Over the weekend, the ceremonies marking the 50-year anniversary of the march on Selma gained national attention. President Obama was one of the numerous notable public figures there, and he gave an important speech about how much things have changed in the country. There was also a symbolic march across the landmark Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where peaceful marchers had been stopped half a century ago. Some of the original Selma activists were present this weekend as well, although one of those marchers made news headlines this time around for refusing to march.
Diane Nash had been one of the original marchers in 1965, and she was in Selma again this past weekend to take part in the anniversary ceremonies. However, she refused to take part in the march this time around. She objected to the presence of former President George W. Bush, who also participated in the ceremonial march at Selma. Nash argued that Bush stood for everything that the original nonviolent activists at Selma during the civil rights movement marched against. She said that Bush represented violence, war, torture, and stolen elections, and suggested that the presence of the ex-president amounted to an insult not only to her, but anyone who truly believed in nonviolence. In refusing to march, Nash, one of the original activists that was there in Selma half a century ago, garnered quite a bit of attention during this event, as well.
This was not the only controversy involving George W. Bush’s presence in Selma over the weekend. Also, the New York Times was criticized for the main picture covering the story on their front pages, which left President Bush and his wife, Laura, out. Some speculated that this had been done purposely, that Bush had been cropped out. Times photographer Doug Mills said that Bush had not been cropped out, but that the Bushes were too far to the right to be included in the picture. This became a story unto itself, although Jon Stewart took exception to this, and criticized FOX News in particular for making the anniversary of the Selma march about the exclusion of President Bush in the New York Times main photo of the event.
The civil rights movement was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated nonviolent methods to break the state-sanctioned racism that still existed in the 1960’s. To that end, he led numerous marches and protests aimed at resisting segregation. Ultimately, this helped to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, which legally ended segregation across the nation.
Yet, despite this victory, many blacks were still prevented from registering to vote and exercising their right to participate in elections. King continued the nonviolent activism, which ultimately led to the march in Selma. It was aimed at getting blacks in the Jim Crow South to register to vote, but it ended in violence when the peaceful marchers were met by local police. They blocked the progress of the march when it reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and told the activists to go home. When the marchers refused and aimed to continue their march, the police moved in, and the situation escalated to violence very quickly.
The story did not end there, however. National news media outlets were there with their cameras, and when the story broke that evening, accompanied with images of the violence with which the local police had imposed on the peaceful protesters, the story gained headlines internationally. Many Americans were shocked by the disturbing images of what happened at Selma, and the event helped to accelerate the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which officially guaranteed the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of race.
This was seen as a legislative success, although King felt that there was still a long way to go before the nation achieved truly significant progress towards racial harmony. The events in Selma, however, stood as one of the most symbolic chapters of the entire civil rights struggle, as the contrast between the peaceful marchers and the violent local authorities underscored many of the challenges that the nonviolent activists faced.
Prominent national political figures took part in the ceremonies, as well as some of the original activists from the actual Selma march. However, the refusal by Nash, one of the original Selma activists, to march this time around because of the presence of former President Bush made headlines this time around. Her protestations in Selma on the occasion of the anniversary of a landmark event in American history also underscored many of the divisions that still exist within the United States today, including the question of violence and war, and led to questions and debate about just how much things have or have not changed in the country in the past half century.
By Charles Bordeau
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