OP-ED: The lesson of 2020 and 1965: The right to vote is precious and powerful
I was 22 years old when I decided to take a road trip with three friends from Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven to Selma, Alabama. Today, as Maryland and the nation leave a terrible, bad, no-good year behind on the road to 2021, I hope everyone will take to heart what I learned back in 1965.
It was a Sunday night, March 7, and in those days most people were at home watching TV. A big movie was on, “Judgement at Nuremberg,” about the Holocaust and the moral culpability of Germans in that horror. Shortly after the film started, ABC News interrupted with a breaking report from Selma, Alabama.
Peaceful Black marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were being gassed and clubbed by white police officers. All they wanted was equal voting rights. Watching “Selma’s Bloody Sunday” on TV was like watching George Floyd’s eight minutes and 46 seconds on your cellphone today — a moment of searing clarity that screamed “do something!” Me and my three seminary buddies jumped into a Renault at 5 a.m. in the morning to answer Martin Luther King’s call — white clergy were needed to join the protests in Selma.
We actually weren’t clergy, we were just seminary students, but there we were, a couple of white guys heading to the Deep South. We didn’t actually understand what we were getting ourselves into until we stopped overnight at Tuskegee University in Alabama. There we saw firsthand some of the casualties from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, young Black men with bandaged heads, arms in slings and bruised faces limping about the traditionally Black college’s dining hall.
By the time we arrived at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma and joined other Black and white protesters, I was feeling, for the first time in my life, fear. We were told to wear coats and ties to the march the next day. Women were to wear dresses or skirts because we wanted everyone watching at home on their TV sets to know we weren’t bums, we were decent Americans who just wanted equal voting rights.
Before we left the church we were also told to remove the dome light inside our car so that snipers would be less able to shoot us at night.
The next morning we walked from Brown Chapel A.M.E., two-by-two on the sidewalk, to the mayor’s home while singing, “We Shall Overcome.” We knew we were bound for jail and perhaps worse.
That day I slipped into the middle of the walkers. I did not want to be first. When we arrived in the mayor’s neighborhood, hounded by white counter protesters, the police started arresting people and loading us into school buses.
They had arrested everyone in front of me, and there I was singing “We Shall Overcome.” The then public safety commissioner, Wilson Baker, walked over to me, with the TV cameras recording the moment, and said in his best Southern drawl, “Young man you shouldn’t be down here on no picket line, you should be up north taking singing lessons.” Then he had me arrested and I spent a night in jail and was released the next morning. I marched back to Brown Chapel.
I’m glad I took that road trip. That road trip changed me just like Selma’s protests changed America. But as we all know, the journey to justice isn’t over.
If our challenges in 2020 have taught me anything, it’s that the right to vote is precious and powerful. So in this New Year, please join me in our march to a more perfect union. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020 is already drafted. It sits, like a silent conscience, in the halls of Congress, waiting for legislators to hear that clarion call — “do something!” In 2021 let’s get that bill passed and make history once again.
— The Rev. Charles Cloughen Jr. is an Episcopal priest who has served in Maryland for over two decades. An author and speaker he has published “One Minute Stewardship,” among other books.