“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” We swayed side to side, arms linked and sang these words as they reverberated off the steel casing surrounding Edmund Pettus Bridge.
53 years prior, peaceful protesters set off from Selma, Alabama and began a march across the same Edmund Pettus Bridge to advocate for black voter rights. Over 600 unarmed demonstrators were met by a line of police officers with clubs and tear gas—ready for confrontation. The brutal attack that ensued left marchers bloodied and severely injured. America and the world watched as the beatings were televised, sparking outcry now remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
That day was March 7th, 1965. This month, in memory of the 50th year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and historical “Bloody Sunday,” I joined the Faith and Politics Institute on their annual civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery led by Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.).
To walk in the footsteps of giants from the civil rights movement, with those very giants, is nothing short of an indescribable experience. Over the course of three days I had the honor to learn from the tenacity of survivors in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—the fearlessness of Martin Luther King III and the enduring courage of foot soldiers who made great sacrifices in the quest for equal rights and freedom.
Noteworthy moments include:
- Standing in Dexter Avenue Baptist church; Dr. King’s eldest son inspired us with his call to action – “Be ashamed to die unless you’ve won a victory for humanity. Be ashamed to die unless you’ve made the world a little better place than when you arrived.”
- Traveling on a coach bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama discussing the courageous leadership of Freedom Riders during the Montgomery bus boycotts who peacefully sat on coach buses and endured bombings to fight racial segregation in the public transit system.
- Sitting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, where four girls were killed by Ku Klux Klansmen and segregationists in 1963.
We marched through history together and discussed civil rights approaches that felt keenly relevant to our present-day movements: #MeToo calling attention to sexual assault and workplace harassment, #Dreamers advocating for 800k DACA student protections and #NeverAgain charging forward on gun control.
A couple of themes emerged:
- Love: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned ‘a beloved community’ based on caring for fellow human beings. On speaking of his father’s assassination by a white man, Martin Luther King III reminded us to, “Dislike the evil act but still love the human individual.”
- Youth Leadership: Students embraced risk more than anyone throughout the civil rights movement—jumping from classroom windows to take part in peaceful demonstration, often facing fire hoses, police attack dogs and arrest. When asked by students from the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center how to balance youth movement building and teenage-parental concerns, Rep. John Lewis’ responded with his personal motto, “You will learn so much by getting into trouble, good trouble.”
Traveling through time in Alabama reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for patience and steady progress. He said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 53 years after Bloody Sunday, sometimes racial equity still seems far from reach and that the arc is long indeed. Yet today as we see courageous leaders of all race, religion, and status crossing boundaries to build a world of social justice together, his call rings true more than ever.
To close the pilgrimage, Attorney Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked, “In 50 years when they talk about this moment in history, what will be your story?” I don’t know exactly what my answer would be, but I do know it’s a story I am writing every day. Movement building takes time and in that time you will not be praised—it will not be sexy—you will have to study and you will have to sacrifice. It is my privilege working at Tides to lift up committed and history-defining movement builders, to support them—and to steward the resources of our donors who are committed to justice. Our network of changemakers, funders, and grantees dare change every day, continuing work of civil rights movement leaders whose incredible efforts are far from over.
Roxana Shirkhoda is the Director of Special Initiatives at Tides, where she helps our partners come together to create daring change.