You may know munira from On the Road, where she sometimes shares her beautiful haikus, perfectly paired with her photos. In a recent afternoon post, munira made mention of having marched in Selma in 1965, and when I asked if she would consider sharing her story with us, she graciously agreed. The result is this beautifully written tale, both hopeful and harrowing.
Reading her story, I was taken back in time. I am wiping away tears as I write, for all the obvious reasons, but also because Barack Obama was such a gift, and I am reminded of what it felt like to have so much hope. Only to come to learn that nearly half the people in our country are no better than the Klan members who threatened munira all those years ago.
And so our great gifts of Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama, and others, were not just squandered. No, it’s worse than that. We are being pushed backwards as people, as a nation. We can’t let them win; we need to fight every bit as hard now as the people who fought in the 1960s.
With her story, munira takes us back in time.
Marching 1965 – Selma and Montgomery
When I think about my trips down to the Selma and Montgomery marches in 1965, I am struck by what I do and don’t remember. I went with J. (my ex-husband) and two friends. I don’t know how we knew what was happening in Alabama. We certainly did not have TV. Did we listen to the radio? Read the newspaper? I also don’t remember registering or signing up for the march in Selma, but we must have because we did have a place to stay that was pre-arranged. I am sure, however, that we knew exactly what was going on, and when the call came from Martin Luther King for people to come down in support of the African American people’s right to vote, we knew we had to go.
I don’t remember much about the trip down. Google Maps says it’s a 10-hour drive from Champaign-Urbana, where we were students at the University of Illinois. I know we took someone’s car – I’m not sure J. and I even had one at the time. I also know we drove straight through (we were young). I do remember driving into Selma and seeing National Guard troops holding guns, standing on the streets. Someone in the car said, “My God, it looks like a war zone.”
I also remember arriving at the house where we stayed. It was in the black section of course. It belonged to a young couple. They had children, who were staying with relatives. I believe J. and I slept in the kids’ bedroom. I remember feeling shy. I think everyone did, including our hosts. We didn’t talk much, but I know we had a lot of respect for what they had been going through. Maybe they thought of us as entitled (we were), but they also seemed grateful that we cared enough to come down. I guess we didn’t really need to talk. We all knew why we were there.
The timeline of events is foggy to me now, but two incidents stand out. I vividly remember walking over to Brown’s Chapel for a rally. It seems to me that it was the evening we arrived, but I’m not sure about that because I know we also assembled for the march at Brown’s Chapel the next day. I mostly remember the walk with our hosts. That’s when they told us that we needed to make sure we stayed in the black section because the rest of the town was too dangerous. I know Martin Luther King was at the chapel, along with some of the other leaders, but I don’t remember much about the speeches, only the feeling of tense solidarity.
The other incident occurred sometime before the march. For some reason, we piled into the back of someone’s pickup truck and went into the town center. We pulled into a gas station, but before we could fill up, a couple of big white guys came out of the garage. They walked toward the truck, holding tire irons, and threatening us. The driver left quickly without the gas. I’d ever felt so vulnerable before.
I vaguely remember gathering for the march. We were told that we could cross the bridge and then most of us would have to drop out. Only 300 people were allowed to go all the way to Montgomery. Since then, I’ve been to many protest marches, and the atmosphere is usually pretty upbeat. In Selma, however, it was grim. We knew people had already been beaten and arrested. Some had even died. We had the National Guard to protect us, but there was still a sense of danger. When we made it across the bridge without incident, I had a feeling of exhilaration. Then someone took us to our car, and we drove straight back to Illinois.
A few days later, we were in the car again – this time a rental for some reason. We drove straight to Montgomery so we could join the march at the end. The main thing I remember about Montgomery was marching through the black section of town. People were out on their front steps or hanging out of windows, cheering us on, waving and shouting their support. When we got to the courthouse, we listened to Martin Luther King’s speech and watched the presentation of the petition to Wallace. This time the atmosphere was much more jubilant. The marchers had not been attacked. We had a sense of accomplishment. We could taste victory.
Once again, we drove straight back to Illinois, but this time there was a delay. Just outside of Selma, I was driving the rental car when I was pulled over by the sheriff. He said I’d run a stop sign (I had not). He made us come to the jailhouse with him. It was terrifying. The sheriff was really threatening. He told us he was with the Klan, and we wouldn’t get away with what we were doing. J., my ex-husband, was from Texas, and when the guy heard his accent, he said, “What’s a nice southern boy like you doing with these people?” Then he said, “You have beer in your trunk. That’s illegal.” We said, “No it’s pop,” and he said, “Pop doesn’t come in cans.” After that, we kept our mouths shut.
Then another man came out of an office. The sheriff referred to him as the Marshall. He took J. into the office while the rest of us stayed with the Klan guy and listened to more of his threats. Fortunately, the Marshall was more reasonable. J. finally emerged from the office, and we were allowed to leave. J. said they’d spent most of the time talking about football. I think we were all pretty shaky as we got back in the car. I do remember crossing the border to Tennessee and feeling so relieved to be out of Alabama. Later on, we heard about the assassination of Viola Liuzzo, the white mother from Detroit, who, just like us, had come down to support voting rights for black people. Sobering.
In 2008, my son and I went to a black church in Oakland, Calif. to hear Teddy Kennedy campaign for Obama. We were the only white people in the church apart from Kennedy. We were warmly received. The atmosphere was joyful. A black man was running for president and had a good shot at success. At the time, I said to my son, “I think this is a direct result of what we did back there in Selma. Not only can black people vote, but Obama could actually become president. This is what it was all about.”
These days, however, I can’t help but wonder what we really accomplished. Obama was elected president – twice. Women and the LGBT community did make gains. But voting rights (and all these other gains) are under attack again. The struggle is certainly not over. Maybe it never will be, but I think, in spite of the right-wing insanity we’re seeing today, we did make progress – in fact, that’s probably why we’re seeing such a strong and fearful reaction from the right.
The pendulum always swings between progress and reaction, but as we continue the fight, we need to remember our victories in order to keep our energy and determination. So, what can I do now? I’m no longer young. I couldn’t drive 10 hours straight down to Alabama and back these days. But I can still march in protest, I can write postcards, I can donate, and of course, I can vote. And I can still say, “Power to the people. Stay strong. We have overcome and we will again.”
Thank you, munira.
Wow. What a story and beautifully told.
Thank you for sharing this with us–amazing.
How incredibly brave you and your friends were. I’m a retired public librarian from the metro Detroit area. About 15-20 years ago, a young woman came up to the desk and asked if we had any information on Viola Liuzzo because she was her aunt. It broke my heart.
@caroln: Wow, that’s so sad. I don’t know if we were brave or just young and naive, but we were determined.
I think those times were innocent for me as a white liberal but that that horse had likely left the barn many years before for black people. I am always amazed at how patiently they fight for what should be given to them freely
@Jill: Me too – I was in awe of what they were doing and what they’d been through.
Your story is a lovely peek into a different time when we truly thought racism and war would soon be in the past. Thanks for the reminder that there is still much work to be done. And we can and need to do it.
@Trina: Yes we do and yes we can.
woot! I wasn’t sure you were going to front page that Watergirl when I saw Munira post it on the Selma thread many threads back – thank you! So glad to see this story out there. Thank you, Munira for sharing it.
I think your story tells us how much we’ve come and how much still we have to go on this journey of equity. As in the previous thread, we live a at a time we who have privilege must make space for everyone who do not. A just and equitable society has no start or end – it’s an ideal that we must always struggle for; with ourselves, our society, and the race of man.
@cain: My pleasure – really took me back to those days – they were both hopeful and sobering.
@Munira: thank you for this post. I do think the country made progress, but the Republican Party has played a long game, focusing on getting control of the courts, where rights are being eroded. And of course, they have their propaganda channel (Fox) that affects many voters. I am hoping that the Dodds decision has gotten the attention of young people, and that they will become more politically active and lean toward the Democratic Party. That is my hope, anyway.
I do know that the Republicans are not the Conservative Party. They are nihilists.
Sister Golden Bear
Powerful. Thank you for sharing.
@Lapassionara: No they aren’t conservatives. We could use an actual conservative party – it isn’t good to have only one party that’s rational, but I don’t know how we get there at this point. The right wing is really exploiting the most base instincts of the lizard mind – and sorry about the insult to lizards.
I saw one photo that haunts me more than any other. It’s a lot of state police, all in nice, freshly pressed uniforms… waiting for the marchers. And we know what they did *to* the marchers.
And Black people, without the power to vote, couldn’t change their circumstances. People who tacitly supported them kept support on the down-low, because worse than any “n-word” was an “n-word lover” – a white person who didn’t support the Klan and its mission.
Without an anti-lynching law, well… complaints about police brutality are a state matter, you see? And the state was run by good, Klan-fearing Christians (most of whose churches preached the soi disant “truth” of the Klan).
(Oh: Klan-fearing is a pun – a lot of Christians will proclaim themselves to be “God-fearing” – they know that if they don’t do right, God’s going to be upset. Of course, the Klan was a lot more into visible intercession than God, back in those days.)
@SomeRandomGuy: All true. I remember being so shocked that that sheriff would not only admit to being a Klan member but was proud of it. Before that, I guess I’d thought it would be something people would keep hidden.
@Lapassionara: They definitely learned about controlling the courts. It was where the Civil Rights movement had its main victories, women as well. I know that Joyce Vance White, who appears often on MSNBC had either her father or her father in law killed by a bomb delivered to his home after he ruled in favor of civil rights plaintiffs.
They discovered that some judges were sympathetic to them, even though they were southern gentlemen. The courts could well be the make or break moment of our democracy.
I also saw yesterday that the federal judge’s rant at a Federalist gathering is actually a rehearsal for a higher court appointment the next time a Republican is in office, and we should see such performances for what they are…
Trump Judge Kyle Duncan’s tantrum at Stanford Law was part of a bigger plan. (slate.com)
Thank you for your beautiful story and your courage.
What an amazing journey! Thank you for your patriotism.
@glory b: Yes, the courts are key. I’m glad Biden has been able to appoint so many judges and I’m also relieved and grateful that the courts protected us from Trump’s coup attempts, but much to do in that area – way too many reactionary judges still out there and, of course, we all know about the Supreme Court.
@JPL: Thank you everyone for your responses. It was an amazing experience and an important one in my life. It made me realize that we aren’t playing games here. People’s lives are in the balance, and the forces arrayed against us are strong and completely unprincipled. But we are the majority and we have strength, too. And the more people that come under attack, the more people who wake up to what’s happening and join the resistance.
Thanks for sharing your experience that was inspirational. Do you have any advice as to what I can do I can do to help people fighting against what the BJP and its allies. The poison that they are injecting is not going to stay in India alone. The Indian diaspora is huge. There will be reverberations worldwide because of that and the sheer size of the country.
Thank you for sharing your story.
@Munira: Thanks again for sharing this with us.
I suspect that more people will see this post and respond throughout the day and the evening.
I don’t know how much longer you will be free to hang around, but I hope you’ll be able to check back in later and again in the morning to catch other comments that come in.
@schrodingers_cat: I am definitely concerned about what’s happening in India – and in a variety of other countries as well. This fascist reaction is certainly not limited to the US. I went to the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto a few years ago when I was living in Quebec, and there was a presentation by a group from India that was working against Modi and for human rights – I don’t remember their name, but here’s the contact page for the Toronto parliament – https://parliamentofreligions.org/contact/ – there’s also a page with a list of speakers. If you contact the parliament, you might be able to get some information about the group. Good luck – let us know if you have any success.
what a fine story and an awesome person! thanks!
I second what Baud says.
I was in several scary marches in the 60’s but your fortress description of Selma feels much more frightening. In 1960 our barber in NE Arkansas handed out Klan literature. A group tried to desegregate the city’s pool. They were rebuffed. We left a month later so I don’t know if they ever succeeded. The town looks, from Google Earth, quite depressed.
@Dan B: So hard to understand why you chose to leave. //
@WaterGirl: I’ll be around and I’ll keep checking in. It’s great to hear about the experiences of other people as well. Thanks for initiating this discussion.
Excellent post, Munira and WaterGirl. Thank you.
@WaterGirl: My father was so upset at how the city was mired in Jim Crow that he quit his job determined to get me and my brother out of there. He was in his 50’s and had a long haul getting a new job.
The irony is we moved back to Wadsworth, Ohio where there was a large NeoNazi and Proud Boys demonstration against a Drag Queen story hour a couple days ago.
Thank you, Munira, for your thoughtful, sobering, yet inspirational post.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
How large was it? Usually these guys can only attract a few dozen weirdos at any one time
@Dan B: Good for your father though.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka):
Police lost count of the protestors and counter protestors at 200, far more bigots, racists and homophobes showed up than drag supporters.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
That was an incredible and powerful story, munira!! Thanks for sharing it
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): I checked out the USA Today story on the Wadsworth events. It reported that “hundreds” of protesters and counterprotesters showed up. It did not estimate the proportions, but it sounds like there were at least scores of anri-drag protesters including neo-Nazis. There were some physical melee and a few arrests.
It sounds like “alt-right” groups are using the story hours as a cause to organize around, much like the Confederate statues in Charlottesville were a rallying point in 2017. That “cause” drew in people from all over the country who did not really care about the statues except as a reason to do some actual hippie-punching.
And for the alt-right organizations, it’s a way to build membership with direct action. I expect that this Spring and Summer there will be more events like the one in Wadsworth this, maybe a lot more.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
I think you might be right. What can be done to stop these people? I think the swearing and violence is a terrible look for them, when they’re supposedly trying to “protect” children
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
@Jay: After we left Arkansas we lived for six months in a house whose backyard was on Memorial Park where the anti-drag demonstration took place. My brother is very freaked out by this. He thought Wadsworth was full of very nice people. As a gay guy I didn’t feel the same. The Draft Board told me that i couldn’t be homosexual because there weren’t any in the county. There were men cruising in Memorial Park.
I was just a little too young to go south, but I wanted to. My parents said it was too dangerous, and I thought they were just being overprotective until we heard more about those who were killed and injured in this effort. Thanks for sharing your memories. This is the Kingston Trio song I remember playing over and over.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): I’m not sure the neo-nazis and their pals can be stopped from protesting. At least the anti-fascist community and their allies seem willing to confront the nazis, and from the USA Today article it sounds like they were able to some extent shield the drag queen story hour participants.
I guess good video coverage of any assaults is important. And I expect anti-fascists groups like Unicorn Riot will try to identify ringleaders and hangers on. It’s probably a lot of the same people attending these anti-drag “protests.”
But it could be that the general public and law enforcement will not pay attention to the dangers these anti-drag agitators present until one of them shoots somebody.
@dnfree: Oh that brings back memories. And yes, it was dangerous, but even more so before the National Guard got there. So I guess it did take some courage for us to go down, but nothing compared the courage of the Black activists who were in danger every single day.
@Munira: the Civil Rights movement was the formative event of my youth, and it set the stage for the movements that followed. So glad to read your memories of being there and participating.
Thank you, Munira for sharing this powerful story with us.
keep in mind that many of these so called anti-Drag protestors and organizers travel great distances to protest.
There was a local library Drag Queen Storytime Hour that I attended as an experienced counter protestor. I knew they would need some support. I did my research and engaged one of the organizers in front of the CBC cameras.
While she screamed, I just spoke calmly, pointed out that she had “commuted” 150km to attend, her husband was a convicted sex offender and that she was a Nazi. She was shocked, denied it and I simply pointed out the Nazi’s she was hanging out with and had reached out to online, and pointed out that one does not “accidentally” wind up hanging out with Nazis.
Pretty sure that the Rethug “protestors” were not the least bit surprised that Nazis showed up. A key tactic used against those sort of people is to make them deny it to the end of their days.
My ex husband was in the Air Force during the civil rights movement. He refused to allow me to travel to March w MLK. Currently I live in Maine and am very close to Portsmouth, NH. The residents of our small white town in southern ME sought to know and understand the lives of black people. We found another small historic town that is as black as we are white in the Deep South. We invited our now friends In Tuskegee, AL to be sister cities with us. We have been together for five years. We travel back and forth in group’s staying at each others home. We share about our lives and have learned so much. We have become so close to one another …a people to people endeavor!
Very sadly, just 25 minutes away in Portsmouth,NH just two weeks ago there were incidents of hatred against minorities: black and gay businesses and a synagogue. This is not the first time. Residents of Portsmouth were very strong in rejecting this behavior in their town by publicly standing with the injured citizens.indeed we were SO BLESSED to have Obama and his family with us. Standing strong until the tide again changes!