Published On: Tue, Mar 10th, 2020

Getting a Window into the South’s Lingering Shameful Past

Boca Raton, FL – As I penned this column, I glanced a few times at the picture of me sandwiched between four Alabama State troopers – three blacks and one white – at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

I gently shook my head and smiled to hide the disgust I felt when I thought that just more than a half century ago, no one of my pigmentation would dare stand shoulder to shoulder with a trooper.

In fact, it was 55 years  ago at that same location on this same Sunday, which later became known as Bloody Sunday, protesters were assaulted with billy clubs and cattle prods and sprayed with tear gas as they marched for equal voting rights.

To commemorate the sacrifices and success of scores of African Americans from around the country, I had the opportunity to join a group of Floridians at Selma’s Annual 55th Bridge Crossing Commemoration.

The trip also afforded me a chance to peer through the window of the south’s shameful racial history.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s climax, we visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was pastor from 1954 to 1960 and which became a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. We also visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, the Lowndes Interpretive Center and we “hung out” with the new petite 5’3-foot statute of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in downtown Montgomery.

The statute shows Parks clutching her purse in front of her as she stood at a fountain, 30 feet from the department store where she worked, and near where she is believed to have boarded the segregated bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955.

I returned home with poignant and happy memories buried in the annals of my mind: Dexter Avenue Church, the six-acre memorial to the south’s dark side, and seeing US Rep. John crossed the bridge that shaped and transformed this small Southern city into an international symbol of black Americans’ struggle to exercise their right to vote.  Interestingly, this man, who while undergoing doctor’s care for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, thought it was important to be there to implore Americans to vote in the upcoming election.

Just knowing that only 55 years ago, police beat and cracked Lewis’ scull and sprayed him with tear gas on that same bridge as he led a march, and to see him back at that same spot, was inspiring.

Greeting me at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was a bronze life-size sculpture of six people in rusting shackles, including a mother with a baby in her arms.

Along the walkway were 800 elongated steel columns dangling like gravestones above and bearing the names of victims who were lynched and the counties where they occurred.

As I walked through this somber space for truth-telling and reflection, memories of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and Washington, DC, as well as the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg enveloped me. The hanging monuments changed from eye level to overhead, mimicking the way lynching victims were hanged.

Walking along the meandering path in the grassy courtyard, I felt like the callous spectators in old photos of public lynching. My bubble busted when towards the end, I pounced upon one of the weathered columns, bearing the names J.B. Harris (11.29.1920), Roy Gaines (06.15.1923), William Simmons (06.15.1923) of Palm Beach County and Rubin Stacy (7.19. 1935) of Broward.

After being immersed into this history for three days, I am not convinced that most Americans understand the pain, agony, suffering, humiliation, and the complete denial of humanity that slavery created for black people in this country. There can be no reconciliation without an acknowledgment. This is a must see for every American.

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