Congress members on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Friday.
Yesterday, at the foot of the Pettus Bridge, thousands of people marked the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. President Obama opened his speech by placing that day among the most crucial in American history saying, “There are places, and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war — Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. Selma is such a place.”
That fact was born out by the unprecedented congressional delegation of nearly 100 members that joined Congressman John Lewis and the Faith & Politics Institute, a Democracy Fund grantee, on this weekend’s pilgrimage to Alabama. The delegation, which I was fortunate enough to join, followed the path of history, retracing the route of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. As helicopters, patrol cars, and motorcycles of the Alabama State Police provided an honor escort to Congressman Lewis along the route, I could not help but be so very grateful for how different this ride was from 50 years ago and for how far we have come since the March on Washington, which took place the week I was born.
We then joined Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush; congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy; Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions; Alabama Representatives Terri Sewell, Martha Roby, Bradley Byrne, and so many more at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We crossed it not only with Congressman Lewis but with David Goodman, whose brother Andrew joined the Freedom Summer and was murdered in Mississippi, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, for daring to work to protect the “imperative of citizenship” about which President Obama spoke so eloquently yesterday.
Traveling this path and living this history offers new meaning and insight into the enormity of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement in securing the right to vote for so many Americans. Remaining vigilant in protecting our democratic freedoms requires honoring the memory of dark events like Bloody Sunday.
This historic Pilgrimage is one way the common faith traditions of members of Congress can help move us to action as Americans. Coming together across the partisan divide to commemorate this seminal moment in our nation’s history offers the opportunity to think anew, act anew, and help forge new bonds outside of the context of party politics and gridlock.
While we no longer live in the era of Jim Crow, the march for freedom continues. Our democracy continues to face serious challenges in creating responsive elections, in ensuring voters have the information they need to make informed choices, in reducing government dysfunction, and in better securing voting rights for the future.
The participants on this trip came with a range of experiences – some were Civil Rights Leaders, some struggled in their own communities, and some are too young to remember this tumultuous period of American history. But each honors an era in American history that strove to bring the country together to address the deep oppression of racism. It reminds us of how far we’ve come and underscores how we still must work to strengthen our democracy.
As Senator Rob Portman wrote last week, “These challenges will not be easily overcome. Doing so will take all of us — from churches to community organizations, from living rooms to boardrooms, from the grassroots all the way to Capitol Hill — working together with the same unity of purpose that inspired a nation fifty years ago. We need that same faith, that same unwillingness to bow in the face of difficulty, no matter how long the road may seem.”
The path forward won’t be easy, but this pilgrimage is an opportunity for members of Congress—and all Americans—to reflect on the opportunity we share as Americans to move forward from this powerful experience together.