Voices from the Inside Out: Selma’s mindset

May 7, 2015

From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

Selma. It is a word that resonates amongst a certain generation as a quintessential event of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It creates a living memory of racism, manifested in a manner that was generally unfathomable to the average person of that age.

In the 1960s, there was no internet, no 24-hour cable news, no cell phones capturing events live, then posting them for the world to see. In the 1960s the type of violence that was attached to that word wasn’t thought to be in the general disposition of what white folks would do to others unless provoked. It was more in the nature of what those Black folks do in Watts or Newark, the projects of Chicago and Harlem, New York, or in East St. Louis—or what those “hippies” are doing on college campuses protesting the war in Vietnam.


In reading Charles Denby’s “Continuing Magnolia Jungle terror exposes reality of ‘Great Society’” (see March-April 2015 N&L), one is struck by how poignant and presciently modern Denby’s thoughts were and how very little has changed today. Denby references Johnson’s “Great Society” and how many lauded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the answer to a prayer. Some saw it as the solution to 400 years of oppression, noting how Black leaders at the time were preaching patience and tolerance, feeling that demonstrations were not the way to effect change, defining a “wait and see” posture to see how the government would enforce the newly minted act.

Commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., March 8, 1975.

Commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., March 8, 1975.

“Wait and see” when it comes to issues revolving around Civil Rights is often a ludicrous proposal. Proponents of that aspect of social reform would today point to Obama as this nation’s first Black president and shout from the pulpit, “See what happens when you are patient.” It’s true that many people of color would never have expected to see that occur in their lifetimes, yet events soon gave the impression that Obama’s election was more like an illusionist sleight-of-hand rather than a lasting change in social and cultural idealism and policy.

It’s ironic that 50 years after “Bloody Sunday” the name of the bridge has not changed, and that Selma is still rooted to its past. As the nation’s first Black president and the first family celebrated with those who were there, the bridge that they crossed retains its name as a dedication to a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Denby shed light on the social happenings of the day in a poignant fashion and 50 years later we can expand his imagery where he wrote, “What is happening in Selma is felt all over the country.” Fifty years after Bloody Sunday we can confirm Denby’s analogy that not only is racism alive and well in the U.S. it is thriving.

Selma was more than an historical event. What Denby hit upon is that it is an attitude and mindset of not only the perpetuators of racial discord that existed in Selma 50 years ago, but also today. It is an attitude that is at the foundation of many of this country’s most prestigious institutions.


”What is needed now,” Denby wrote, “is a philosophy of freedom, a total view, to give all of those actions some meaningful direction. A great society can be reached… but it will only come when all of the forces moving for freedom come together and move together.”

For Black lives to truly matter, the marginalization and exploitation of fear must change. For Black lives to truly matter, laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 need to be Constitutional rather than statutory so that they cannot expire or be subject to the will of political influences. For Black lives to truly matter, after 150 years, a vestige of slavery needs to be stricken from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution so that a genuine discussion of race can be achieved.

Though we have come a long way as a nation, we have not come far enough—not when a Black man can be strangled to death by police, and the only response is to be retrained.

If that works, then perhaps the culture itself should sign up for classes.

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