x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

March from Selma finally reaches Washington

Some argue that Barack Obama's journey began here, in this quiet city on the north bank of the Alabama River.

A celebration breaks out at The Gathering Place in Selma, Alabama, as Barack Obama is declared the winner of the US presidential election.
A celebration breaks out at The Gathering Place in Selma, Alabama, as Barack Obama is declared the winner of the US presidential election.

SELMA, ALABAMA // Barack Obama may have launched his campaign nearly two years ago in Springfield, Illinois, but some argue that his journey to the White House really began here, in this quiet city on the north bank of the Alabama River. After all, it was here, in the 1960s, that civil rights leaders led the famous marches that ultimately brought voting rights to millions of black Americans. So, on Tuesday, when it became clear Mr Obama would become the country's first black president, the celebration in this majority-black city took on a special meaning as his supporters spilt out into the streets and car horns blared into the crisp autumn night. "For Selma, it's like Obama is standing on our shoulders, on our foundation," said Hank Sanders, an Alabama state senator who participated in the historic marches of the 1960s. "It's a special feeling to know that you contributed in some sort of way." "I feel good. I feel like my living has not been in vain," said Amelia Boynton Robinson, 97, the civil rights pioneer who organised the Selma demonstrations. "I figured that we just had to make progress." Both Mr Sanders and Mrs Boynton Robinson were among the dozens of Obama faithful who packed into the Gathering Place, a local coffee shop, to watch the state-by-state election results on a lone flat-screen television. A small room was decorated with red and blue streamers, and a sign taped to the wall read: "From Selma to Washington." Some supporters wore T-shirts with Mr Obama's image alongside those of international civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. When the Democratic candidate won key battleground states, there were spontaneous chants of "Yes we can", an Obama campaign slogan; when Mr Obama was finally pronounced the winner, amid a burst of cheers and high-fives, some fell into a gospel song that hearkened back to the days of the civil rights era: "We fall down, but we get up," they repeated. Selma became a household name in 1965, when activists hoping to draw national attention to the struggle for black voting rights attempted an 80 km march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital. The marchers, however, made it only six blocks - to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town - where they were brutally beaten by police. Among those who suffered serious injuries that day - later known as "Bloody Sunday" - was John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia and supporter of Mr Obama. It was not until a third attempt, two weeks later, that the marchers finally reached Montgomery, an achievement that generated a groundswell of media attention. Five months after that, Lyndon B Johnson, the president, signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices and was seen as one of the crowning moments of the civil rights movement. Even after 40 years, the weight of those historic events is never far from the surface in this town of fewer than 20,000 people. On election night, dozens gathered at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge - a walk of about half a block from the coffee shop - to hold a candlelight vigil and take a symbolic stroll across the river. "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round," they chanted in unison. "I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on talkin', walkin' into freedom land." Both Mr Obama, and John McCain, the defeated Republican candidate, made campaign stops in Selma to talk about civil rights and Mr Obama even referred to a "bridge in Selma" in his victory speech in Chicago on Tuesday night. "Change has come to America," he told the tens of thousands of supporters who showed up at Grant Park in Chicago. But change has come slowly to Selma. The city, which is two-thirds black, swore in its first black mayor, James Perkins, in 2000. Before that, the mayor had been Joe Smitherman, the one-time segregationist who held on to that office since the Jim Crow era of the 1960s. The Selma Country Club still does not allow black families to join. A woman who picked up the phone there said none have ever applied. Kimesha Alvarado, a local radio personality who also goes by the name "Sunshine", said racism in this part of the Deep South is "subtle, but there". She said she thought Mr Obama's victory would have a positive effect on the young people of Selma, and other countries in the so-called Black Belt, a string of about 100 majority-black and largely impoverished counties that run along the south-eastern part of the United States. "The mood is very excited? this is the first time since I have voted that I see people coming back and actually having faith in the democratic process again," said Ms Alvarado, 35. "People in Selma are just ready for a change." In fact few here seemed ready to consider what might have happened had Mr Obama lost. One elementary school principal said that in May she had booked 25 hotel rooms near Washington DC so she could take her students to see Mr Obama's inauguration. Still, there were some tense moments as the results came in. Many students who gathered at a local performing arts centre to watch CNN, for example, booed as early returns showed Mr Obama trailing in key states, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Indiana - all states he eventually won. For a moment, their expressions looked blank. The life seemed sucked out of the room. But as the election results started to turn in Mr Obama's favour, a lighter mood settled in the small auditorium. As states were called in the Democrat's favour, someone said: "It's happening"; there were a few "hallelujahs". Lynda Lowery, 58, who said she was the youngest person to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, said she never thought this day would come. She pointed to a scar above her eye and another on the back of her head that came from beatings she endured as an activist. "Now I know that the blood I shed, the tears I cried and the fear I feared, was just a part of the seed that was planted for this mighty oak to grow," she said, a fresh tear welling in her eye. "It has taken 43 years, but the tree is strong." sstanek@thenational.ae