Monday, March 09, 2015

A Thank You Note to Selma

Dear Mayor Evans and the City of Selma,

Thank you for a weekend that my parents and I will never forget. Spending time with you during this historical celebration of one of our country's most courageous moments has been inspirational, eye-opening and empowering.

In days to come you will probably hear some complaints about an event that became bigger than your city could have ever prepared for, so I want you to know the truth from three participants who could not have asked for a better experience. And we did not have VIP badges.

Friday afternoon when we parked on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and walked our bicycles over the bridge, we had already made friends. A retired Marine/preacher and his wife from a small town in Mississippi didn't have any idea where to go. We shared what little information we had, an address for a church and the time of a rally later that evening. Someone else may tell you that your website wasn't helpful enough, but rather than spend time scrolling through webpages, my nose buried in my cellphone, I got to hear the story of this couple's journey to greet history. I got all the information I needed.

Saturday morning my parents and I wandered into downtown Selma as vendors scrambled to get sausages grilling and BBQ heated up. The streets were already filled with as many people as your population, twice over, most of them standing in a self-organized line wrapped around two city blocks to hear the President speak. After waiting over an hour, the line growing in front of us as buses pulled up and people joined the line wherever they saw fit, we decided not to bother and found instead a position on a curb three blocks away from the Bridge, just behind the back barriers.

Some may complain of long waits, sound problems, the heat, not being able to see. But not us. We stood all day in the sun, and when the President finally began to speak two hours after he was scheduled, we couldn't hear anything above a mutter. I'll tell you what I did hear: Rev. S.P. Powell, one of the foot soldiers on the bridge on Bloody Sunday was sitting on a trash bin just behind me, and before we knew it, the crowd around us was gifted with a word-for-word account of his experience, of the power of his faith to carry him through, of how Dr. King bought him a '55 Chevy to help in the coordination of the efforts. He really loved that car.

On Sunday afternoon, we stood amidst 40,000 people outside Brown Chapel, listening impatiently to a service gone on too long, (and yet every word just as meaningful as the next,) wondering when we'd finally be allowed to march. As the clock ticked past the scheduled hour, rumors of the March being cancelled began to filter through the crowd. Eyeing the almost entirely white police force and the majority
African-American marchers, I began to worry. I looked in the eyes of officials dressed in suits moving swiftly through the masses and they seemed focused,wary and guarded. Sunday afternoon could have been a disaster, when over 80,000 stirred-up, sunburnt participants were told the March could not proceed. But that's not what happened. Instead those of us at the chapel walked together, singing, the half mile to downtown to greet the rest and mill about for photo-ops.

The bridge was packed; ambulances couldn't easily get to injured or exhausted participants. My parents and I didn't try to get near the milieu and instead stopped blocks before the river to stand with the dancing youth of the Freedom Foundation, RATCo and Students Unite. We held up petitions to change the name of the bridge while our friends sold T-Shirts to fund their new Youth Center. You may hear accounts of disappointment and the unfulfilled promise of an organized march - but that day I walked, sang, held hands - and I worked for change.

"I was there." It's a phrase I will be able to utter with pride and gratitude for the rest of my life. I was there with my parents, with my new friends, and most importantly with the living heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I felt the spirit, I heard the passion, and I knew the reason why Selma is the place where change began.

So thank you, Selma. For 1965 and for 2015. You did your best, and it was good enough.
TL: Mom and I Sunday afternoon, bridge in the background.
TR: Robin White, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, myself and Sheyann Webb Christburg at the NAACP Awards Gala in Montgomery
LL: Dad meets Jimmy Webb           LR: Mom meets Sheyann

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Selma - Discovering Viola Liuzzo Part 2

I used old photos of my grandmother to help inspire the
look for Viola.  Granny (Elizabeth Sellars) is pictured 
Lower Right and Viola is Upper Right
It was late on a Sunday night in June when I finally found myself on US Route 80, westbound for Selma, Alabama, on my way to our final week of filming - on location at last. It was my first time traveling a modern version of the road Viola Liuzzo drove the last night of her life. Even though this highway is now bigger, straighter, flatter - it is still a haunting drive. I was alone and the fog kept my vision limited; the occasional pair of headlights approaching gave me an ominous feeling. I wanted it that way. I wanted to have, if I could, even a small understanding of the life of the martyr I was portraying. She was an elusive woman. Accounts I had read of Viola were contradictory, and for good reason. Most Americans, until recently, had no idea who Viola Liuzzo was, myself included. Her greatest of sacrifices for the Civil Rights Movement - the only white woman to give her life - is buried in history beneath layers of misinformation.

On March 25th, the night of the completion of the third march to Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo was traveling back and forth on Route 80 delivering marchers back to Selma and running various errands as part of the transportation committee. After departing in her Oldsmobile from Selma at approximately 8 in the evening, driving with a single passenger, Leroy Moton (a 19-year-old African American), she was gunned down by four Klansmen on the highway in Lowndes County. Moton survived the attack physically unharmed.

If this description seems vague to you, it's intentional. The facts of Viola's death are equivocal, primarily because one of the Klansmen involved in the murder was paid FBI informant Tommy Rowe. So it depends on who you ask, what documents you consult, and who you believe as to what actually happened to Mrs. Liuzzo that night. And not only were the events of that evening obscured, but Viola's reputation, her history were twisted to fit multiple agendas.

For example: the death of a white woman in the name of civil rights is way more incendiary if the photo used in articles trying to elicit sympathy is of a beautiful young woman, aged 24, blonde hair perfectly coifed like an angel. But Viola was 39 when she passed, beauty of a different nature, a figure of strength, determination and full awareness of the boldness of her actions. As I searched for truth, I found that photos and books only spoke of moments and ambiguous facts, and that her humanity, her motivations, were yet a mystery.

Until I stood on the bridge. Wearing a trench coat, with my hair pinned and lips painted red, I found myself drenched in history. Not just the setting - a magnificent steel arch bridge welcoming visitors into downtown Selma, Alabama's second oldest city and home to 1250 historical structures in varying states of restoration. I found myself surrounded by living history. Many of our background players were lifelong residents of Selma - some had even participated in the original marches. And they shared a common love for the woman I was portraying. Faces glowed with pride as stories were shared; tears flowed freely as we prayed together in gratitude. Viola had only been in Selma for a short while, and yet she had inspired a commitment in the people of Selma to remember her and honor her. These were the hands that washed off the confederate slurs from her marker year after year. These were the voices that insisted on honoring her name in council meetings and in the media. Viola may not be remembered by a nation, but she is loved by many in Selma.

That day I felt as close to the truth as I am ever going to get. By marching hand in hand with those who love Viola, I felt what it meant to be beloved. I finally came to understand a martyr.