A Bridge This Far

Forty four years after Selma, everything has changed.

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SELMA—Forty four years later, the 44th president of the United States is black. Things do change.

From behind the gates of the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1965, Peggy Wallace watched as marchers made their way to the state capitol in a stand for voting rights. Her father, then Gov. George C. Wallace, led his state with a mantra: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” words taken from his 1963 inaugural address. For years he was a national symbol of the racist South.

But Sunday, Peggy Wallace Kennedy stood in the pulpit of Brown Chapel AME Church, the place where civil rights marchers in Alabama often went to rally and pray their way toward equal rights.

Forty-four years after that fateful day, Kennedy introduced the guest speaker for the morning—Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black man to hold the job. Holder was in Selma for the commemoration of Bloody Sunday, that March 7, 1965 when civil rights marchers were beaten and bloodied by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery.

“It’s reconciliation and redemption,” said Kennedy who also spoke of how she has been inspired by President Barack Obama.

Forty-four years have passed since marchers tried to cross that bridge over the Alabama River in Selma, only to meet one of the most vicious displays of racial violence in modern memory. But Selma changed the world, and that change is now evident from the White House to the pulpit at Brown Chapel AME.

Ironically, in June of 1963, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was there with Eric Holder’s future sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, along with James Hood became the first black students to enroll at the University of Alabama. It was then that Kennedy’s father, Gov. Wallace, made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” speech, attempting to prevent Malone and Hood from enrolling.

“I so wish Vivian had lived to see this moment,” said Holder, whose wife Sharon Malone is the younger sister of Vivian Malone Jones.

The Sunday culmination of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee was filled with imagery. In Selma, a small town in Alabama’s Black Belt, church parking lots are packed full on Sunday.  At Brown Chapel, a brown-stoned church that sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Street less than a mile from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the crowd spilled into the streets.

Inside was a who’s who gathering of the civil rights movement along with 30 members of Congress and dozens of federal agents keeping watch over the hallowed house of worship.

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