Twenty-fifteen is the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. A person can get a good idea of the issues and the drama of the events down there back then by viewing the movie Selma, in local theaters this week. I’ve studied a lot of civil rights history. The movie brings out the determination of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members to see the struggle through, and it does a fair job of portraying the real terror in the minds of the Selma participants and in those who came from all over America to help.
I have a personal connection with those groups because I’ve marched over the Edmund Pettis Bridge twice. Twice? What in the world was I doing? Well, I participated in two civil rights tours originating at IU South Bend during which we not only visited famous places in the South, but interacted with the people and events at each site. People who were there. Being there usually meant bleeding to one degree or another, going to jail, but definitely acting outside of your comfort zone. Definitely. It was so, even for the tour participants. The people we talked to had their heads cracked open, were clubbed with those baseball bats wound with barbed wire that you saw in the film, were at the 16th Street Baptist Church when the September 15, 1963 bomb killed four little girls. Try talking to friends who lost their daughter, to friends whose friends ended up sinking in the Mississippi or some backwoods bayou on the wrong ends of an anvil, who frequently faced hard-assed southern cops with very little sympathy for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After you get through saying, “Gee . . . Thanks!” you find yourself more committed to the cause—so to speak—for which they served.
Now, we met many who had sat in at lunch counters, and even beaches in the quest for equal access, but the real doozy, the place where the rubber meets the road, was the quest for voting rights equality. White folk never had to recite the entire preamble to the Constitution, then name all the judicial districts in the Great State of Alabama, then maybe tell how many pennies there were in this jar (no kidding—sometimes it was the number of bubbles in a bar of soap) in order to earn the right to vote. You’ll never find them at home on election day, nor probably many of the weeks preceding.
I wore my “Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement” hat, and my souvenir “I marched over the bridge” pin for the benefit of what turned out to be two other patrons to the viewing (Tuesday night, 6˚) in addition to my date, who has a long history of traducing my claims to fame. Could be, though, that whether you’re a Republican who believes one branch of government is out to destroy our sacred rights, or a Democrat who believes another branch is out to do the same thing, you oughtta pay attention to the message of the film: that voting rights are a sacred thing, whether it’s fighting the racially biased prohibitions of yesteryear when alotta people died, or facing the consequences of the gerrymandering snake-slithering vote-denying districts of today, modeled by one party or the other when their turn in power overlaps a census year, and they get to shape the torturous congressional districts so their friends are “safe” at election time, and your chances of overturning the incumbent are, in math parlance, almost surely impossible.
I can’t let this occasion pass without paying tribute to the retiring producer of this feature and many other great programs, Mr. Lee Burdorf, he of the encyclopedic jazz knowledge and the epiglottal push that marks him a prince among radio announcers. The Irish have a saying in Gaelge: Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís. [NEE VAY uh LEH-hayj awn uh-RHEESH]—“the likes of him will never be here again,” so Lee, it’s been a pleasure workin’ wiz ya on Michiana Chronicles, yer the best on the air or my name isn’t David James.