SELMA, Ala. — They were “invisible giants,” women and men who served as foot-soldiers of the struggle for voting rights.
They returned here for the 40th anniversary celebration of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, many graying but most combative as ever.
Some had never left. Amelia Boynton Robinson and Marie Foster, both lifelong residents of Selma, were honored, the latter posthumously, as “Mothers of the Voting Rights Movement” with the unveiling of a black granite monument during this Bridge Crossing Jubilee.
Both women were clubbed by state troopers on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery to demand voting rights. Foster passed away a few years ago, but Robinson, now in her 90s, is still delivering speeches on the theme, “You can kill the dreamer but not the dream.”
John Rankin, another native of Selma, was elated by the big turnout, including thousands who came from across the country. Rankin told this reporter that he was only 17 when a trooper clubbed him during the march across the Alabama River in 1965.
This year, he was wearing the bright orange vest distributed to each participant in a follow-up march to Montgomery on March 21, 1965. That march, Rankin said, was under federal protection ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Later Rankin found a job at a Selma plant that manufactures door and trunk locks for Ford and GM. “It was organized by the International Union of Electrical Workers Local 793, and I served as president of the local for eight of the 16 years I worked there,” he said. “My wife worked there for 27 years. Then, in 1999, they picked up and moved to Mexico. It was a heavy blow to Selma. We lost 406 jobs. For a while I was scrambling just to feed the kids. I was collecting scrap metal, anything, just to survive. It was especially hard because my wife lost her job at the same time.”
The lock company had moved to Selma from New Jersey, where it paid workers a wage of $14 an hour. In Selma, Rankin said, “they paid us $7.50 an hour, but now they are paying Mexican workers 85 cents an hour. This millionaire owner didn’t care about us. All he cared about is profits. We need a law to protect us from that kind of greed just as much as we needed the Voting Rights Act.”
Mississippi Circuit Judge Margaret McCray told the World she was elected as the direct result of the struggles in Selma as well as the struggles of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was one of 42 members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Sister Roundtable who came to Selma for the jubilee.
McCray had worked in Selma as a young lawyer in the late 1980s to help fight a racist political machine headed by the mayor of that time, Joe Smitherman, that used every trick to deny African Americans voting rights. Smitherman was mayor for 33 years, even as the town became majority Black.
“My life was tremendously enriched by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people like Albert and Evelyn Turner, Rose and Hank Sanders, who put out the call for us to come in,” McCray said. “Now Selma has a Black mayor, James Perkins, who was just re-elected to a second term.”
Another veteran of Bloody Sunday was the Rev. J.H. Davis. Now 86, he crossed the bridge last Sunday on an old buckboard pulled by a team of horses. He was an Alabama A&M student in 1944 when he joined a delegation that took petitions to President Harry Truman demanding protection of Black voters from Klan terror. Ultimately, Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the military. “We laid the foundation then for the civil rights movement,” he said. “Bush is removing people from the voting rolls to neutralize the power of the Black vote. So many people were fooled that the Iraq war is a war of liberation. But we aren’t even liberated here. The Black people aren’t free, the Native American people aren’t free.”
He scorned Social Security privatization. “You privatize Social Security and its dead. It’s gone!” he said. “Bush says Black people die too soon to collect Social Security. Without Social Security, we’d die off like flies from starvation.”
— Tim Wheeler