Ryan Kuramitsu traveled to Selma to participate in the bridge crossing’s 50th anniversary.
Fifty years removed from Bloody Sunday, Selma remains but one of many battles.
Half a century ago this month, thousands of Americans flocked to Selma, Ala., to peacefully protest an unjust political system that continually enshrined the supremacy of whites by creatively disenfranchising black citizens of the right to vote. Through a combination of financial plunder, predatory lawmaking and grassroots terrorism, Southern whites were able to deprive black constituencies of all political and social power.
Few expected sweeping change to come to Selma. Less envisioned it the epicenter of a moral movement. According to former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Bernard Lafayette, the organization had initially marked the city with an X on a state map after two preliminary worker teams sent there advised avoiding the area. Their consensus? The “white folks were too mean, and black folks were too afraid.”
Yet, a quick constellation of catalyzing factors — civilian slayings, ritualistic mob violence, widespread media attention — accelerated a burgeoning conversation, and Selma was swiftly thrust to the national stage. Housed in homes, churches and chapels and joined by civic leaders, reverends, nuns, rabbis and bishops, a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, motivated by a liberationist theology that held to God’s preferential option for the oppressed, led a march from Selma to Montgomery that drew international support and helped achieve passage of the Voting Rights Act — a keystone piece of modern civil rights legislation.
“White man, hear me!” pleaded writer James Baldwin, who joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this historic trek. “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Earlier this month, a crowd of 80,000 surged to see history in action as Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. A peculiar manner of fate seemed to be wrapping around to meet us half a century later, as our country’s first black president was introduced by a veteran Congressman who was bloodied on that very bridge 50 years earlier — a monument still named after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Edmund Pettus.
In his address, President Barack Obama encouraged us to remember the concealed perspectives hidden in comfortable historical narratives. After all, he intoned, Americans are not only the designers of the Constitution — we are the slaves who built the White House, those who perished under the Atlantic.
Interrogating the Official Version of History is key to the spirit of Dr. King’s ethical reflection. We should always be willing to lend a special ear to the maligned and the unheard, what one Salvadorian philosopher has called “the crucified peoples of history.” Through paying particular attention to the subplots churning beneath the surface’s thrashing currents, we can often glean invaluable insights.
For instance, we all know of Dr. King’s brutal marches through the South, but few of us have heard that he also said, “I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” We are fond of quoting Dr. King’s admonition that “hate cannot drive out hate,” yet we only rarely recall that King was also convinced that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.”
As our president recently reminded us, we are indeed “the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as our own liberty had been denied.” Yet, we are also the Japanese Americans who marked no-no on our loyalty questionnaires, the draft resistors and conscientious objectors who faced condemnation from their government and their community.
Extricating marginalized perspectives from familiar historical discourse will have direct consequences in the way we shape our shared history. It would mean uplifting the teachings of King, but also Malcolm X; speaking not only calmly of voting rights and civil protections, but subversively of yellow peril and black power.
Celebrating counternarratives would mean honoring Rosa Parks. It would also mean telling the story of Claudette Colvin — the pregnant teenager arrested for sitting on a segregated bus nine months before Parks, who was told by the NAACP that they would not rally behind her because she did not have the best hair, “skin texture” or correct social standing to become the face of the bus boycott movement.
Privileging the overlooked would mean paying special attention to not only the examples of white allies, but the untold stories of Japanese American leaders like Kiyoshi Kuromiya, the openly gay civil rights activist and personal friend of Dr. King, and Todd Endo, who returned to march in Selma 50 years later.
It would mean joining groups like the NAACP in support of landmark bills like HR 40, which calls for the United States to “acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery” and form a congressional commission to study its legacy and lasting impacts.
If history is indeed “present in all that we do,” we cannot afford to think of the civil rights movement as some bygone historical event. As Common raps in his song “Glory,” “Selma is now — for every man, woman and child.” The oppressed for whom King held a preferential option walk among us today. With Baldwin, they are shouting, “Hear me!” and, “We are people too!” Today, these calls might be translated as: “#YesAllWomen” or “Black Lives Matter!”
As far as we have come, the past is not so easily escaped. It ensnares us, and we carry these legacies of suffering around in our very bodies.
“History repeats itself,” some solemnly avow. It is surely more complicated than this. In the words of Baldwin, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
We are 50 years removed from Bloody Sunday, yet inches away from modern manifestations of police brutality. We stand half a century apart from Selma’s white-dominated economic system, yet our Department of Justice recently released a report detailing the damning collusions of law enforcement and judiciaries in their fiscal pillage of the black citizens of Ferguson.
Clearly, Selma was but one of many battles. We have far more bridges to cross — and perhaps a few to burn. Though our nation still bleeds from centuries-old lesions of racial violence, we inch ever closer to our inevitable goal. King delivered a similar prophesy in a speech on the steps of the infamous Alabama State Capitol building following his harrowing four-day march from Selma. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he insisted, “but it is oriented towards justice.”
Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu is the JACL MDC Youth Representative.