To: George Evans
Mayor, City of Selma
Dear Mayor Evans:
A few weeks ago, on March 7, we passed the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The anniversary of the march across the Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery was much celebrated in your fair town. We are writing you to bear witness to the symbolic importance of Selma to those of us who watched the events 50 years ago from the more genteel environs of Minnesota. For many of us, the Selma march represented the culmination of years of civil unrest surrounding the unfulfilled promise of American democracy. It struck us then, and strikes me now, as ironic to look back at that “revolutionary” time.
Hardly revolutionary. World War II had been fought with a partially segregated armed force against Hitler’s (so-called) master race from Germany. It wasn’t until 1948 that President Harry Truman signed an executive order to integrate the military. Major League Baseball became integrated on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game at the old Polo Grounds in New York. But large areas of America remained locked in a racist rigidity; blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, lunch counters were segregated by race and black students could not enroll at major state universities. It took President John F. Kennedy and 5,000 federal troops to get James Meredith into the University of Mississippi at the beginning of fall term 1962.
It took a lot more to wake up the conscience of America. The civil rights protests in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1963 introduced “Bull” Connor to America and his use of police dogs to attack demonstrators. Revulsion became a common response to nationally televised newscasts. New York folk singer Phil Ochs captured the moment in his song Talking Birmingham Jam, with the lyrics “Oh, all the signs said welcome in, signed by Governor Wallace and Rin Tin Tin” (bit.ly/1ACVYMF). Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP field secretary, was murdered. Two trials in the 1960s resulted in hung juries. (Thirty years later, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted for the murder.)
In Birmingham, four young girls committing the “revolutionary act” of attending Sunday school were killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. What revolutionary act stimulated all of this turmoil? The answer is in the eloquence of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington, D.C., at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. We do well to remember that the banner of that march was for “jobs and freedom.” Note: jobs—people want to work.
And so the political system went to work. President Kennedy introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed after his assassination. Yet much unfinished business remained. Because as we all know, citizens need jobs and they need the right to vote so that the Bull Connors of the world and the Governor Wallaces of the world are denied the levers of government.
Voting is what the march from Selma to Montgomery was all about.
The country finally had had enough. Following the attacks of Bloody Sunday, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawing literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers used to prevent blacks from the revolutionary act of voting. Later in that year, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required government contractors to “take affirmative” action toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of employment. There are many unsung heroes in this, our American history of fulfilling our own promises.
And there are many unsung heroes of the struggle in Minnesota. One of them is the late Zev Aelony, an organizer of the University of Minnesota student group Students for Integration, a Freedom Rider, and one of the Americus Four. Aelony was arrested while attempting to register voters in Georgia and charged with insurrection against the sovereign state of Georgia, a charge that carried the death penalty. International outrage and the political pressure from the governor of the state of Minnesota, among others, resulted in his ultimate release.
Aelony was a small-business owner, locally active in religious and political affairs and an avid Twins fan. I saw him at a Twins’ game several years ago and asked him a question: Did he ever think that decades after Americus we would have made more or less progress than we had today? Aelony was a decent man with a gentle sense of humor and he pointed out that Keith Ellison had just been elected to the U.S. House, and that there were rumors of a candidate, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois, running for president of the United States. He told me that much had been achieved and much remained to be done in this country and around the world.
Much remains to be done, I’m sure, in Selma, and for sure in Minnesota. The racial achievement gap in the Minneapolis school system is a disgrace. But we are not now a state or a country where neighbors kill each other on the basis of skin color or religion. Nazis have marched with their crooked cross into the grave and have been followed there by un-Christians in sheets carrying flaming crosses. Progress indeed.
Your fair town of Selma symbolizes how progress is achieved; by sacrifice, by people marching, by people voting and by jobs. When America works together, great things happen.
Vance K. Opperman
Supporter of the Selma March
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.