THE 40th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., reminds us that the gains and sacrifice in the movement toward civil rights and racial reconciliation has been an unsteady gait at times, but it continues unabated.
The K9 dogs and club-wielding police who used their authority to thwart the aspirations of a people are gone. Segregation is no longer the official law of the land, though it still exists in stubborn housing patterns, discriminatory hiring practices, and other hard-to-root-out pockets of our vast economy. We haven't arrived at the Promised Land yet, but we crossed the chasm represented by the Edmund Pettus Bridge a long time ago.
Last Sunday, 10,000 people, many of them veterans of that historic march, gathered at the Alabama bridge that once bore the weight of so much hope and injustice. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was a student activist when he was assaulted on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday, " set the tone for many of the marchers. "President Johnson signed that [1965 Voting Rights Act], " said the Georgia Democrat, "but it was written by the people of Selma. "
Coretta Scott King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the original march, echoed Mr. Lewis' statement with eloquent words of her own: "The freedom we won here in Selma and on the road to Montgomery was purchased with the precious blood of many. " Perhaps she was thinking of the price her husband and other civil rights martyrs paid during the most tumultuous period in U.S. history since the Civil War.
Indeed, police sent 17 marchers to the hospital on March 7, 1965, including Lewis, but it wasn't enough to stop the momentum of freedom. Try as they might, the racists who poured hatred and violence on those who sought to expand the ballot to blacks knew they were on the losing side of history. Racial segregation was headed to the scrap heap of history, which accounts for much of the viciousness of those sworn to uphold it.
The 40th anniversary of the Selma march is a poignant reminder of how far our nation has come and how far it has yet to go. The re-enactment of the event that shook the American south and profoundly changed this country for the better culminated at the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery, the end point of a second historic march from Selma that took five days.
What appears inevitable in hindsight was once very much in doubt. Americans owe a tremendous debt to those who refused to cede one jot of the Constitution to the oppressors.
We are all freer because of it.