I've just returned from an extraordinary pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., celebrating and commemorating the struggle for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other vital civil rights legislation for America.
We re-enacted the historic march from Selma to Montgomery led by John Lewis, a young Freedom Rider and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who is now a U.S. congressman from Georgia. The march, 38 years ago on March 7, 1965, never got past the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River because Sheriff Jim Clark stopped it with Alabama state troopers on horseback and armed with billy clubs and tear gas.
Hundreds of young people, black and white, had marched with Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams from the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma to the bridge to demonstrate - and yes, agitate - for voting rights when they came upon the state troopers. At about 2 p.m. on Sunday - Bloody Sunday, as it turned out to be called - Clark and the men on horseback charged into the crowd clubbing and gassing Lewis and the children. They were chased back to the church, and that evening on the national news Selma became infamous for man's inhumanity to man and police brutality to black people.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called in to galvanize a nonviolent march to Montgomery in protest of the killing of a young black boy and the attack of the Lewis-led marchers. The ultimate goal of King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young and thousands of civil rights activists was to force the federal government to implement and protect the civil, human and voting rights of disenfranchised black Southerners who were systematically denied their constitutional rights.
Believe it or not, only 2.5 percent of Alabama blacks were allowed to register and only after paying a poll tax and answering stupid questions such as how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.
King led the famous nonviolent protest march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, protected by President Lyndon Johnson, who wisely federalized the Alabama National Guard. Within days, the president asked Congress for a federal law protecting voting rights. It was signed into law Aug. 6, 1965.
As I joined Lewis, Williams, Ruby Sales, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson, Republican and Democratic members of Congress, and Mayor James Perkins of Selma to marched in solidarity with that noble cause across the bridge last Sunday, I asked myself why I wasn't there back in 1965. Why hadn't I protested the treatment of my black teammates in professional football in the 1950s and 1960s?