John Rankin squinted and looked toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The memories from an awful day 50 years ago gathered in his eyes. His voice dropped and there was an added urgency.
“One thing I will never forget is the tears in my momma’s eyes. Daddy, being a preacher said, ‘Let him go. God will take care of him.’ And, sure enough, God took care of us,” Rankin said.
His memories were of March 7, 1965. John Rankin and a group of African-Americans of all ages had decided to march from Selma to Montgomery to take their case for fair treatment at the ballot box to Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace. Rankin was a 17-year-old willing to risk his life for change.
“Okay, everybody looking around…everything had gotten quiet…especially when we left the church coming this way. Everything was so quiet,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Seemed like the birds got quiet, the water stopped running under the bridge, and we were nervous and shaking. We thought we were going to die that day.”
No one died, but the marchers were beaten by police, sheriff’s deputies, and other men assembled at the bridge. Dozens were treated for injuries. Rankin suffered a bruise to the head.
Annie Pearl Avery, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), never made it across the bridge. As the march started, she and a policeman exchanged words.
“Something sounded off that sounded like gunshots, but it was tear gas and what happened is, I was trying to go forward to see what happened, and he grabbed me. He said, ‘You can’t go any further.’ And I don’t know what it was, I guess it was the youth in me. He and I started having this physical disagreement,” she said in an interview last month.
Avery ended up in the county jail. She was the only marcher jailed that day. Pointing down the street, she remarked that the county jail still stood.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will travel to Selma on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” They will be joined by thousands of Americans from around the country to reflect on and renew the call for protecting all Americans’ fundamental right to vote.
Meanwhile, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union are monitoring states, like North Carolina and Ohio, where voter suppression laws have recently passed. The Supreme Court will also enter the fray again in the coming months, but its track record is not particularly encouraging after justices gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2013.
During any given year, Selma is a destination on the historical Civil Rights tour. But Hollywood director Ava DuVernay and her cast of stars, including Oprah Winfrey, recently turned theaters into classrooms with their powerful movie about the southern town Dr. King made the centerpiece of the voting rights struggle.
Now, African-Americans are remembering what John Rankin and Annie Pearl Avery lived and wondering if Selma is a bridge that still needs to be crossed.