Haunted by a peculiar institution

Selma marches should remind us of how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go.

In March of 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, 600 demonstrators planned a march from Selma, Ala. to the capitol of Montgomery, demanding the right to vote that they had been systematically denied in the Jim Crow South.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, marchers were met by state troopers who beat, clubbed and teargassed them for having the audacity to want to exercise their constitutional rights. “Bloody Sunday” was captured on film and exposed the nation to the brutal treatment of blacks that was a part of daily life in the South. Days later, another march began with 3,200 people led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. By the time they had arrived in Montgomery, the march was 25,000 strong, black and white. Many believe that these events were responsible for the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

This weekend, former President Bill Clinton, as well as presidential hopefuls like Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, gathered in Selma to honor the anniversary of the march. However, their presence is probably just as much political maneuvering as it is to honor the brave people who fought for civil rights by marching that day in 1965.

Still, any attention that can be drawn to this issue is for the best. Sadly, many Americans will struggle to tell you anything about the civil rights movement other than perhaps naming Rev. King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. The movement could not have succeeded without the contribution of thousands of other people, nameless to most of us today, like those who were beaten down on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

We’ve had plenty of reminders lately of how the legacy of America’s institution of slavery still resonates with us today. Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton’s ancestors were recently found to have been owned by late segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s ancestors.

We can’t expect to move forward on the issue of racial discrimination until we know our nation’s history. Although Black History Month is over, the civil rights story is an American one, and we shouldn’t relegate our knowledge of it to a single month.