A march to remember

Posted: Feb 16, 2004 12:00 AM

February is Black History Month primarily because Abraham Lincoln's birthday is Feb. 12. Unfortunately, the political party he helped to found has lost its historical recognition as the Party of Civil Rights. As I've said previously: The Democratic Party had a terrible history and overcame it; the Republican Party had a great history and turned aside.

In my opinion, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is taking real steps to help restore the GOP to its roots as the Party of Lincoln and the great Republican abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. I was with Frist in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., last weekend for the annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage, led by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute, which is led by the Rev. Doug Tanner. Ten percent of the U.S. Senate toured the historic churches and sites now enshrined as the epicenter of the struggle. It was my second trip, and as I told Sens. Frist and John Corzine, D-N.J., who were co-sponsors of this trip, it would be a life-changing experience for us all.

The inspiration and catalyst for the movement occurred in December 1955, in Montgomery, when courageous black seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a public bus. She was arrested, tried and convicted of breaking a Montgomery city ordinance in what can only be labeled as "apartheid" Alabama style.

This act of defiance launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ultimately broke the humiliating and brutal type of discrimination in public transportation. It helped lead to a mighty struggle for social justice, freedom and nonviolent demonstrations for radical change in our attitude toward African-Americans. Visiting the Montgomery Museum dedicated to Rosa Park's story of courage, dignity and moral leadership was a thrilling and enlightening experience.

We then went to Selma to commemorate March 7, 1965, what has been called Bloody Sunday, where on the Edmond Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River, Lewis and Hosea Williams led 600 students, teachers and others into a confrontation with armed members of Gov. George Wallace's Alabama state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark's deputies, who charged into the nonviolent marchers and bludgeoned Lewis and teargassed women and children.

The rest is history as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Lewis led the march to Montgomery, causing President Lyndon Baines Johnson to address the Congress and nation with the famous words "we shall overcome." The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed the vote nearly 100 years after passage of the 15th Amendment, which was supposed to guarantee emancipated African-American slaves the right to vote. As Frist so eloquently pointed out, a pilgrimage is a trip to a sacred place on behalf of a moral cause, and that's what we celebrated.

While others will have their own ideas, here are some of my thoughts for a new chapter in the civil rights history book. America must commit the resources and the all-out effort to improve our urban and rural schools and provide the metrics by which to judge and assess educational progress. We should do the same in housing and homeownership opportunities, health care and job creation by expanding empowerment zones and creating new enterprise zones - such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. is promoting - in the many impoverished areas of the United States. Finally, let's give working men and women the chance to have individual retirement accounts that can help democratize our capitalist system. As Rev. Jesse Jackson has so wisely noted, capitalism without access to capital is nothing but an "ism," just an abstraction.

From Selma, we traveled to Birmingham to lay a wreath at the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church where on Sept. 15, 1965, just two weeks or so after King's "I Have A Dream" speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a terrorist bombed the church, an act I believe can be likened to 9/11. It destroyed one-third of the church and killed four Sunday school girls.

Listening to the first-hand accounts of the incredible acts of courage and nonviolence in the face of fascist-like police and Ku Klux Klan brutality, we witnessed first hand the New Alabama and the New South and the progress made in a relatively brief period of history. Just think, this year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education and in 2005 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Great celebrations indeed, but we still have a long way to go toward the racial and ethnic reconciliation America needs so as to reach its true potential.

The GOP, with President George W. Bush, Frist, Hastert, Brownback and others, can design a platform this summer in New York City that delineates the legislative architecture to reform every facet of our public approach to poverty and commits the country to a new war on the poverty that engulfs so many of our fellow citizens. While the Democratic Party outlines a platform that will emphasize income redistribution, class distinction and a collectivist approach to health care, we need a rousing and healthy debate on how to get the tide raising that will lift every boat in America. And, where boats are in need of repair, we Republicans must devise strategies that will make those necessary repairs.