Dream Deferred: The Legacy Of SELMA In Perspective


While the in-your-face ‘No Blacks Allowed’ sign may be gone, columnist says mass of African Americans not doing better

On March 7, President Obama stood in Selma, Alabama at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events of “Bloody Sunday” where over 600 civil rights protesters were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and local police.  Some, such as Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) were beaten within inches of their lives.

Here are some of the words spoken by the president:

In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge. It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.”

Bloody Sunday” was just another historical example of American terrorism perpetrated by Whites or European Americans against African Americans.  Forty-six years earlier African Americans were targets of terror during the “Bloody” or “Red Summer of 1919”. 

In 1921 African Americans in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma were victims of European American terror as Whites over-reacted to a false claim that an African American young man assaulted a White woman. This is the meaning of America.

As with any historical analysis, context is very important. It’s no coincidence that “Bloody Sunday” took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Sheriff Jim Clarke was carrying on the bigoted legacy of his predecessors.  Who was Edmund Pettus?  He was a staunch racist.  He was a lieutenant in the Alabama Volunteers. After the Mexican-American War he moved to California where he participated in paramilitary violence against Yukis and other Native Americans. 

He later became a General in the Confederate Army (1861-1865) and after the Civil War he became the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.  He also served as U.S. Senator from Alabama (1897-1907).

President Obama was correct in saying, “It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.”

Yes, it was a clash of wills; between those Americans who subscribed to the racist tenets of the U.S. Constitution such as the three-fifths compromise, the fugitive slave provision and continuation of the importation of enslaved Africans into America until 1808 versus those Americans who believed in liberty and justice for all.

Between those Americans who supported a U.S. Supreme Court that sanctioned American racism with decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson versus those Americans who only wanted to and continue to fight for equal access and an equal opportunity to purse the American Dream.

This historical context forces one to ask, what is the meaning of America?  How is it that one group of Americans, those of White or European decent, can continue to subjugate other groups of Americans?

President Obama continued: “And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America — that idea ultimately triumphed.”

How so?

Many of the marchers in 1965 were savagely beaten by those who were sworn to “protect and serve”.  All they wanted then and continue to fight for today are the rights guaranteed to every American citizen.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act has been gutted.

What’s more, I’m not sure how the idea of a fair and inclusive America triumphed when the first African American president is disrespected at every turn by members of Congress who have sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution.

America was not fair and inclusive then and it is not fair and inclusive now.

President Obama continued, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.”

It is endemic; it is regularly found. Today, young African American men like Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, John Crawford III , Victor White III and Michael Brown are not in streets being bitten by police dogs; they are in the streets being shot down by the police who would not even shoot dogs like that.

These extrajudicial actions are sanctioned by law and custom as the judicial system fails to indict the police officers who kill them, or acquit them even when they are tried, and Americans have become too accustomed to it.

True, it’s not sanctioned by law but that matters not if their killers are not indicted and held accountable for their actions or are acquitted despite overwhelming evidence against them.

Again, President Obama added: “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America.”

But American history proves that it is.  We do a greater disservice to the cause of justice by acting as though racial division is not inherent to America. The artificial construct of race was created by Whites in America and as referenced earlier in this piece has been ingrained into America’s culture. Racism was written into the American Constitution. It is as American as cherry pie.

Obama went on to state, “If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was 30 years ago.”

Yes, there has been change, for some but the Movement was about improving the circumstance of the collective not the individual. 

Three things to consider, first, yes, other oppressed groups such as women and the gay community have benefited from the Civil Rights Movement and that’s a wonderful thing.

But Selma was not about women’s rights or gay rights.  It was about civil and voting rights for Black people. Period, full stop, end of sentence.

Second, many of the same people who were poor in Selma in 1965 are poor in Selma today and there are more of them elsewhere.

Go to Watts or South Central, L.A. or the Southside of Chicago – those people are still poor and struggling.  According to The Washington Post the Black-White economic gap hasn’t budged in 50 years.

“Even as racial barriers have been toppled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated,” it found “…the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.”

Here’’s the third thing, ask the female CEO about her success or ask individual African Americans and you will find many stories of achievement. Yet the struggle has always been about, the collective not the individual – the masses are still struggling.

For example, as The Washington Post, found, the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the White unemployment rate for 50 years. The gap in household income between Blacks and Whites hasn’t narrowed in the last 50 years.

In fact, the wealth disparity between Whites and Blacks grew even wider during the Great Recession. Also, the Black poverty rate is no longer declining. Black children are far more likely than Whites to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

As we celebrate Selma 50 years hence, remember the words of Langston Hughes, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”
Touting the achievements of the individual at the expense of the collective is neo-liberal fantasy.


Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the Sirius/XM Satellite radio channel 126 call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon” Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email:[email protected]. www.twitter.com/drwleon and Dr. Leon’s Prescription at Facebook.com  © 2015 InfoWave Communications, LLC


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