Bloody Sunday: A damnable question

*Note: This article contains some strong language.

On March 7th, 1965, thousands of protestors marched for their rights and recognition as valuable, respected citizens of the United States.

At the time, Jim Crow laws had been in full effect for nearly a century and were only beginning to reach their legal end. People still used separate bathrooms. Interracial marriage was still a crime, and would remain so for another two years. Though deemed unconstitutional the year before with the Civil Rights Act, we still embraced segregation. Racially-motivated prejudice, as well as numerous other social, economic and educational obstacles for black Americans, was the norm.

Georgia represeentative John Lewis getting beaten by Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday. (Public Domain)
Georgia represeentative John Lewis getting beaten by Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday.
(Public Domain)

In Selma, Alabama, a movement had begun that sparked the flame of change. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke eloquently and passionately in an address following the Selma to Montgomery March, which began on the 7th and ended the 25th, saying: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.’’ Those marching faced law enforcement armed with tear gas and clubs. Photographers, such as James “Spider” Martin, who spoke to NPR on March 6th of this year, captured the events of the day — now five decades past — in unsettling and crisp images: Bloody Sunday.

Martin, in his recent interview, described one incident from his experience with particular clarity. While holding his camera in the midst of marchers, Martin recalls. “[a police officer] walks over to me and, blow! Hits me right here in the back of the head,” he said. “I still got a dent in my head and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees and I’m like seeing stars and there’s tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt and he looks straight in my eyes and he just dropped me and said, ‘Scuse me. Thought you was a nigger.”

With our first African-American President, the release of the film Selma, and more than a few very publicized stories of police aggression directed toward young black men making headlines, you would think this day would be distinctly noted on the average American’s calendar. While I won’t argue that the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday was entirely off the radar, I’m fairly certain that more young Americans could tell you their plans for St. Patrick’s Day this year than tell you what happened or why that March. So here are five random, lesser-known facts about what transpired now fifty years ago:

1) According to History Professor Larry Spruill of Morehouse College, Martin Luther King, Jr., actually gave tips and leads to many photojournalists of the time.
2) Clergy members were amongst the over 2000 marchers.
3) Over 50 people had to be hospitalized as a result of Alabama State Troopers’ actions on Bloody Sunday.
4) The fatal attack of a Caucasian Unitarian Minister named James Reeb, a supporter of the Civil Rights movement who intended to join the Selma March, helped to garner further national attention regarding the situation.
5) Some other famous “Bloody Sundays” occurred in London, England in 1887 and in Dublin, Ireland during the Irish War of Independence in 1920. Notably, all of this violence was a result of racial tensions and repression of human rights.

Perhaps this is a strange transition (or digression), but with an Irish holiday (now pretty much just an excuse to get drunk) coming up, it’s interesting to note the way that government policies affect race relations. Right now, I’m in the middle of reading The Damnable Question by George Dangerfield. It’s an interesting read, and the author makes some provocative points about the possibility of some downright genocidal policies. While we aren’t currently in that boat, it’s never a bad idea to look at the worst people have been, the worst that we could be, and consciously examine the steps necessary to keep going in the opposite direction.

People act like prejudice is an individual problem, and that is true to some extent, but what ultimately protects and fosters many perverse attitudes between varying demographic groups is policy. The longer your government accepts or encourages something as permissible, acceptable or admirable, the more likely they are to see an increase in the percentage of the population who also hold this view.

The Re. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his wife Coretta at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. (Public Domain)
The Re. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his wife Coretta at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
(Public Domain)

That being said, although the purpose of policies (in theory) is to make them impartial and allow for fair and even-handed treatment of all people, the reality is that many fail the test of daily practical application. Policies, by their very nature, tend to be exclusionary. Many times, it takes a bit of extra effort for government policies to create fixes for unforeseen consequences of laws, standards and even unwritten social codes. Even then, the efforts are not well received.

People may complain about affirmative action and the resulting quotas for minorities and women. They may not see eye-to-eye on the Welfare System and argue about who ultimately benefits. They may squirm at diversity scholarships and roll their eyes at arguments that this levels the playing field. However, I challenge anyone to look at the statistics on arrests, education, housing, and the demographics that coincide, and then tell me that the variables are completely unrelated. Tell me it’s not necessary to at least attempt to provide some social “fixes” for gaps or even misuses of policy. Even today, redlining, subprime loans and mortgage discrimination in general remains a problem, though it’s done in subtler ways than in years past.

It is by no means wise to sensationalize the tragic yet incomplete news stories relayed to us, but it does us no good to ignore them or pretend that we don’t all see the parallels between police aggression today and the grotesquely violent moments in our past.

Our policies have changed, and we have been playing catch up, but it’s important to remember that history books usually note “legal” changes, with societal attitudes lagging in distant mindsets as the generations adapt or die off. And so we face the new damnable question: How far away are we, truly, from another Bloody Sunday?