3 Civil Rights Lessons from Selma, Alabama

On March 7, 1965, armed police and posse men attacked a group of civil rights marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The violence hospitalized more than 50 and the day became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Educated in history, I could go on all day about the events in Selma. But in this article, I'd like to describe my wheelchair accessible trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and three important lessons I learned about the struggle for civil rights. If you are interested in a more thorough historical account of Bloody Sunday, I recommend Robert Pratt's new book, Selma's Bloody Sunday (Witness to History).

John Morris, in a wheelchair, looking towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge
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John Morris, in a wheelchair, looking towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I visited the Edmund Pettus Bridge earlier this week, as part of a tour organized by the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information and Alabama Black Belt Adventures. My tour guide for the day was Dianne Harris, of Selma Historical Tours. A foot soldier herself, she brought firsthand knowledge of Bloody Sunday and the events that followed. Dianne was an invaluable resource, and created an experience that revealed much more than books or photographs.

Selma has long been a city on my historical bucket list and, having studied history at university, I arrived with an understanding of the events that took place there. But that knowledge did not prepare me for the emotional journey I was about to take.

You see, people with disabilities are constantly engaged in a fight for access and the protection of our civil rights. It should not be surprising, then, that I was moved by the African American community's struggle (both past and present) for their own civil rights in Selma, Alabama. And while I won't go so far as to equate slavery, racism and segregation with my experience as a disabled man, there are definitely parallels and lessons to be learned.

1. Social justice must often overcome society's defiance.

The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1870, established a right to vote for all Americans, regardless of their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But many states put in place obstacles to voting for African Americans, primarily through literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence.

Daniel H. Thomas, a Federal District Court Judge in Southern Alabama, wrote:

"From May, 1962, to August, 1964, 795 negroes applied to register [in Dallas County] but only 93 enrolled. In the same period, 1,232 whites applied and 945 were accepted."

These figures describe the true nature of voting in Selma, Alabama and the surrounding Dallas County. Nearly 100 years after the 15th Amendment, African Americans were still denied access to the ballot box. With the majority of Selma's white population complicit in the disenfranchisement of African Americans, the odds were stacked against any attempt to ensure the descendants of slaves would have a voice in politics. But, in 1965, the eyes of the nation turned to Selma, as it became the epicenter of the voting rights movement.

2. To effect change, you must be persistent, then vigilant.

On February 18, 1965, civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot after attending a voting rights march in Marion, Alabama. He was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, where he died eight days later. It was his death that inspired the attempted march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.

That march, later referred to as Bloody Sunday, saw the right of people to peacefully assemble restricted, with police using nightsticks and tear gas to turn the protestors back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Beaten and bloodied, the marchers could have given up. But two days later, on March 9, they crossed the bridge again. They were stopped once more, but dropped to their knees in song and prayer, before turning back to Selma. That second march is now known as "Turnaround Tuesday."

On March 17, Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson ruled that the protestors were permitted to exercise their First Amendment Rights:

"The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups. These rights may ... be exercised by marching, even along public highways."

On March 21st, a group of some 8,000, led by activists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis (a current U.S. congressman from Georgia, and a leader of the march on Bloody Sunday), departed from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Crossing the Pettus Bridge for the third time, the marchers were protected by the Alabama National Guard, which President Lyndon B. Johnson had federalized. Four days later, on March 25, after weeks of courage and persistence, some 25,000 protestors reached the State Capitol in Montgomery. It was there that Dr. King delivered these famous words:

"How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."

King's prediction came true, as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. That law gave additional protections to all citizens, ensuring equal access to the polls and prohibiting the very behaviors (like literacy tests and poll taxes) that had been used to disenfranchise African Americans in cities like Selma.

Another angle of wheelchair user John Morris on the Edmund Pettus Bridge
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Wheelchair user John Morris on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with the City of Selma in the background.

But persistence and legislative victories are not enough. Protected classes of people must remain vigilant, even after significant victories in law and policy. Because those who stand in the way of progress for the greater good will continue to do so, regardless of what the law may say.

In this regard, I think of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act - two laws that have had a significant impact on my life as a disabled American. These comprehensive laws were designed to ensure an accessible world, while providing people like me with a life that is free of senseless barriers. But of course, that has not been the case. I have written about the lack of ADA taxis, inaccessible hotel shuttles, how airlines discriminate against the disabled and why the DOT won't hold airlines accountable. There are a million more issues to be exposed, and articles to be written.

After the ADA was achieved, many of the most profound activists in the disability community took a step back. That was a mistake, as we have been left with rights that are oftentimes impossible to realize. I'll not waste time explaining the parallel with the African American community, as you no doubt have discerned it already.

But what African Americans are doing now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, suggests a revived interest in fighting for equal protections under the law. Whether you agree with that movement or not, activists are drawing attention to issues that negatively effect the black community. Perhaps we, as a disability community, also need to find our voice?

3. Every movement needs heroes.

A popular meme reads, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." While this quote is often falsely attributed to Gandhi, it is still an important reminder that our individual and collective efforts can lead us to a better life and a better world.

In 2015, To honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The following excerpt left a powerful imprint on my mind:

"The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities--but they didn't seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before."

This was a challenge to every civil rights activist in America, from the President of the United States. It was a reminder of the lengths to which one group went to ensure the equal treatment demanded by our Constitution.

So with that, I encourage you to charge your wheelchairs and prepare to roll. With the foot soldiers of Selma as inspiration, take your message to Capitol Hill, your state house or your next city commission meeting. We have a long way to go in equal access for people with disabilities, and we'll only achieve that goal if we are individually committed and together united.

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