"History, Justice, Surprise: A Story"
October 23, 2003
History is writ small as well as large. What follows is a story of injustice and the fight for justice. At times it ventures on to the great stage of American history. At times its focus is on the small realm each of us inhabits as we move through our daily lives.
Civil rights and Selma
The story begins in 1965. In March that year, in the deep south of the USA, a group of black Americans mobilized to secure for their fellow citizen the right to vote. Despite a bloody civil war fought between 1861 and 1865 over the issue of slavery, despite the victory of the anti-slavery forces in that war, despite Constitutional changes following that war which required that every citizen regardless of color have equal rights under the law: despite all these events, a hundred years later millions of adult African-Americans were still not allowed to vote in city, state, and federal elections.
In the six years previous to 1965, other inequalities had been challenged and overcome in what came to be known in the USA as the Civil Rights Movement. That movement began in 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama, when a black working woman named Rosa Parks refused to stand when a bus driver told her she could not sit in her seat, which was in a section reserved for whites only. He stopped the bus, called the police, and Mrs Parks was arrested.
That evening, the black citizens of Montgomery assembled to decide how to respond to the arrest. They took their first step by choosing a young minister, Martin Luther King Junior, to lead the meeting. They mounted a boycott of city buses. The boycott lasted over a year and created such a heavy fiscal drain on the city’s treasury that on the 382nd day, the white civic powers were compelled to relent and integrate the city’s transportation system.
Six years after those events in Montgomery, Martin Luther King and his comrades decided that their next step in their struggle for racial equality and racial justice would be to take on the largest issue of them all, the right to vote. They initiated a campaign in the small Alabama city of Selma to demand voting rights for all citizens. As this historic effort began, violence was in the air. Several civil rights workers were beaten, and one was shot and killed, as the voting rights campaign commenced. Thus it was with trepidation, as well as great hope, that the leadership planned a long march. They would start in Selma and make their way to Montgomery, a distance of slightly less than a hundred kilometers, in a bid to bring their campaign for voting rights to the attention of the nation.
On an overcast Sunday, 7 March 1965, 600 men, women and children began marching from Selma. Hardly had they left the downtown when they came to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which crossed the Alabama River. They crossed that bridge, but as they descended on its far other side they were met by a phalanx of policemen, some state officers, some from the city of Selma. As historian James T Patterson recounted it, the police “tore forward in a flying wedge, swinging their clubs at people in the way. With white onlookers cheering, the troopers rushed ahead, hitting the demonstrators and exploding canisters of tear gas. Five women were beaten so badly that they fell down near the bridge and lost consciousness. Sheriff Clark’s horsemen then joined in the assault. Charging with rebel yells, they swung bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. ”
That evening the events of the day, thereafter known as “Bloody Sunday,” were shown on television. Americans were, justifiably, outraged. That police should savagely attack and beat citizens who were marching peacefully, for no other reason than that those citizens had black skin and thought people like themselves should be able to vote as the nation’s Constitution stipulated, seemed untenable to most Americans. It was one of those moments when the image of one’s country in this case, of a nation fair, just, democratic collides with a reality which threatens to undermine that image.
Within six months, the national support mobilized had created a groundswell of public concern that forced the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Proposed by then-President Lyndon Johnson, the path-breaking legislation was carried through both houses of Congress by the force of the national outcry for electoral justice. Henceforward, no American would be denied the right to vote because of his or her race.
North to Vermont
But the story is not over. For me, it resumes in 1995, 30 years after the brutal events on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, when a friend, David Cray, a Catholic priest serving in an religious order with a base in Selma, informed me of a little-known but remarkable political situation.
What Father Cray knew that I and almost all Americans did not was that the man who was ultimately in charge of the city police who mounted the infamous attack on the civil rights marchers was still in office. Despite the shameful history of Selma, despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act three decades before, despite the fact that currently a solid majority of the city’s citizens were black, the mayor of the city was the same man, Joe Smitherman, who had been mayor of Selma on that fateful “Bloody Sunday. ”
There was, Father Cray informed me, a challenger on the horizon. A black businessman, James Perkins, was thinking of mounting a challenge to Smitherman. In actuality, Perkins had already run against Smitherman 1992, and had lost badly. Now he was considering a second challenge, this time not just to make a statement, but to win. Father Cray supported Perkins, and asked me if there were a way to help him strategize about the coming campaign.
For a number of years, I had been engaged in electoral politics. In Vermont, where I reside, we had a history of successes when independent politicians took on established powers. My friend Bernie Sanders was elected Mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, by a razor-thin margin of just 10 votes, even though he ran as an independent in a city that had been ruled by the Democratic Party for the whole of the 20th century. After four terms, Sanders ran as an independent for the US Congress, and was elected the first independent to enter that body in over 30 years. Meanwhile, another friend, Peter Clavelle, had run an independent campaign for Mayor, and he was elected to replace Sanders.
So, with the help of David Cray, I invited James Perkins to visit Vermont for several days. I arranged a schedule for him. He met with Mayor Clavelle. He met at length with the people who had run those successful mayoral and congressional campaigns: Cavelle’s campaign manager Michael Monte, Sanders’ campaign managers during six elections, Phil Fiermonte, David Clavelle and Jim Schumacher. Over dinner, as well as lunch and breakfast, I told him all I knew about how those independent campaigns had convinced people to vote for candidates who were challenging entrenched powers, how to reach the voters, how to excite them about the candidate, how to organize absentee ballots, how to make sure that supporters were identified and then mobilized on election day to go to the polls and vote.
They were a rich and lovely three days, for James Perkins was smart, articulate, a quick learner and to use a term the great southern writer William Faulkner favored indomitable. He was not going to lose a second time. I was greatly impressed with his energy and his determination to bring about change in the very heart of still-segregated America. Then, the three days ended, Perkins headed south to Alabama. In the next month, I solicited friends and colleagues, and raised a moderately substantial amount of money to help fund his new campaign.
Nine months later the news, as I read it over the Internet, was unhappy. Despite a strong effort on the insurgent’s part, the incumbent, Mayor Smitherman, was elected to a ninth term. He had found a way to split the black vote, and rode that division to another stay in office. Perkins lost, and seemed to disappear from the public stage.
An indomitable spirit
But James Perkins really was indomitable. He and I lost contact with one another. But he did not lose contact with his goal, to be elected the first black mayor of Selma. He planned another campaign, four years hence. For those four years, he worked on expanding his electoral base. In September 2000, in his third try over the course of 12 years, he unseated the seemingly unbeatable Joe Smitherman. A shameful blot, not only on Alabama, but also on the entire American nation, was wiped clean. The continuing incumbency of Joe Smitherman, the former segregationist who ran the city whose police brutally attacked civil rights marchers was finally over.
Were the story to conclude at this juncture, two lessons could be drawn from the struggle of James Perkins and Alabama’s African Americans. The first, quite tragically, is seen all too easily in the USA when one looks at politics and especially racial politics: meaningful political change is often difficult and almost impossible. How else explain the strange circumstance that Selma never found new leadership, allowing Joe Smitherman to remain in office for 35 years, except by acknowledging that often the incumbent power structure is very, very hard to dislodge? But there is a second lesson. In the pursuit of justice, if one tries, and endures in trying, change can and will come. The indomitable sometimes do prevail.
Still, there is more to the story I have been recounting. Two weeks ago, a high school choir came to Vermont from Selma. Sixty young African-Americans, one of the premier high school singing groups in the nation, performed for an audience of over 1,000 people at St Michael’s College, which was founded by the same Edmundite order of which David Cray is a member. They sang classical European music, Negro spirituals, gospel music and African songs. All who attended were deeply moved by the power of their music. I know, as my wife and I were in the audience.
At the conclusion of the concert, the adults traveling with the choir called their host, the president of St Michael’s College, and the local mayor, to the stage to thank them for their hospitality. Then, to my immense shock, I heard my name called, and that of my wife. It was totally unexpected, unsuspected.
I stood up. As I walked forward I knew instantly, on some deep level, that there must be some connection between this summons and my distant and extremely small encounter with James Perkins eight years earlier. To say that I was surprised is an understatement. And to say of me, as I stood on the stage, that I was moved is beyond understatement: I was close to tears.
Embarrassed, speechless, I was so moved I only half listened to the words spoken as I was handed a small white box. As soon as I could, I walked back to my seat, my eyes now filled with tears. In my mind was a line from the poet William Wordsworth, for I knew, not just rationally but in my heart, that I had done little for Selma, very little. I had once, many years previous, for several brief days, done what all of us try to do in our better moments: I had made a small effort to advance the cause of justice in the world. And then, the world being as busy as it is, I had moved on to other things. So I could not help but think of those words of Wordsworth, which I have always believed to be deeply, deeply, true, words where he recognizes“That best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love. ” Striving to be a good man, as my wife beside me strove to be a good woman, is composed of those little acts of kindness and love. And we expect them to be exactly that, nameless and unremembered: that is why they are the best portion of our lives, for they are done with no expectation of recognition.
But here I was, in tears, without words, having been remembered. My acts and they were little acts, truly were in fact remembered. Overwhelmed by a sense that I cannot express even now, that the small ways we touch and help one another may have more lasting permanence than we ever can possibly be aware, I could not open the box. My wife opened it for me. In it, resplendent, was the key to the city of Selma. From James Perkins. Mayor James Perkins.
There is a third lesson that can be drawn from this story. In his most famous speech, at a great mass march for racial justice in 1963, Martin Luther King cited a biblical text: “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. ” Perhaps, if we each act in kindness and love and justice, the waters will continue to build, and the day may come will come when justice will flow over every hill and valley of our common earth.
The author is Professor of English at the University of Vermont and Senior Aide to US Representative Bernard Sanders.