In Selma to pay our respects to the past with hope for the future

By Maria Saporta

SELMA – Thousands of people over the weekend descended on this small Alabama town with a population of less than 20,000.

Never before had Selma attracted these kind of crowds for the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday – the re-enactment of the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965.

But this year, it was estimated that more than 60,000 people joined President Barack Obama on Saturday for the actual 50th anniversary of the March. And then on Sunday, the crowds were at least as large – literally tripling the population of the town.


Maria Saporta, Elizabeth Hale, Sheffiled Hale, Lovette Russell and Michael Russell before we cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge

So what made 2015 the year that so many people decided to come to Selma?

Was it the movie “Selma”? Was it the 50th anniversary? Was it President Barack Obama? Or was it a combination of all of the above?

Driving into Selma from Montgomery on Sunday morning, there were cars with license plates from all over the country. Everyone seemed drawn to Selma as part of a power greater than any one individual.

There were signs for justice; signs for voting rights; signs to end violence and police brutality. There were people who wanted to change the name of the Edmund Pettus bridge so it would honor someone more politically correct in 2015.

Selma 2015

Janet Prioleau, Maria Saporta and Karlise Grier of the Atlanta-Fulton County League of Women Voters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge

But mostly people just seemed to want to be there – to walk across the bridge – to be part of the sea of humanity – and to feel as they were sharing a common history.

Despite the masses and the crowded conditions, the mood was pleasant and harmonious on a relatively warm winter day.

Looking up and down Broad Street, it was easy to look past the poverty that weighs down the town during the remaining 363 days of the year. This was a time to believe in the power of change. It may have been voting rights 50 years ago. Today – voting rights continue to be an issue – but now the focus has turned to the disparities between the rich and poor – and how all too often those disparities parallel the great divide between the races.

People as far as the eye can see come to Selma on Sunday (Photo by Maria Saporta)

People as far as the eye can see come to Selma on Sunday (Photo by Maria Saporta)

During Sunday’s March, the links between Atlanta and Selma were undeniable. Everywhere we turned, we saw friends from Atlanta. John Lewis, the symbolic flag-bearer of Selma’s struggle, is the Georgia Congressman from Atlanta.

Sheffield Hale, CEO of the Atlanta History Center, and his wife, Elizabeth, have a farm 30 miles west of Selma – and the Hale family roots stretch deeply in the Alabama soil. Michael and Lovette Russell were guests of the Hales. Throughout the afternoon, as we ran into other friends from Atlanta, Sheffield Hale offered historical annecdotes of how this Sunday was different from other annual tributes to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

Maynard "Buzzy" Jackson III with his daughter and the Edmund Pettus bridge in the background (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maynard “Buzzy” Jackson III with his daughter and the Edmund Pettus bridge in the background (Photo by Maria Saporta)

If there had been any hope of a scheduled beginning or end, or if there had been a planned method for people to walk across the bridge and back – all such plans were discarded as people just ended up creating their own pace and paths over the Alabama River.

There was Maynard “Buzzy” Jackson – the son of the late Atlanta mayor, who was there with his wife and his children. There was former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole; and there was Edward Jennings, the regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As all anniversaries, March 8, 2015 was a marker of how far we have come – and how far we still need to go before we realize the full potential of a society where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and prosper.

Selma 2015

Scenes from Selma 2015 as we walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Selma 2015

Scenes from Selma 2015 as we cross the Edmund Pettus bridge (Photo by Maria Saporta)


Selma 2015

Scene from Edmund Pettus bridge on March 9, 2015 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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