Lynda Lowery still bears a scar above her right eye from the beating she took from a policeman’s club 50 years ago on “Bloody Sunday,” when roughly 600 peaceful civil rights activists were attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Lowery, who was just 14 at the time, remains proud of her role in the March 7, 1965, incident that appalled the nation and became a catalyst for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But as President Barack Obama prepares to visit Selma on Saturday to commemorate the event’s 50th anniversary, she is among the marchers who lament what they see as a failure to capitalize on their hard-fought victory for social progress.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Lowery said her frustration extended to those protesting the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
“While you were walking with your hand up, you should have had your hand in the voting booth or on that ballot,” she said, referring to protesters’ “hands up, don’t shoot” chant, while noting that Ferguson is a majority-black city run by whites.
“You are the majority ethnic group and you don’t get out and vote. You have elected what you hate, or what hates you,” said Lowery, now a mental health counselor in Selma.
Ricky Brown, 59, who returned to Selma last year from Michigan after three decades away, recalls being kept home by his mother on the day of the march. He watched the violence unfold before getting his BB gun and firing from his window at the horses of white state troopers and local police who shot teargas into the crowd and beat dozens of protesters.
Brown, a landscaper, said the racial tensions that he remembers from the Selma of his youth persist.
“They don’t speak unless I speak,” he said, referring to white residents in town. “When I speak, they are surprised or irritated by it.”
However, he sees the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ first black president in 2008 as a sign of how far the country has come.
“I’m just happy that things are changing gradually,” he said. “I’ll be gone before things ever change the way they really should be, where we can all be people.”
In addition to a speech by Obama this weekend, events to mark the anniversary in Selma will include a music festival, workshops on topics from voting rights to environmental justice and a march across the bridge.
Joanne Bland, 61, the co-founder of a voting rights museum in Selma who also marched on Bloody Sunday, said she regrets that fewer young people seem to be pushing for social justice than in her time but remains hopeful the dynamic will change.
“They have more rights than we had in the ’60s. They have more money, all this modern technology,” she said. “Man, if we would have had that, we’d have had a black president in ’72.”
(Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)