This article, by Eric D. Lawrence, was originally published in the Detroit Free Press.
When she walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with a group of students from Michigan a year and a half ago, Chrisdiona Williams was just learning about some of the key moments in America’s civil rights struggle.
As the site of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when police beat back 600 marchers seeking voting rights, the bridge qualifies as a major landmark. The attention generated by the media coverage at the time, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to come to the area, and two subsequent marches that month, were instrumental in what led to the signing of the anti-discriminatory Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That connection hit home for Williams, 18, as she traveled in the footsteps of civil rights pioneers.
“The bridge was so big that I couldn’t imagine all that violence happening on that one bridge. I was picturing in my head bodies and the police officers on horses beating people who were trying to make a movement,” she said of the attempt to march to the state capitol in Montgomery. “It saddened me how violent it was during the Civil Rights movement.”
Today across the nation, including in metro Detroit, thousands will celebrate King’s legacy on what is now recognized as a federal holiday. King was born on Jan. 15, 1929. Marches, services and acts of volunteerism are planned throughout the region.
For many, the recently released film “Selma” is a history lesson they never learned or serves as a refresher course. For Williams, of Detroit, and the other students who took part in the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights Freedom Tour in June 2013, it’s putting on a big screen what they saw up close.
They visited the King Center in Atlanta for training in non-violent activism, marched across the bridge and even met Amelia Boynton, a now-103-year-old civil rights pioneer who was beaten nearly to death on Bloody Sunday. She is portrayed in the movie “Selma” by actress Lorraine Toussaint.
For Anderson Tilson, an 18-year old film student at Wayne State University, the entire trip was eye-opening, but certain spots held a special power.
“As we were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I could almost feel something stirring inside of me. You could feel a vibration almost. … It’s surreal to have been in a place where so many indescribable acts happened,” Tilson said, noting that he was spurred to read and learn more after his return to Detroit.
Those who were involved in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and others who have been fighting for their own causes offered a similar assessment. Many of them now live in metro Detroit, but spent time in the South during the 1960s.
Thomas Hinsberg, 87, of Detroit, was one of the many white people who answered King’s call for clergy and others to travel to Alabama after Bloody Sunday. He said there was a real desire to follow King then because of who he was.
“The battles we were fighting back in the 60s are the same battles now,” he said. “There’s just still so little understanding on the part of whites because we’re in a different place. … Good white folks still don’t get it.”
Hinsberg participated in a march led by King only days after Bloody Sunday and said the scariest part was walking along the streets of Selma past a line of state police who stood in front of white residents who did not want them there.
“We could feel the hate… it’s very vivid in my mind,” he said. “I was scared, I was thinking something is going to happen to us and something could happen to us.”
One of Hinsberg’s friends, who was a nun in the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Monroe and taught at St. Agnes in Detroit, also went to Alabama. Elizabeth Reiha, 86, of Bloomfield Hills, took part in the third march that month, one that brought thousands of people to Montgomery. She said it was noteworthy that so many people of different religions, races and ages were marching to make sure that all people have the same opportunities.
“There was a great deal of animosity,” Reiha noted of the anger visible from many of the white residents as they passed. “They were not happy that we were there.”
Jonnie Perryman Hamilton, 71, has lived in Detroit almost her entire life, but when she was a child she spent her summers with family in Tyler, Ala., southeast of Selma. By the time she was 12 in 1955, she already knew she did not want to go back.
Life in the South then was different for African-Americans than it was in Detroit.
“I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just go into the bathroom,” she said of the way the facilities were separated based on race.
But the biggest difference was having to give up her place in line for a white person at a store.
“I was used to waiting in line and when I’m next I’m next,” she said.
Being “a little rebellious” and not wanting to go along made things awkward for her family members, and they were told “you better teach these Northern children some manners.”
Segregation happened in Detroit, too, but it was more subtle, she noted.
Civil rights activist Dorothy Aldridge said it’s important for people to get involved in the fight for civil rights today, just as it was in the 1960s. Others agreed.
“Our struggle is ongoing. We have never stopped since the time of slavery, said Aldridge, 74, of Detroit, who was working on voter registration in Alabama for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965.
“You’ve got to stir up civil disobedience,” said Helen Moore, 78, of Detroit.
Moore is on the board of directors of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma and has been at the forefront of the fight to return local control to Detroit Public Schools ever since the state imposed an emergency manager to operate the district. She sees parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and issues like state control of the schools in urban districts, where she said money is being diverted away from public education into a corporate-driven system.
Many say that racism is still alive, even if it is expressed differently than it was in 1960s.
Cases such as the fatal shooting last year of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the killing of another black man in New York by police unleashed waves of protests in Missouri and elsewhere last year and galvanized a new type of protest movement that incorporates other social issues such as Detroit water shutoffs last year.
Brandon Jessup, 33, chairman of Michigan Forward, a nonprofit, progressive think tank, said the end result of the Selma protests — the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — show what barriers can be overcome when people work together and stay focused.
But “the way in which we fight (now), it is very, very different,” Jessup said, referencing the way the many forms of media available now have influenced the more recent protests.
Al Williams, 34, membership director for the Michigan Democratic Party, said voting should not be overlooked as a force for change.
“I like to tell young people that are involved in the new civil rights movement now that you can’t discount the ballot box. Protesting is one thing, marching is one thing, but you’ve got to get out there and vote,” said Williams, who was in Selma in 2005 to commemorate Bloody Sunday.
Valeria Jean, and her daughter, Quiara Blakely, went on the trip with the human rights coalition in 2013.
“Everywhere we stopped we heard first-hand accounts of what it was like for people who were there,” said Jean, 39.
But she and others noted the coincidence of learning that at the same time they were visiting Selma, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, essentially allowing nine states — mostly in the South — to change their election laws regarding voter ID and early voting without advance federal approval. They said it exemplifies, along with the recent spate of fatal encounters between police and black men, the types of injustices that sparked the civil rights movement.
“Not a whole lot has changed,” Jean said. “The day we were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Freedom Tour, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, gutted it.”