Ghosts of Alabama

It’s impossible to spend three days in Alabama revisiting the violence in Birmingham, where Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed; the Montgomery bus boycott; and the Bloody Sunday march in Selma 47 years ago, and ignore the similarity to today’s policy debates. Not just because of the inexplicable greatness it took for people of all backgrounds to absorb hate and violence in pursuit of civil rights — black and white, men, women, children, Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, gay and straight, Northerners and Southerners — but also the courage of those who refused to endorse the evil with their silence, the power of forgiveness and the cowardice of those who remained quiet.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) describes a “sea of blue” Alabama state troopers waiting to confront the peaceful group of marchers attempting to walk over the Edmund Pettus bridge in to Selma to register to vote. Marchers were brutally beaten, children attacked with a water hose “strong enough to knock a branch off of a tree.” Some recounted cruelly being asked if they needed aid as they sat bloodied on the street, only to be hit again repeatedly instead of helped. One white marcher said that when he replied yes, he needed a doctor, as his head bled profusely, he was told, “We don’t have doctors for people like you.” 

Coupled with activism and nonviolent protests, the American civil rights movement adeptly pursued a legal strategy based on rights guaranteed to (if not initially envisioned for) every American under our Constitution. Federal law said they had the right to register and to vote; states defied the law as blacks stood in “immovable lines” on the two days the office was even open, harassed, pushed and bullied by hostile crowds and police brandishing guns and nightsticks. As one former segregationist explained, “They didn’t want to give up control of the voting process.”

Today, segregationists are using new state laws challenging the authority of the federal government, not too dissimilar in spirit to George Wallace’s refusal to enforce civil rights laws. New state voter ID laws (implemented at lightning speed by local governments with severe budget problems) again require many of the same people and their children who endured beatings and bullying to comply with laws written to be difficult, if not impossible, to comply with; mandating paperwork intentionally not easily available and fees hard for some to afford.

State immigration laws, debated in eerily familiar dehumanizing rhetoric, attempt to justify classifying human beings into separate and unequal status. They codify the racial profiling I experienced when my father and I were pulled over on a highway in Virginia, and the police officer ordered him to get out of the car like a criminal asking, “Boy, you got some ID?”

Listening to the marchers’ memories of being treated “lower than a dog” as a federal judge last week enjoyed an email insinuating our president was fathered by a dog, I thought of a sign in a former slave house in Ghana 6 million Africans passed through as they were sold and put on ships bound for America: “May humanity never again perpetrate such an injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold.”

We still fight extremism that promotes dehumanizing laws, including denying gay people the right to marry — as blacks and whites once were denied — and challenging women’s decisionmaking fitness. Instead of nightsticks, we’re attacked by radio, TV and Tea Party bullies fearing change. And the silence within their ranks is deafening.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.