50th anniversary of march on birmingham

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This month Selma, Ala., will mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That’s the day police beat demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Some of the most iconic images of that day were captured by a white photographer — the late Spider Martin.

Spider Martin’s real introduction to the civil rights movement came on a late night at home in February 1965. He was 25, a photographer for The Birmingham News. He explains in a video from 1987 that he got the call because he was the youngest staff member and no one else wanted to go. That assignment would lead to his most famous work.

“About midnight I get this phone call from the chief photographer and he says ‘Spider, we need to get you to go down to Marion, Ala.’ Says there’s been a church burned and there’d been a black man who was protesting killed. He was shot with a shotgun. His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.”

James “Spider” Martin grew up near Birmingham. Small in stature, he earned the nickname “Spider” for his quick moves on the high school football field. He said while he grew up with a few black friends, he was largely ignorant of the injustice blacks faced. That changed once he started covering the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, according to his daughter Tracy.

“He realized that it was history and that it was important,” she says. “He got wrapped up in it.”

Photographer Helped Expose Brutality Of Selma’s 'Bloody Sunday’

Photo credits: Spider Martin/Courtesy Tracy Martin

From President Obama's speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma, Alabama

President Obama, in Selma with thousands of others, spoke on Saturday at the 50th anniversary of the brutal attack on marchers in Selma, Alabama:

“As John [Lewis] noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided.  Many are sites of war — Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg.  Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

"Selma is such a place.  In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

"It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”

Of those marchers, including Lewis, who he praised as one of his heroes, Obama said:

“As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them.  Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse — they were called everything but the name their parents gave them.  Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism challenged.

"And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

"What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

"That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience.  That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance.  

"It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: 

”‘We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.’

“'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Obama then brought today’s news front and center, saying:

“Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism.  For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.

"Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country.  And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar.  It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.  But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic.  It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom.  And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. 

"We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.  If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.  Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed.  Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.  To deny this progress, this hard-won progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

"Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes.  We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true.  We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

"We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won.  We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.

”'We are capable of bearing a great burden,’ James Baldwin once wrote, 'once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.’

“There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.  And this is work for all Americans, not just some.  Not just whites. Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”

Later, Obama continued:

“Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years.  We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace.  We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives.  We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined.  But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

"That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

"For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

"Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are. 

"We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

"We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free — Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be. 

"We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights. 

"We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

"We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

"We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.     We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

"We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway. 

"We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who 'build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.’  We are the people Emerson wrote of, 'who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long’; who are 'never tired, so long as we can see far enough.’

"That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.  (Applause.)  We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.  That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

"And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day.  You are America.  Unconstrained by habit and convention.  Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.

"For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed.  And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

Obama closed:

“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.  Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.  Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile.  Somebody already got us over that bridge.”

Watch the full speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvAIvauhQGQ

Selma at 50: Reflections from Lonnie Bunch

Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lead a group of marchers.  Originally interrupted by violent force from local law enforcement, the group completed the journey to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama with protection from the National Guard ordered to the state by President Lyndon B.  Johnson. © Spider Martin, Coming Into Montgomery, 1965, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, is among the thousands of people gathered in Alabama this weekend to participate in activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery. Join us as he shares his thoughts on events that helped change America.

The three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were part of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and led to the passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement.

We’ll be updating this blog throughout the weekend with Lonnie’s thoughts and reflections. 

The Flight: Lonnie’s thoughts as he flew from DC to Selma

“I wondered about the tenor and emotion that would envelope the plane that brought me from the nation’s capital to Birmingham. I expected most of the passengers to be actively involved in the Alabama commemoration. There were a few stalwarts on the plane – among them, Gwen Ifill, co-anchor and managing editor of the "PBS NewsHour.”

But most of the plane was filled with young girls from a Vienna, VA softball team on their way to a national tournament in Birmingham.  At first their giggles of excitement were off-putting. I wanted to school them on the importance of this commemoration.  Then I realized that those who faced bombs, fire hoses and dogs would be pleased to see that the city once known as “bombingham” had become a very different city – a city with black political leadership AND a city that could host a diverse team of girls – black, white, and brown – who just wanted to play softball.“ - LGB

Stay tuned as we keep you updated on his journey!


Another Story: The ride into the city

Photo: One minute and five seconds after a two-minute dispersal warning, police attacked marchers with clubs, bullwhips, and teach gas.  Among those suffering major injuries was SNCC leader John Lewis, pictured here in the light-colored raincoat. © Spider Martin, Two Minute Warning,  Selma, March 7, 1965, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"In a taxi cab that was to take me from the airport to downtown Birmingham, we ran into a great deal of traffic. The driver blamed it on sports tournaments and those "blood thirsty Selma people.” I gathered he meant people like me who were coming to pay homage the Civil Rights generation. He said that the past is no help. I asked if he felt the pain of the past, the scars left on people and on the landscape. Then I said, without looking back there could be no real healing. His long-considered one word response? “Maybe.“ - LGB


Scared Space: Inside the 16th Street Baptist Church

Photo: Just two weeks after the march, on September 15, 1963, white supremacists planted a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four young girls attending Sunday school. This terrorist act was a brutal reminder that the success of the march and the changes it represented would not go unchallenged. In the face of such violence, the determination to continue organizing intensified. These glass shards are from the church’s stained-glass window. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection.

"This is sacred space. The place where one of the saddest moments of the civil rights movement occurred- the killing of four innocent children in 1963. Today there is sadness but a sadness that is ameliorated by the presence of John Lewis who reminds us that justice can be sowed everywhere. Hearing the choir reminds me how the church and the sounds of the church have eased our burdens for generations.

What an amazing afternoon. I walked into the church with (U.S. Del.-Washington, DC) Eleanor Holmes Norton and remembered this time last year when we took part in this same pilgrimage together.  I remembered how she shared with me memories of her time in Mississippi. Her stories still inspire and move me.

As I entered the church today I immediately saw projected photographs of the four girls killed in this church 18 days after MLK’s "I have a dream” speech. The tears began to flow. Then the minister of the church talked about the role of church in organizing and supporting the Birmingham marches and how children’s march was implemented at the church. This action led the Ku Klux Klan to bomb the church. Then he pointed to the stained glass windows closest to me saying, “those are the windows that were destroyed by the bomb.” I cried again when I realized that shards of glass from that blown-out window – glass from the window closest to the pew where I had randomly chosen to sit – have found a home at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and will be on view at the museum when it opens in 2016.

Then John Lewis talked about the beatings he experienced during the freedom rides throughout Alabama, from Anniston to Birmingham to Montgomery.  As he spoke we knew this three day commemoration of the marches in Alabama amounted to something far bigger than a tour of Civil Rights sites – it was a pilgrimage that would leave us, all of us, changed.

Lewis also mentioned a few of the people in attendance who had been in The Movement or touched by it.  There was Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, the widow of Ralph Abernathy, close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Mary Kerry Kennedy, human rights activist, writer and daughter of Robert Kennedy who was assassinated in 1968; Civil Rights Attorney Fred Gray, whose legal brilliance and courage helped numerous people in The Movement to get out of numerous jails.

All of this was enveloped by music. We could feel the spirit as the choir sang Precious Lord, Take My Hand.

And I found renewed strength as we work to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture when they sang Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.

And now the emotion has been drained as we ride the bus to Montgomery.“