What if you took a bunch of squabbling politicians and asked them to go sit together in a history class taught by a man they think of as a living saint?
As conjured by President Obama, this weekend in Selma felt like attending an anniversary commemoration at Independence Hall, Gettysburg, Appomattox or Kitty Hawk with the people who made history there.
I had an unusual vantage point for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a symbol of sacrifice and redemption that has become for the Civil Rights Movement what D-Day is to World War II—a single moment that over time comes to represent an epoch.
For 17 years, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who as a 25-year-old activist was viciously beaten with other demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, has led an annual “pilgrimage” sponsored by the nonpartisan Faith and Politics Institute for members of Congress interested in learning more about the movement. This year, nearly 100 members from both parties (including about 25 Republicans) showed up for the three-day trip. The institute let three reporters embed with the group.
As I walked the bridge and then rode the bus from Selma to Montgomery with our elected officials, I had three takeaways: Members in both parties who have often been dyspeptic about Obama agreed (as I did) that he gave the best speech of his presidency Saturday afternoon at the bridge; the Selma story—better understood because of the recent movie but still fuzzy, even for congressmen—should be broadened from a focus on Martin Luther King to include other characters who helped make this moment emblematic; and when they return to Washington, Congress might even do the right thing and renew the Voting Rights Act that was first passed in 1965 in the wake of Selma.
Really? The do-nothing Congress might do that?
This was the kind of experience that could give rise to hope. The bridge that Lewis couldn’t cross because of the color of his skin now hosted a black president of the United States. “If someone had told me that, I’d say, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?’” Lewis said.
I’ve often accused Obama of failing to say anything that can be chiseled into marble. Not this time. Lines from this speech will be all over his library and will help historians understand how he saw America.
Obama brought his truest self to a place that has long inspired him, striking the right balance between appreciation of all that has changed for the better and the unfinished business of Selma.
No longer needing to hold back for political reasons, the president spoke from the heart in ways that we haven’t seen in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. In doing so, he redefined patriotism for the 21st century.
With a combative tone that becomes him, he consigned critics who accuse him of apologizing too much for America to the dustbin of a narrow-minded past.
Of the marchers, he said: “That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”
“Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.”
Here was the president’s rebuke to Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and all the other conservatives hounding him to buy their version of what makes America special.
In Selma, he owned their exceptionalism, even as he also answered those on the left who argue that we are no better than other countries. We are different not because we’re superior in some idealized Norman Rockwell view of ourselves (though Rockwell was in fact a progressive), but in a more Whitmanesque sense, because, as the president said, “We contain multitudes.”
With an emphasis, throughout, on the “we.”
Former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush joined the Obamas on the podium and the president told the audience that both Bush and Ronald Reagan signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. Nancy Pelosi later reminded me that the 2006 extension passed unanimously in the Senate and with only a few dozen “no” votes in the House.
I saw Bush look with irritation over his right shoulder in the direction of nearby demonstrators beating a noisy drum and chanting about Ferguson. As if on cue, an undistracted Obama, following his prepared text, said that as a “work in progress” America “requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”
The demonstrators were clueless and rude but in the moment fully American, too.
Before the speech, we gathered at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where 50 years ago Lewis and 600 well-trained non-violent demonstrators—upset over the shooting of a young church deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson—set out two-by-two (so as not to interrupt commerce) down the street toward the bridge.
Lewis that day was wearing a trench coat and a backpack “before it was fashionable” that contained two books, an apple, an orange, and a toothbrush. “We thought we’d be arrested and go to jail,” he said. “We had no idea we’d be beaten and left bloody.”
After they cracked his skull, “my legs went from under me. I thought I saw death,” Lewis recounted.
Fred Gray, who later told me that he was one of only seven African-American lawyers in the entire state of Alabama at the time, represented the marchers (as he had Rosa Parks during the Montgomery bus boycott a decade earlier). He and others made a point of explaining to us how they were helped all along by sympathetic whites, like Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, an Eisenhower appointee to the bench, who eventually permitted the march to Montgomery led by King.
But not before more blood was spilled. Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe told the story of her mother, Viola, who was at home in Michigan playing Scrabble when she saw TV coverage of Bloody Sunday and heeded King’s call to come to Selma. Exultant, Viola called her husband and five children. Mary remembered her two brothers marching around the living room, chanting “We Shall Overcome!” Later that night, Klansmen killed their mother.
Throughout the weekend, I found myself talking to veterans of the march and to the relatives of key figures of the era. David Goodman, brother of Andrew Goodman, one of three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964, described for me the critical role of Jews in the movement.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of then-Gov. George Wallace, told me how as a 13-year-old she objected to her father standing in the schoolhouse door and, later, to not coming down from the governor’s office in Montgomery to greet the marchers from Selma. Toward the end of his life, after strong black support returned him to the governor’s mansion, Wallace told his daughter of his remorse over his segregationist views.
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, was pleased that the president referred to how her father’s famous “ripples of hope” speech in Soweto gave heart to those struggling against apartheid. And Lynda Bird Johnson Robb was upset that the recent film Selma falsely depicted her father as antagonistic toward the march and approving the wiretaps on King. (They actually were originated during the Kennedy administration.) Lewis, too, made a point of explaining Johnson’s critical role in the Voting Rights Act.
When the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated important chunks of the VRA, the court all but instructed Congress to fix it. But since then, the issue has been on such a low boil that hardly anyone in Congress has noticed that Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has a bill that would do just that.
The Faith and Politics Institute quietly asked the Democrats to go light on the politics during this trip, lest Republicans on the pilgrimage feel hounded and unwelcome. The pilgrimage wasn’t supposed to be about legislation.
This offended Jesse Jackson, who for decades hasn’t been on good terms with Lewis and the MLK circle and was not part of the delegation.
At the bridge, he raged to me that the members of Congress “should be legislating, not celebrating.” He argued that Republicans were using the trip as cover for gutting the VRA.
That was too harsh. The Republicans I spoke to seemed genuinely moved by what they were seeing and hearing. Alabama Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne, for instance, said of his liberal Democratic colleague: “John Lewis is the moral conscience of our nation.” This is not your standard 2015 Washington comment about a member of the other party.
But few of the Republicans I spoke to were co-sponsors of Sensenbrenner’s legislation or had bothered to familiarize themselves with the issue.
The explanation is that in the last five years voter suppression efforts have become part of the way the GOP handles elections. “It’s partly racial but it’s mostly about the degradation of politics,” Democratic Rep. Sander Levin said on the bus. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren told me, “Voting rights is not the same as prison reform [where bipartisanship is flourishing]--it’s the same old hard-core desire to keep people who disagree with you from voting.”
By Saturday night, there were signs that maybe something concrete could come from the trip after all. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy showed up amid rumors that he and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (also present) might work out a deal when they got back to Washington.
Amelia Boynton Robinson, now 104 years old and presiding over the weekend as the “Queen Mother” of the Selma marches, had been beaten unconscious on the bridge. With her depiction in the movie, younger people now often tell her that they stand on her shoulders.
“Get off my shoulders,” she tells them. “There’s work to be done.”