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.
Holder paid homage to Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young man who died in a nearby town in 1965 in the fight for voting rights. It was his death on February 1965 that stirred marchers to make their demands louder for equal voting rights.
Jackson was shot in nearby Marion, as he tried to protect his parents with whom he had participated in a voting rights march. Instead of being taken to the hospital for his wounds, Jackson was arrested. He died days later.
What is now a celebration in Selma, was built on the blood and sacrifice of people like Jimmy Lee Jackson. And Holder acknowledged that.
“I am a beneficiary of Selma,” Holder said. As attorney general, he is pledged to defend the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed several measures used in Southern states to keep blacks from voting.
“We stand closer to the dream of Dr. King than ever before, but we’ve got to keep marching,” Holder said. “Some take the view that justice and equality have been achieved by all Americans, but I know better.” And his speech on race last month proved just that.
The U.S. Supreme Court next month will hear arguments on a challenge to parts of the Voting Rights Act that require in some states for officials to get clearance for elections where there has been past evidence of discrimination. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has gone on record saying that his state no longer should be bound by that requirement.
About 10 minutes after Holder spoke, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gave the sermon for a service that began in the morning but ended in the afternoon, shortly after 1 p.m.
Before he preached, the choir sang a familiar gospel, No. 513 in the AME Hymnal, which begins: “Time is Filled with Swift Transition.”
But for Lowery, the hymn was more than just a song. For a moment, he took the microphone and led the singing. “Hold to God, God’s unchanging hand.” But then he stopped, reminding everyone of what lies ahead: “Y’all better leave that alone. We’ve got a bridge to go across.”
Lowery was in the group that successfully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 with the backing of the federal government. And on Sunday, at 87, he did it again. Only this time, he was in a golf cart with someone else was doing the driving.
Reflecting at the church on Jan. 20, when he gave the benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Lowery said, “I see a new heaven and a new earth. We have to build coalitions. We can’t do it all by ourselves. We couldn’t do it all back then by ourselves.”
Forty-four years later. Swift transitions, indeed.
Denise Stewart is a veteran freelance writer and editor living in Alabama.