“Mind you,” she immediately told us, “when they crossed the bridge, they weren’t laughing and having the time of their lives.”
This was the straightforward remark of tour guide Telma Diane Harris to a group of almost 30 young leaders from the ASEAN region while at the foot of the historic bridge, apropos of the brave men and women who marched the long and arduous walk from Selma to Montgomery which halted with a violent encounter at the bridge with state police.
It sounded like an eminent warning, nay — an effort to make us understand the scars imprinted by the violence that occurred on the bridge. But Diane was simply breezing through a discussion of ground rules of sorts, asking us to relive the experience with solemnity before we pressed on.
We were about to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the very iconic piece of infrastructure that was the center of what is accounted for in American history as the dawning of a new age. The horrifying but necessary events that happened there which sparked the flames eventually resulted to an era where the basic civil right of suffrage was no longer systemically denied from the African-Americans.
I do not claim to be the master of history, much less of American history, but the weekend at Selma proved to be an eye-opener; a reinforcement to the racial struggle that I know only so much about. Martin Luther King Jr., the “n-word,” slavery, racial discrimination–these were buzzwords that I have grown familiar with but actually just scratch the surface of the real score. This is not to undermine the things that I have mentioned, for they play such a huge role in the reformation of the mindset and the deliverance of justice, but I have learned that there are more than meets the eye.
In The Shoes of a Human Being of Color
To write about the struggles of the African-Americans in the 60s require sheer courage and understanding. And this piece of writing simply cannot give justice to every blood shed, every struggle faced, and every waking day drenched with the fear of being ridiculed and discriminated against because of color. But in a nutshell, if you were black in this era, you were restricted from liberties that should have been duly afforded to you as a citizen of the land.
Such as the right to vote. To be able to register to vote was a Herculean task. You needed to pass a literacy test, pay a poll tax, or have a person vouch for you among others to be registered to vote.
When you think about it, these are things that are minute. But when you’re asked how many beans there are in a jar, or how many bubbles a bar of soap can produce, or how many feathers a chicken has and answer them correctly to be able to register to vote, you question the rationality of the absurd test and see the bigger picture as being institutionally barred from voting. In short, officials would stop at nothing to disable you from voting in the elections.
Straight from the Heart of a Foot Soldier
Diane wasn’t just your average tour guide. Beyond the megaphone and the memorized spiels was a woman who struggled the exact same struggles that she herself spoke of. Diane could have possibly been the best person to speak about the whole experience as she was a foot solider herself.
Similar to the army, a foot soldier is someone who performs combat on foot, except in the numerous marches in Selma, only the weapons of solidarity and determination and an intense desire for equal voting rights were employed. Diane was one of the thousands of foot soldier noted today as the unnamed heroes of that revolution.
Oftentimes drifting away from her ‘tour script’ and putting a little bit of her experience as a foot solider (which stimulated everyone even more), Diane narrates that she was impassioned to join the marches at the ripe age of 15 when someone asked her: “Do you want to be part of history?”
And part of history she was as she set on to leave school and joined a total of three marches all with the permission of her mother. Expectedly, these didn’t come without risks, and Diane was jailed twice in her period of non-violent rally. “When her children didn’t come home in time for dinner, my mother knew exactly what had happened to her children,” she recalled.
As she drew us all closer to sit on the pews of the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a crucial meeting place for leaders during the Selma Movement, a distinct sound echoed throughout the hallowed church. She began to clap her hands in rhythm and everyone else followed suit without instruction. Soon, the church was filled with a beat that was all too familiar for Diane.
She sang: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round,
turn me ’round, turn me ’round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round,
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.”
The Power of Non-Violent Resistance
The marches which ultimately led to the introduction of the voting rights bill in the 89th United States Congress and the expedited passage of it in Congress is proof positive of the great power that a unified people can wield. From only over 500 people in the first march to 2500, which increased a hundred-fold by 8000 and ultimately blowing up to 25,000 foot soldiers, the events from Selma-Montgomery are the perfect models to reinforce the fact that we do not need guns, knives, bombs, and sheer force of violence to be able to fight for our rights as human beings.
This isn’t the only instance in history where campaigns of non-violent resistance have reaped good fruits. The Salt March in 1930 led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi which heavily influenced American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., triggered the British Imperialist. The People Power Movement in my own country completely overthrew a dictator president. These mass mobilization movements have achieved social reform in their own respective means. And that can no longer be underrated.
Emerging young leader Theodore Soukotta, 20, from Indonesia says history has inspired him to do more and never stop. He continues by saying, “people drove change a long time ago, and this gives us more power and encouragement to do the same now.”
Adrian Suhaili, 26, the only Bruneian in the group, echoes the same sentiments when he took a “heartening yet sombre” walk on the bridge: “I felt that we should never stop fighting for what we want no matter what the barriers may be.”
History has had its fair share of rallies, protests, revolutions, and marches that have paved way for men and women of today to live in a freer world. And we forever celebrate in the victories that freed us. But it does not and it should not end with glorifying history. Given this relatively free world, oppression, discrimination, and violence are still very much the demons that haunt us in our waking hours. And for that, the fact remains that the march has not yet ended.
We continue to endure and press on for better tomorrows. How do we endure and press on? By continuing to march, as our heroes did.