the route between Selma and Montgomery, visitors find historic markers commemorating where the marchers set up camp for the night. It’s funny how my kids took that news. Why didn’t they just drive? Why did they have to walk? How did they eat?
When we started to share the logistics and how people had to run support and how important it was not just to use words but to make a statement, I could sense that they were getting more involved in the journey. What took us one hour, took the marchers five days. And in those five days they made a statement to those who would refuse them the right to vote that they were not going away anytime soon and that sooner or later they would have to be dealt with fairly and equitably.
Actually, to set the historic picture straight, it was only the third attempt at this march that arrived in Montgomery. The first attempt was cut short just outside of Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when state and local police attacked the 600 demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas. That day, March 7, 1965, is a day that goes down in infamy as “Bloody Sunday.” The second attempt didn’t go much better.
On the third attempt, as the local and state authorities were poised to suppress the demonstration, a federal judge ordered that the marchers had a right to protest a government that was not working for their interests and placed 2,000 US troops and 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal control to protect the protesters. And then, after making the fifty mile, five day march under their protection and surveilance, Dr. King and the marchers made it to the state capital. While on the steps of the capital building, Dr. King made a speech entitled “Our God is Moving On.”
This speech was not filled with flowery rhetoric like his “I Have a Dream” which has been used and over used each MLK national holiday, leaving many wanting to sing “Kum Bah Yah” and joining hands pretending that we are all color blind. Instead this speech is filled with blood, struggle, and tears. Between the lines you read the pain of a people that faced centuries of violence and bloodshed. If you’re quiet you can hear the history of a people who were attempting to gain the right to be counted as a full human being and not just three fifths, to have their children educated with the same diligence and decorum as white children, and to move to the front of the bus and not stand at the back while others mindlessly sit on the privilege their color awards them.
“We are on the move now,” He entreated, “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now. The arrest and release of known murderers will not discourage us. We are on the move now.
“Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom…. Let us march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist. Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.
“Let us march until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the Untied States Congress men who will not fear to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Let us march until all over Alabama, God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor. For all of us today the battle is in our hands. The road ahead is not altogether smooth. There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going.”
As a parent, I pray that the passion, the tears, and the struggle of that route are not lost on my children. They need to know that there are truths worth living and dying for that surmount narrowly construed self-interest. They need to know that people should be treated with decency and respect and not cavalierly dismissed as beneath them. Sure I think they need to hear the echoes of Martin Luther King Jr. as he gives this impassioned appeal and know the history of the civil rights movement, but more importantly they need to be aware of the beating of their own heart and respond when the time calls to act courageously and passionately to overcome the powerful who would walk all over the weak.
I pray daily that I will impart this gift to them and that they will sense by how I give my life to them, that they can lay theirs down for others. And I pray that they will find in the years to come that that hour drive was time well spent.
Peace and towels,