Saturday, March 7, 2015

Selma: not a book review

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the massacre in Selma that galvanized the Civil Rights movement in cautious Alabama and aroused the conscience of a nation dulled by centuries of institutionalized racism. Is it all better now? It's better, but certainly not all. At least we can talk about it. I can't look at the images now without a rush of emotion, so the reason I've broken from my all-book-reviews format is to think this through.

Twenty years ago, I was a newlywed, married less than a month. My husband's teaching and research position at Auburn University had been stable for five years, but the department was unable to get his grant renewed into 1995, so he began to look outside the university for work. He found an IT job in Jackson, Mississippi working for Bernie Ebbers at LDDS, which later became WorldCom and made world news. I was working at the hospital in Opelika, Alabama, and decided to stay on at least through the summer to sell the house, which meant that some weekends he would come home, and others I'd go to Jackson.

So my first trip to Jackson would have been right around this time in 1995. I had directions from him, but also consulted the road atlas to make sure I knew my way, as I'd never driven west of Montgomery before. I remember how beautiful the countryside was out there, with the black soil and the fields greening with their crops in the gentle spring sunset. I remember feeling grateful to live in a beautiful place. I felt that way often down there. I started to feel hungry coming into Selma, and Meridian, Mississippi was quite a bit further on, so I decided to stop and find some dinner. The four-lane highway curved through the business district, and then I saw it.


That's not in the atlas. They don't tell you that this road through the middle of Selma goes right over this bridge that's in all the history books. 

I had a complete visceral reaction when I came around the curve and saw history out my windshield. The car ran up on that sidewalk on the right, and I narrowly missed running into the guardrail. I pulled over on the shoulder after crossing, to pull myself together. I was surprised to find myself shaking.  You see there are large concrete blocks in front of both of the footings-- it showed me that I am not the only one who has reacted like that. 

Today, right now, activists from all over the country are gathering in this place to pay homage to the leaders and the movement that this place is so much a part of, and it's important to see where we've been and pay attention to where we're going. I have two ways of looking at it from where I sit.

First, I'm very protective of Alabama, because I chose to get my education there and stay after as a social worker in several small communities. When people come from other places and judge the way things are there, it makes me cringe. I worked in a small mill town that was so protective of its beloved gay citizens that no one dared breathe a word of dissent, and I honestly believe they never felt any, either. Maybe upper-class people could afford to discriminate, but in a low-income area, everyone depended on each other and had to look past race, religion, sexuality, and everything just to get by.  That was and is the reality in the small towns.  The cities were different, but I didn't work in the cities down there. It's far too easy to boil things down to the stereotypes and paint everyone with the broad brush of knuckle-dragging racism, but that is not the whole truth. Unfortunately, the people with political power are the ones who could afford to discriminate, and thus the institutionalization.

So the first time I drove across this bridge, it reminded me of the reality that things had been terrible there, not too long ago, and very firmly in the memories of nearly everyone I spent time with. It made me admire them all the more for all they had overcome, for the grace and fortitude with which they lived meaningful, useful, productive lives, with this as the backdrop. I believe that's what overwhelmed me when I saw this.

And second, all of this reminds me of my situation now, twenty years on. My husband has again moved to take a better job, but this time I'm not driving over a bridge to go see him, nor are there any of great historical significance between home and where he is.  Twenty years ago, to my great surprise, I grew to love Jackson and was pleased to call it home for a short while before starting graduate school, where he followed me to North Carolina. This time, North Carolina is home. 

I suppose the big picture here is that there is more to a story than what we can see on the surface, and the part that matters, the great beauty, the lasting value, is much deeper, more complex, more complicated than anyone can know at a glance. 

I've driven the road to Selma. I know what comes before and what lies beyond.  This time, I don't know what's just around the bend, or if I'll react shaking and sobbing on the other side of this bridge. I've had a lot of changes to manage lately, and I choose to meet them with grace and fortitude. I have no idea what's going to happen, but I know that I can handle it. That's the real legacy of my Alabama education.





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