A civil rights pilgrimage

Posted: Mar 11, 2003 12:00 AM

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?

Where was the party of Lincoln when called to live up to its founding principles as a party of civil rights and emancipation? Where were the white churches of America, North and South, when our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans were getting clubbed and beaten as they demonstrated for their rights?

Why were only four or five GOP members of Congress joining Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to spend a weekend with the Faith and Politics Institute who organized this pilgrimage? It was hosted by two progressive young Alabama congressmen, Artur Davis and Spencer Bachus, the former a Democrat, the latter a Republican.

I joined this group because Lewis and his co-chair, Amo Houghton of upstate New York, asked me - plus I wanted to see the New South and the New Alabama. I also wanted to see the new Birmingham, where I had played my first game of professional football in an August 1957 exhibition game at a strictly segregated stadium where my Detroit Lion teammate, Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, could not stay in our hotel, eat with our team or even enter Legion Field except through a "coloreds only" sign. Most of all, I wanted my party to get back to its roots as a party of freedom, social justice and equal opportunity for all.

I write this not to open old wounds but to keep in front of our nation's agenda the poverty and unemployment, education, jobs for all and access to capital, credit, property and homeownership which I believe are the cornerstone of a 21st century civil rights agenda for both political parties. The Democratic Party had a terrible history, which they overcame. The GOP had a great history from which it has all too often turned aside. History has given us a second chance, and we must not miss this opportunity to compete for every vote.

I urge Republican members of Congress and senators to take this pilgrimage with Lewis and Houghton and to see firsthand the progress that only occurred because of black Americans with the help of a few extraordinary and courageous white people who dared to demand justice, dignity and equality for all Americans without respect to the color of someone's skin.

Next time I hope to take my children and grandchildren because I want them to know there was a big price paid for their freedom. They need to know not only about the American Revolution but also about the civil rights revolution and about the men and women upon whose shoulders we all stand - the giants in a continuing struggle for human and civil rights for all. I want them to know that the opposite of love is not hatred but, as young Congressman Davis told us, it is indifference; and we must recognize that indifference to evil is evil.