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UNITED STATES: WALKING THE TRAIL OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

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SELMA, ALABAMA, Apr 27 2011 (IPS) - Recently, I joined some of our nationÂ’s heroes walking the trail of the civil rights movement in Alabama. No one has done more to stop hate groups in the United States over the past three decades than Morris Dees through the Southern Poverty Law Center. Morris pioneered the strategy of holding hate groups accountable through civil suits awarding damages so expensive that the defendants are forced into bankruptcy and closed. Over thirty people have gone to prison for plots to assassinate him.

Morris drove me past the State Capitol, where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office for the Confederacy. ThatÂ’s also where, as Attorney General, my father, Robert Kennedy, flew in demanding that Governor George Wallace comply with the Constitution, end segregation and allow African-American students to register at the University. The day of their meeting, April 25, 1963, Wallace removed the American flag and raised the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome. His vision of a divided America did not prevail.

We visited the Rosa Parks Museum, with its surreal reenactment of the scene on December 1, 1955, when the white bus driver demanded that Ms. Parks relinquish her seat to a white man. It was a woman, Jo Ann Robinson, who, after learning Ms. Parks had been jailed, gathered volunteers, mimeographed 35,000 handbills, and called for a boycott of the city bus system. Three days later, citizens formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected Dr. Martin Luther King as President. He became the moral voice of the boycott. Starting Monday morning, 90% of the black community shunned the municipal bus system. The boycott lasted for thirteen months, until a Supreme Court decision declaring segregated buses to be unconstitutional took effect.

At First Baptist Church, the Freedom Riders sought sanctuary after their mauling at the Montgomery Bus station. The Freedom Riders started out on May 5, 1961, with two small interracial groups riding interstate busses across the South. They were fighting the widespread violation of the Supreme Court ruling which banned segregated seating, restrooms and restaurants.

Consistent with GandhiÂ’s teachings, the Freedom Riders informed officials, including the FBI, of their intentions and whereabouts throughout the trip. In Alabama, the FBI informed state troopers and local police, who, in turn, called in the Ku Klux Klan. When the busses reached Montgomery, a rabble of 2,300 men, women and children, armed with chains and ax handles, were lying in wait. The police had assured the mob that the cops would not intervene until the mob had done its worst. Upon identifying himself as a federal agent sent by Robert Kennedy, John Seigenthaler was struck over the head with a lead pipe, cracking his skull and almost killing him.

Those Freedom Riders who could still walk sought sanctuary at First Baptist Church, home of the magnificent Rev. Ralph Abernathy. That afternoon, 1,000 black children, women, and men stuffed themselves in the Sanctuary, singing “We shall overcome”. At dusk, they heard the crowd of 3,000 white firebrands hurling racial epithets and taunting the out-numbered federal marshals sent to protect the church. At nightfall, the white supremacists hurled bricks at the stained glass windows, tossed Molotov cocktails through the broken glass, and overran the federal marshals. The congregation sang. In the basement, Lewis, King and Abernathy spoke to Robert Kennedy on the phone. President John Kennedy threatened to send in federal troops. Finally, the National Guard arrived and dispersed the crowd.

The next day we went to Selma. On March 7, 1963, demonstrators set out from Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma intent on marching 50 miles to Montgomery. They were protesting a murder and the denial of the right to vote. With Hosea Williams and John Lewis leading two columns of 600 marches, they confronted an impenetrable wall of Alabama state troopers, led by Major John Cloud and armed with billy clubs, bull whips and gas masks. Realizing they could neither march into the phalanx of troopers, nor, with the long lines in back of them, turn around, Lewis sent word to the demonstrators to kneel and pray.

Sixty seconds later, with demonstrators on their knees, Major Cloud barked the order, “Troopers, advance!”

As peaceful demonstrators attempted to escape, police on foot and horseback sprayed vomit-inducing tear gas, and clubbed men, women and children with abandon.

CBS interrupted its broadcast of “Trial at Nuremburg” to show scenes of the slaughter. Shocked and horrified by the brutality depicted on front pages and television screens, thousands of people from across the country and around the world swarmed to Selma in solidarity. Five months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

When I asked John Lewis how he felt walking over the bridge 46 years later, he said, “Grateful.”

Looking back, I am grateful, too. Grateful for the moral courage of John Lewis and the civil rights defenders who finally made our country a true democracy. One person, one vote. Grateful for the changes that have taken place since 1963. Inspired by the women and men in our country and around the world who have devoted their lives and sometimes paid the ultimate price, for human rights. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS) (*) Kerry Kennedy, President, Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Center for Justice and Human Rights and Honorary Chair, RFK Foundation of Europe, Onlus.

 
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