TOsa longtime activist and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and because I lived in Selma, Alabama, for about 10 years, I’ve participated in many Bloody Sunday and Selma to Montgomery commemorations. But this time, it feels a little different.
This is the first time after the renewed battle for federal voting rights legislation, which we have fought for throughout 2021 starting with our fight against Georgia’s voter suppression bill early in the year, and continuing with similar efforts in Florida as well as Texas, where activists and legislators successfully delayed a voter suppression bill for six months.
In a series of actions involving non-violent civil disobedience, I was arrested five times, including one arrest which resulted in an overnight stay in a DC jail. This movement eventually led to the historic Senate debate and unsuccessful vote this past January. In the aftermath of all of this, returning to Selma for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee takes on even more meaning than usual.
This is also the first time I am participating after being diagnosed with two forms of cancer in 2021. I’m now immunocompromised, constantly exposing myself to crowds. If I’m feeling tired, or if I feel an ache in my back, I wonder, Is this because I walked multiple miles or participated in a four-hour rally, or is this something related to my health condition?
I’m battling cancer, and I’m battling against a wave of state-level voter restrictions upheld by the supreme court and Senate inaction that would turn back the clock on voters’ rights.
Over the past week Black Voters Matter joined local and national partners, each responsible for organizing a leg of the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. We are determined to continue the work of a generation of freedom fighters who came before us.
Sunday: More than a photo op
It is the Sunday of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, and at 5 this morning it took me longer than usual to get dressed. Usually for events, I put on my trusted jogging pants, “Black voters matter” hoodie and hat, with my Black voters matter shoes and I am out the door. Today would be different, partly because of the nature of this anniversary, but also because I would be sharing the stage with the vice-president of the United States, as a leader of a national social justice organization that played a central role in fighting for voting rights this year. So my usual “uniform” remained in the closet, and I reluctantly grabbed a suit, but true to my activist heart, the Black voters matter hat punctuated the outfit because, as my staff will tell you, I always want to send a message that Black voters matter, even when I am not saying a word.
Vice-president Kamala Harris attended the bridge crossing, but we didn’t have time for a conversation beyond, “nice to meet you”; I would have loved to have discussed the future of voting rights, or even the economic development needs in Selma, but today would not be that day.
That experience is symbolic of what the Selma commemoration has become – a multi-day photo op. As someone who has access to folks with national influence and access to resources, I feel a responsibility to voice the frustrations of this community which gave so much to this country but has received so little in return. On this day, I didn’t, and even though I know it was more a function of limited access than a personal failing, I still can’t help but feel like I fell short.
Monday: everyone’s safety on my mind
The Poor People’s Campaign, Transformative Justice Coalition and Rainbow Push Coalition coordinated the first day of the Selma to Montgomery march (not counting the Sunday bridge crossing). I wanted to attend along with some of our BVM team to show support for these three organizations, which have been deeply involved in the battle for voting rights legislation, but I also wanted to attend to assess Covid protocols and the ever-present problem of threats . We generally do a good job planning for this as we travel the country in the Blackest bus in America, which attracts its fair share of attention from racists in many states, especially in more rural counties. In light of conservative extremists using vehicles as weapons, like in Charlottesville, we take safety at marches very seriously. All went well today, but the safety concerns will always linger.
Tuesday: lending my voice
Instead of participating on day two of the march, I spoke at a press conference in downtown Montgomery organized by the Alabama chapter of the League of Women Voters to raise awareness about a proposed bill that could eliminate the ability for voter mobilization organizations to register voters or assist with voting by mail. That evening, BVM hosted a dinner with our funding partners to advocate for extra resources in Alabama’s Blackbelt.
Driving home from the dinner (where I ended up pulling clean-up duty), I received a phone call about a safety concern that sent my mind on a whole new iteration of asking whether there was something I’d overlooked. My mind spiraled into thinking about tomorrow, the day BVM was in charge of organizing. Will we stay on schedule? Will college students feel the trip to join us was worth their time? Will our political objectives be met? Those questions stayed on my mind all night.
Wednesday: today was a good day
It started off kind of shaky when I woke up at around 4am, not intentionally but probably because of that nervousness you feel when you want to make sure you’re not oversleeping when you’ve got something important to do. I ended up using that time to think about what I wanted to say when it was time to speak to the crowd to get everyone fired up to march.
Our BVM team loaded our bus on schedule and we arrived at the starting point right on time. When we arrived I thought, this doesn’t look like the 600 people we were expecting. I tried not to worry about it.
With a combination of freedom songs, racial justice chants, and a DJ playing a rotation of old school and current jams geared towards our college-aged marchers, we ended up picking up more marchers along the way, totaling close to 800 throughout the day. It was a mix of protest march and a moving block party all rolled into one. By the time we reached the end of the nine miles BVM was in charge of organizing, marchers shouted out, “Let’s keep going” and “let’s go back and do it again!” It’s important to know they enjoyed it because the presence of Black joy, Black culture and Black love has always been important for sustaining our movements.
I was excited that BVM’s nine-mile leg of the march went through historic Lowndes county – a part of Alabama’s Blackbelt region that helped shape my activism – so I could highlight its role in the voting rights movement and ongoing battles over sewerage problems that affect the health of residents there. For me, a highlight today was when one of the four “foot soldiers” – residents of Lowndes county who had participated in the 1965 march and/or were evicted from their houses and lived in tent city – made us laugh, cry and took us to church, all within her five-minute speech. As I told the audience when the group finished speaking, the history they shared today was absolutely priceless! If one of our objectives for the day was to have participants gain a better understanding of Lowndes county and for Lowndes county to feel valued and appreciated, that mission was definitely accomplished.
Thursday: in pain but passing the torch
Often during our movement, we sing, “I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom!” Well, I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on a helluva back ache!
Nevertheless, I had to go back to pass the torch to our friends from labor union organizations who coordinated Thursday’s leg of the march. I was intending to simply make a few remarks, then pass the torch, since I knew my body wouldn’t let me do another nine miles. But, next thing you know, we were two miles into the march! My wife convinced me to take a ride back to our car.
I’m writing this Thursday night, back in my hotel room, getting ready for the final day tomorrow, when the march ends in Montgomery, which is being coordinated by our friends at the Legal Defense Fund. It ends at the capitol building, the same end point for the 1965 march where Dr King gave his famous “How Long?” speech, a speech that I have referenced a couple of times during our rallies last year.
I’ll be one of the speakers at the rally tomorrow. I can only pray that whatever I say will be worth someone quoting 57 years later.
But more importantly, my hope is that what I and others say tomorrow, what we’ve done this week, and the plans that our coalition is putting in place for the rest of the year, result in the passage of voting rights legislation.
This week has been about strengthening our movement so that we can move beyond fighting against voter suppression to fighting for the broader vision of racial justice and the type of society that we truly deserve. We still have a lot more bridges to cross, and many more miles to march. And I’ll be there.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism