This past weekend people poured into Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous civil rights march. The original march was met with a furious and brutal response by Alabama police. Among those beaten was John Lewis, an activist in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) that was organizing in Selma. Today Lewis is a member of the House of Representatives. He marched, with Obama. But the presence of the politicians does not change the reality of history or the need to fight racism today.
Those who represent the interests of the 1%, whether they are in the White House, the Congress or the Board Rooms of the corporations will never provide the leadership we need. Obama and Eric Holder, the current head of the Justice Department, can point to the report of the racism of the Ferguson police department as a stand against racism. The report documents what is well known to the people of Ferguson and became known throughout the country following the murder of Michael Brown. Black people are targeted by a mainly white police department and subject to all sorts of harassment.
And what will the impact of this report be? Who will be indicted and imprisoned for this systematic terror against the Black people of the area? We didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The same day this report was issued, the Justice Department issued another report saying that Darren Wilson, the cop who murdered Michael Brown, did not violate Brown’s civil rights!
According to their law, the racism and brutality of the cops is not significant. After getting advice from police lawyers, Wilson claimed he was fearful of Brown, who was unarmed and almost 150 feet away from Wilson’s patrol car when he was shot. Because there is no way to disprove his claim of fear, Wilson walks. That would be like claiming that people coming over the bridge in Selma 50 years ago frightened Jim Clark, Selma’s notorious racist sheriff, causing him to lead his brutal attack.
It’s clear, one more report exposing the racism of the police forces will not stop police brutality. Are we to believe that those in power have been unaware of the violence of their police? Are we to believe they are unaware of the violence of their prison system? Are we to believe they are unaware of the violence of the grinding poverty generated by their system? Of course not!
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday”, still carries the name of a racist U.S. Senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted after “Bloody Sunday”, expired recently and was not extended by Congress. Both stand as symbols of the racism of this society today.
In Selma, Obama and other politicians, talked about the huge changes the Civil Rights movement made. It swept away the open laws of segregation that had existed for 75 years. It challenged the pervasive and open racism of this society. It inspired movements through the years that followed, leading to an expansion of rights for Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians and others whose rights had been ignored.
The politicians’ encouraging words and advice to be patient do not point a way forward. The lesson of the movement is that if we are going to change things, we must rely on ourselves. Lyndon Johnson did push for the Voting Rights Act but only after national media coverage of the violence of “Bloody Sunday”. Before that, he opposed the Selma march and the demand for a federal voters rights law.
The people of Selma did not wait for Johnson to send troops or marshals to protect them. They did not wait until Johnson was ready to support their right to vote. And 50 years later, the people of Ferguson did not wait for a Justice Department that didn’t know or care about Ferguson to act. They took to the streets day after day and month after month, demanding justice.
History shows that the changes that we need will come into being by our own actions, not those whose goal is to maintain the order of this system.