This week has marked another anniversary of the Selma marches to Montgomery for voting rights for People of Color. I have seen the movie, which I recommend if you have not. Over the last two years, as we’ve driven to Florida, we have visited a number of sites on the Civil Rights Trail. This year, we stopped in Selma. It was a Friday morning and the streets were pretty empty. We went to the museum and then walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
I was surprised by the emotion I felt as we walked up the first side and neared the crest before we would see the highway to Montgomery stretching out before us. It is unimaginable to me that children walked across this bridge into the hands of a violent mob. I know this is our history in the United States. But the horror and the violence — and the continued systemic injustice — almost overwhelm my ability to comprehend.
And I probably can’t comprehend, because I am a White, upper-middle class woman with every opportunity for education, happiness, and success. Even as I try to come to grips with my level of complicity in our home-grown structural prejudice, I continue to be surprised by its breadth and depth. It is a cancer that has metastasized in this country. And people are dying from it every day.
After our walk back over the bridge, these words came to me. And they continue to challenge me.
As I walk across this bridge
my heart begins to beat a little harder
overwhelming my rational thoughts
that this bridge
is only history
and there is nothing
How do you walk into your fear?
Is it something you plan
or is it as simple as one foot before the other
(if that is ever simple)?
As I walk across this bridge
I wonder what it was like
to walk two-by-two
wearing a suit and dress shoes
with the intent of marching to Montgomery
I would not get there
knowing that it was not a highway that awaited me
but the fruit of this country’s original sin.
At what point does
the fear of facing death
the fear of this continuing reality?
When they began their walk across this bridge
all was in order
but on the other side of this bridge
order became chaos.
When you beat a person as if they are an animal
when do you realize the animal
The trip back across this bridge
was the pain of centuries brought to bear
of hate made manifest
of the courage to be
of human dignity unwilling to hide.
Which fear was greater on that bridge?
The Black fear
of the violence about to be unleashed
or the White fear
of knowing that recognizing another’s humanity meant facing your own inhumanity?
of knowing that to free the silenced voices would tear away the facade of your own power?
of knowing that to listen to truth would meaning admitting your own lies?
On the other side of this bridge,
where the road becomes a highway
stretching to Montgomery,
I arrive at the memorial.
I read words on plaques
see the images of those who said
I behold the art
beauty from pain
hope in the face of hate.
A memory of a past
still being fought today.
What if this history still lives today
breathing and active
refusing to die
until hope becomes reality?
As I walk back across this bridge
I no longer feel my heart as it beats
my mind begins to become as quiet as the streets
as if nothing ever happened here
as if this were any bridge
in any town
on any given day
only a page of history.
When I leave this bridge will I return it to history?
Will I allow this bridge to continue
confronting me and asking questions I don’t want to answer?
challenging me and making clear the ways I am complicit?
convincing me that this memory of the past is still the fight of today,
is still my fight today?
Or will I leave this bridge