This past weekend I was privileged to revisit the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as part of the 15th Annual Faith & Politics Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led by Congressman John Lewis. I, along with almost 100 congresspersons and another 250 guests, listened to civil rights luminaries share their stories with us; as well as the stirring words of President Obama on Saturday afternoon. And, in spite of the many issues that we still face -- of existing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, diminishment of voting rights, amongst others -- these civil rights veterans celebrated what they had won 50 years ago by their sheer determination and commitment.
Their stories were powerful and evocative:
Congressman John Lewis inspired us with his faith and his love for others. He was clear that “we must recommit ourselves, there is work to be done. The time for justice has come, and we all can do something. Don’t get lost in despair, stand up for what you believe.”
Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, spoke about her mother. Viola Liuzzo, the white wife of a teamster, left her 3 young children in Detroit, after hearing the call of Martin Luther King asking Americans to come to Selma and support those seeking the right to vote. She was part of the successful march to Montgomery, that was protected by US soldiers; but, afterwards was shot and killed in her car while driving black marchers back home. “My mother felt the wrong, and knew in her heart what was right.”
Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, wife of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, spoke of the difficulties they endured. “For 381 days, in the cold and sleet the people of this city walked, refusing to take segregated buses, in order to get the bill passed in Congress so that there would be no discrimination in public transportation.
We’ve come a long way – 50 years ago what is happening today was unbelievable. That my congressman would be a black man, that our president would be a black man, that we would be standing in front of the Alabama capital, being welcomed by the governor.”
We can celebrate the achievement of the past 50 years -- that black people can now vote, that we have black elected representatives, and so much more – and, there is much to do. As Juanita Abernathy said, “We are not free cause we have police brutality. We are integrated, but it is not what it should be.”
What brought tears to many eyes were the words of Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Alabama Governor George Wallace. She told the story of taking her young son to a civil rights museum, and her son asking her “Why did Paw Paw do such mean things to those people?” She knelt down and said to him, “I don’t know why Paw Paw did what he did; but I do know that it is up to you and I to make things right.”
The message that we received throughout this amazing, celebratory weekend is summed up in the words of Amelia Boynton, age 103, who helped organize the original March, “Get off my shoulders, there is much work to do!”