Nationwide — Congressman John Lewis shocked the organizers of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee that commemorates “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma to Montgomery march, when he told media outlets on February 8th that this year’s 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march should reflect the dignity of the original event, which is why he arranged for President Barack Obama to visit the day before the sacred Bloody Sunday march reenactment.
An Open Letter to Faith and Politics Institute Concerning “Bloody Sunday”
Dear Faith and Politics:
I appreciate your bringing a group of congresspersons and other dignitaries each year to Selma and other places in Alabama for Bloody Sunday and related events. Every person in a leadership position ought to have this experience so that they may better understand how the right to vote was forged with blood and lost lives and suffering and sacrifice and struggle. Thank you for exposing these dignitaries to this historic and sacred struggle. We welcome you and all. We are especially glad that President Barack Obama is coming for we also invited him and the First Family.
Faith and Politics, I am extremely concerned. I considered writing you on several occasions but held back. However, after Representative John Lewis talked to a reporter, who then contacted me, I had to write. Other leaders of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee have written you in years past, but you never answered a single letter. I do not expect an answer to this letter, so I am making it an open letter.
The Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It should be a time of great unity, but you have shattered that possibility. The great challenges to the right to vote also demand unity. These challenges include the gutting of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act; the wave of voter photo ID laws, which are modern-day poll taxes; the proof of citizenship laws, which are modern-day literacy tests; and the many and varied other schemes that suppress and deny the right to vote. We should be united, but your actions divide us.
This Commemoration must be more than a celebration. Many workshops and other activities were scheduled for Saturday, March 7th, to forge a more effective effort to restore the Voting Rights Act and expand voting rights generally. Your actions disrupted these critical work sessions.
The reporter I mentioned, Mary Orndorff Troyan, said one of the reasons you wanted a march on Saturday was to ensure that it was a “dignified” march. Faith and Politics, the Bloody Sunday March has been reenacted each year since the seventies. No one has ever said that it was not dignified. Was the Bloody Sunday March not dignified when President Bill Clinton came to Selma in 2000, as a sitting president, for the 35th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday? Was the March not dignified when President Barack Obama came as Senator Obama to Selma on Bloody Sunday in 2007? Was the March not dignified when Vice President Joe Biden came in 2013?
Over the years, many leaders have come to Selma on their own to participate in this sacred pilgrimage – not seeking glory or status. These include members of the Kennedy family, other prominent political and social leaders, and many more. Were the Marches not dignified when these leaders made the pilgrimage to participate in the Bloody Sunday March? Your actions cannot be about the dignity of Bloody Sunday, for if they were, you would not be having another march on a day other than Bloody Sunday.
I recall that some years ago Faith and Politics asked representatives of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee to come to Washington, D.C. to meet. You paid for their tickets, hotel rooms and other expenses, and they came. You proposed taking over the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. In response, we proposed that Faith and Politics co-sponsor the Bridge Crossing Jubilee along with the National Voting Rights Museum, SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and other organizations. You said that you would only be a sponsor if you could be the sole sponsor. You conveyed the impression that we were not competent, and that is why you had to do it by yourself. This was not about faith or service or competence. It was about power and politics – and control.
Even though we are volunteers, those of us who have led the Commemoration of Bloody Sunday for 40-plus years have been competent enough not only to accomplish the event each year, but to grow it into the largest Civil Rights Event in the country and, according to a national publication, one of the 100 greatest national tourist events. Your actions do not seem to be about competence but about control, power and politics.
The reporter told me that Congressman John Lewis said that certain unnamed national leaders tried to get into the front lines last year. One of those leaders was SCLC National President Charles Steele. I want to remind you that SCLC was the sole sponsor of the original Bloody Sunday March in 1965 and has been a co-sponsor of the Bloody Sunday March Reenactments since the seventies. The President of this organization certainly has a right to be among those on the front lines. SCLC President Steele told me that last year Faith and Politics tried to stop him and his wife Annette from getting on the front lines. When they entered the lines anyway, Congressman Lewis pointed his finger and said, “This will not happen again. I will get another venue next year.” Now we see what that venue is.
I am sorry to say that the issue of who will be among those on the front lines has recently become a bone of contention. Faith and Politics has insisted that only members of the Faith and Politics delegation be on the front lines. We have insisted that some of the nearly 600 other individuals who were also on the Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965 be included. In 2013 when Vice President Biden was here, Faith and Politics wanted to allot only 30 places for survivors of Bloody Sunday with 270 places for members of their delegation, including congressional staff members. When an agreement was worked out that it would be half and half, Faith and Politics then had the Secret Service give virtually every place to members of the Faith and Politics delegation. It seems that you value status, power and money far more than you value blood, sacrifice, struggle and history.
Commemoration of Bloody Sunday is big enough for everyone. It has grown from a few of us crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of Bloody Sunday in the seventies to about fifty events over five days each year. Your actions do not seem to be about dignity or competence but about power and politics and control.
In the 17 or so years that Faith and Politics has been coming to the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, not once have you organized a March or contributed in any way. You raise millions of dollars by claiming to sponsor the Bloody Sunday March but never paid for even a chair, a porto-toilet, water or anything else. You never organized other people to come if they were not in your delegation. You just show up and insist on privilege even though you refused to be a co-sponsor because you could not be the sole sponsor. This is about your privilege and power. Bloody Sunday is about sacredness, sacrifice and struggle.
It appears to me that Faith and Politics has set out to not only diminish but to destroy Bloody Sunday. You not only scheduled another march on Saturday in Selma but you scheduled a march and rally in Montgomery on Sunday during the afternoon when the sacred Bloody Sunday March takes place in Selma. It would have been so simple to hold your events in Montgomery on Saturday and join the events in Selma on Sunday. However, the arrogance of power has caused you to try to diminish the sacred Bloody Sunday March and Commemoration and change history.
Faith and Politics, you are not even representative of the struggle. From viewing your web page earlier this year, the makeup of your Board appears to be 14 Whites and two African Americans, including the Chief of Staff of Congressman John Lewis, who is a member emeritus. This is the organization that insisted on being the sole sponsor of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee and the Bloody Sunday events. This is the organization that is insisting on moving Bloody Sunday to Saturday after 40-plus years of commemoration on Sunday. This is the organization that has not contributed anything to organizing these events over the years. Sadly, I do not see the exercise of faith in your actions but only the force of power and politics.
I hope that you will reflect on the facts I have shared in this open letter and on the history of Bloody Sunday from 1965 to the present. It took great faith and courage for all of those nearly 600 people to face the great dangers that awaited them at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in order to fight for the right to vote. It will require great faith and courage today to restore these same rights that were won in 1965 only to be lost in 2013.
Alabama State Senator
Alabama State Senate