SELMA, Ala. – Protest marches have been part of Selma’s civil rights fabric since 1965, but an 860-mile trek to Washington had a minister leaning on the Bible for heavenly support Saturday.
The Rev. Theresa Dear noted the magnitude of what lies ahead, but never doubted that the “40-day-and-40-night” march will be successful.
“We are doing something of biblical proportions,” said Dear, just before a program ended in the shadow of the Edmund Pettus Bridge so that the march could begin.
Sponsored by the NAACP, “America’s Journey for Justice” is scheduled to extend through Eastern Seaboard states before ending in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15.
Saturday’s event in Selma drew political and religious leaders from around the country and, while the turnout didn’t come close to some predictions, organizers were still optimistic.
“This is a march to secure many elements of justice that we are lacking in this country,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who indicated “voter suppression, not voter empowerment” seems to be sweeping America.
It was Merkley’s first visit to Selma and it was apparent he was taken with the famous bridge and what happened on it in March 50 years ago, when activists were routed by Alabama state troopers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“The foundation of power is the right to vote and who will represent us in Congress,” he said, during an interview prior to speaking on a platform set up for activist leaders.
More than 200 supporters took part in the program and subsequent first leg of a march that will be about 16 times the 54-mile distance covered by voting rights activists in 1965.
“I’m not sure the word got out to everybody but I’m glad those who wanted to be here were able to make it,” Selma Mayor George Evans said. “This has been a fine program.”
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks led the first leg of the march and indicated it will be covered “step by step” throughout the days ahead.
He said volunteers in states included in the march have taken up the challenge and will keep it going by covering the entire distance.
Brooks’ booming speech had those in the audience applauding and cheering, and he set the example by moving to the front of the line that crossed the bridge under hot, humid temperatures.
He indicated that an estimated “one million steps” will be required to complete the distance “and we have enough people along the way to make sure they will be taken.”
During part of his walk, Brooks engaged a young boy in an animated discussion about a variety of subjects. It didn’t take long for the preacher and the youngster to became fast friends.
Three rabbis — Bruce Lustig of Washington, D.C., Seth Limmer of Chicago and Denise Eger of Los Angeles — took part in the march and lined up near the front of the line.
Eger, who is president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the bridge she was crossing was “a very powerful symbol of what we need to do in this country … but we have problems everywhere and not just here in the South.”
The trip was a homecoming of sorts for Lustig, who was much younger when he led Selma’s small congregation at Temple Mishkan Israel.
It was Lustig’s first visit to Selma in 30 years and brought back memories of his days at Temple Mishkan Israel where only a handful of worshipers remain today.
“I’ve always been involved in social justice,” said Lustig, whose parents wereHolocaust survivors. “Selma is still as beautiful as I remembered it.”
Brooks said the march to Washington will include activists and focus on a “national policy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system” as well as “uninterrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box.”
Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford drove to Selma to take part in the program and invite everyone to his community when they arrive there in a few days.
“Had it not been for the NAACP, that has been the cutting edge of voting rights through the years, those of us who are black-elected officials would not have been elected,” said Ford. “I will meet them on the square in downtown Tuskegee.”
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham and a Selma native, drew loud applause when she addressed the crowd.
Earlier in the day, a crowd gathered around the Boynton house, which served as a headquarters in the 1960s for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists.
Attorney Bruce Boynton said his 103-year-old mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson, has new medical problems and was unable to attend the Saturday program at the house where she wrote the letter to King that secured his decision to come to Selma to lead the voting rights movement.
The house is in deplorable shape and state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said he continues to be “terribly disappointed” each time he drives by it.
“It needs to be refurbished and turned into a museum,” said Sanders. “Right now it’s deteriorating greatly but we’re hopeful that something will happen soon to save it.”