It’s easy to forget that there were three Selma marches. March 7 commemorates the bloody first march in which state troopers and a county posse attacked 600 unarmed marchers when they reached the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The marchers had wanted to walk 50 odd miles to Montgomery, the Alabama state capitol, to raise awareness of the fight for voting rights.
The images on television were unforgettably horrifying, and America rose, almost as one, to support the marchers. People from all walks of life using every means of transportation descended on Selma for a second march. Now there were 2,500 marchers, led by Martin Luther King, who had sat out the first march. I haven’t seen the movie “Selma,” but as Taylor Branch tells it in Pillars of Fire, King debated whether to risk injury or assassination by leading the second march. I have always wondered what goes into the decision to put your life at risk for an idea. It must be frightening to contemplate your own death, and yet to still walk into the lions’ den.
Although the second march on March 9 was merely symbolic, it held the potential for more violence. The Southern Christian Leadership Council tried to get a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering with the next attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery. The judge decided to issue a restraining order prohibiting another march until he could hold hearings on the court order. So America watched as King led the marchers to the bridge, where he declared victory and said they would wait for the court order.
Much happened before the triumphant third march: The KKK beat to death a white minister and he died after the Selma Hospital refused to treat him. President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before both houses of Congress. There were several protests for voting rights elsewhere in the south. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers. And of course, the judge granted the court order saying that the marchers could march because they were exercising their constitutional rights.
The third march that started on March 21 was almost anti-climactic, a five-day marathon of media coverage that started with 8,000 in Selma and ended with 30,000 witnessing another timeless speech by King on the steps of the Alabama Capitol Building. It was very much a victory party, since the marchers were well-protected by the troops and it was apparent that Congress was going to pass the Voting Rights Act. Thus, when I wrote a poem about Selma six years ago, I decided to focus on the second march.
“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…”
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
It was on TV
for all the world to touch:
the bloodied men and women
reeling on the bridge,
in Edmund Pettus
Bridge , Selma, Alabama
feel with them the billy clubs,
horn-bean branches, rifle butts
on black-brown arms and legs, black-brown noses, chins,
and lash of bull whips
swinging hard by hate-sieged men
in uniforms and gas masks,
tear gas melting lungs and eyes,
on TV for all to see, the bleeding broken
borne on arms and stretchers into church.
As one the viewers rise
from beer or dinner, stand and cry,
Is this my land, is this
the soil of equal hopes, of equal dreams?
and in a common rapture east to west,
people stop their meetings, drop their jobs,
board buses, railcars, airplanes, autos
bound for bloody
for another march, Selma
another chance to show the world,
to show themselves they live in freedom’s land.
Dead, dead, dead
if I should march to
, Edmund Pettus
closed-door Martin’s dread of next day’s plan
before a watching world, confronts
protected points, every ledge and rock along the way,
every liquored angry cracker white with smarts:
lay of the land, way to escape
after drawing, pulling, piercing him with searing shot.
My greater fear:
to die or disappoint?
to cease to be or cease to matter?
March he does
leading new recruits from every state
before the pens and cameras, before the snakelike
seething men, march he does,
a new rhythm haunting him, a fearless rhythm,
relentless echo rhythm,
sun blister cloud water wind shatter rhythm,
rhythm ready to pay the price,
peaceful ordnance steady step and turn.
And thousands march along, and multi-millions
watch as at the bridge the troopers wave
their clubs and court orders
and stop them, but only from crossing:
declares freedom victorious,
turns home to wait
for briefs in court, the slower march,
inevitable camp and walk, sing and praise,
five days fifty miles to
capitol steps, Alabama
thirty thousand strong to witness Martin ask
How long, not long, not long at all.