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Amid Politician Preening, Participants In The Original Selma March Share Their Stories


Hot grits and biscuits were served at the R.B. Hudson School cafeteria Saturday morning during Bridge Crossing Jubilee weekend, recognizing the 54th anniversary of the voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama. For $5 you could fill a plate with a great Southern breakfast, including three kinds of meat, as you crowded into the small plastic seats at the cafeteria tables, crammed together to accommodate the crowd.

In this dimly lit room was the beating heart of the voting rights movement: the now gray-haired foot soldiers who showed true grit in their march for freedom and were jailed, beaten, prodded with electric cattle prods, and spit on. Leroy Moton was a teen washing dishes for a white restaurant owner in 1965 who told him he would “kick his -ss ‘til his nose bled” if he joined up with those “outside agitators.”

Hattie Austin May, standing in her high school cafeteria, showed her court papers from more than 50 years ago when at age 14 she was arrested. May said she and her friends were walking home from school, as they did every day, when they began singing a favorite song of the movement, “Aint gonna let nobody turn me around.”

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin up to freedom land.

“Out of nowhere the sheriff’s deputies arrived and arrested us for marching without a permit,” she said. “It was the first time I ever rode a school bus.” They were bused to the city jail, fingerprinted and photographed, then transferred to “Camp Selma,” a filthy prison camp set up for the large number of teens arrested. May was told she’d be declared a ward of the state and sent to Mount Meigs Reform School if she got in trouble again.

The annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee the first weekend of March commemorates “Bloody Sunday”—March 7, 1965—when 600 women, men, and youth, marching for voting rights were beaten, clubbed, and hit with tear gas by state troopers and sheriff deputies on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Nearly 100 marchers were hospitalized, including (now) Rep. John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull. The appalling violence that day elicited a national outcry that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August.

The Jubilee often draws national attention, and this year was no exception. On Sunday morning, former senator Hillary Clinton was awarded the International Unity Award at the Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King Unity Breakfast and inducted into the Women’s Suffrage Hall of Fame. The well-attended, nationally broadcast breakfast—at $75 a plate—gave Clinton the platform to talk about voter suppression and a “crisis in democracy.” There were also talks given by presidential contenders Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

The Bridge Crossing Jubilee can more than double the city’s population of 19,000. Activities celebrate African American culture with R&B, gospel, blues, and hip hop music. This year’s theme, “Lift Every Vote in 2020,” focused on voting rights and voting suppression, as well as recognizing the work of Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, and a call for reparations for slavery.

Rev. Joe and Joyce Ellwanger from Milwaukee attend every year, driving more than 800 miles to Selma, where they were part of the civil rights movement. “The peaceful work for justice by Dr. King and how it was lived out in Selma, Birmingham, and across the country still sustains us,” Joyce said.

A busload of students from community colleges in North Carolina attended for the first time. Students had to write an essay about why they wanted to participate, and why it was important for a new generation to learn the stories of the movement, said Kenneth Hines, a staff member staff member of Isothermal Community College in Spindale, North Carolina.

The weekend concluded with the re-enactment of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, starting at Brown Chapel AME Church, where mass meetings were held. Thunder, lightening, torrential rain, and even a tornado siren (tornadoes hit two hours east of Selma in Lee County Sunday afternoon) gave way as the time for the march began. Linking arms, the marchers sang songs of the movement beginning with, “Aint’ Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

The solemn march of solidarity, attended by people of all races and ages, gives a sense of the courage and commitment of the foot soldiers, described as “ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”

It’s also a time to reflect on Selma’s schismatic history, noted on billboards as “from the Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond.” From the bridge, you see the banks of the Alabama River where barges brought the cotton from nearby plantations, and the warehouses where slaves were sold.

You can also see the footprint of the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry, the second-largest munitions factory of the Confederacy. In fact, the 1940 bridge is named for Edmund Pettus, a brigadier general of the Confederacy, senator from Alabama from 1897 to 1907, and reportedly a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, Selma is led by an African-American mayor and integrated city council, and is represented in Congress by Rep. Terri Sewell, a native of Selma who was the first African-American congresswoman elected in Alabama (in 2010). It is home to black college presidents, police officers, fire chief, business owners, lawyers, doctors, state and national representatives, Dallas County probate judge, district attorney, circuit judges, and city school superintendent. Even the Rotary president is an African-American.

Octavia McBride, a high school student in Selma in 1965, returns to the bridge every March to remember, reflect, and rejoice. “We have a ways to go,” says the career teacher, “But I’m so glad we didn’t let anyone turn us around.”