I’m driving up from Selma, leaving the land of Spanish moss, and Bob Dylan is singing on the radio.
From a cheerless room
In a curtain gloom, I saw a star from Heaven fall.
I turned and looked again but it was gone.
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you which keeps me living on.
I’ve taken my kids to Selma to see where history was made – Bloody Sunday, the End of Days, stars-a-fallin’, people-a-cryin’, feet-a-marchin’, guns-a-firin’, souls-a-singin’, dreams-a-bornin’.
Selma. Selma, Alabama.
We walked the length of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and back again, my wife, my kids, and I. We walked across the Alabama River, that river of cotton, that river of slaves, that river of mud and of blood. From the opposite shore, you can see the city’s decay. It is a city out of time, from a time out of mind. The old buildings are inching down the bank to the river below, the river that flows on down to Montgomery, home of bus boycotts and George Wallace and Hank Williams and Rosa Parks, where the Montgomery Biscuits play baseball against the Birmingham Barons.
I first came to Selma when I was sixteen years old. I won first place in a local Elks Club Oratorical Contest and advanced to the state competition, held that year way down south in Selma. I made the trip with a man I remember only as Mr. Hereford. He let me drive his big, late ‘70s Ford LTD. On Sunday morning he took me to the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the funeral for Jimmie Lee Jackson. I went home and bought an LP recording of King’s sermons and listened to them every night as I went to sleep.
Many years later, when my Ph.D. dissertation threatened to go off the rails after my first child was born, I fled to Selma to find a peaceful place to write. I stayed in a riverfront room at the St. James Hotel. I drank whiskey in the Drinking Room. I sat on the balcony and read and re-read Wittgenstein and Dewey and Rorty and Kierkegaard. I wrote about irony and religious belief in a place where religion fills the air like the sweet smell of honeysuckle and where irony comes at too high a price.
Later still, I rediscovered Selma as the home of Wolf Van Zandt, real-life werewolf, shaman, and Christian theologian. Wolf lived in a room overlooking Water Avenue, just down the street from where Edgar Cayce, the Sleeping Prophet, had a photography studio before he went off to New York to dream his dreams for the rich and famous. Wolf has gone now too. Off to the American West where wild things are more free to run the mountain trails and howl at the moon.
Now I’ve come back again with my family, for the first time with my family.
We saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma in the theater just a week before and it all came flooding back to me, that class on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Social Role of Religion that I took way back when at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the falling star that I had glimpsed from the balcony of the St. James Hotel while I read Fear and Trembling by the dim light of a lamp, the tangy taste of the tomato pie that Wolf shared with me on one of my visits to town, the thrill of driving Mr. Hereford’s enormous car through Birmingham, the sound of Dr. King’s voice, sonorous and strong, on that old record player.
I had to get back to Selma, had to take my wife and kids.
We have lunch at the St. James. We walk across the river bridge. We see the city, slipping, slipping, slipping into the river of time.
And I think: this is where John Lewis stood, where King stood. This is where the tide turned. This is where the stars from heaven fell, where the dream came alive.
And I think of DuVernay’s movie, but also of the graphic novel, March. March is Lewis’ autobiographical story of the civil rights movement. It is a masterful work, the story of Lewis’ life from his childhood on an Alabama farm through the Nashville sit-in movement. Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Aydin make the story poignant and real. Artist Nate Powell tells the story in black-and-white in a way that cuts right to the bone. As much as I was moved by the movie Selma I was moved by March even more.
The story begins on this bridge, it begins right where I am standing, looking down into the water below. “Can you swim?” the word balloon asks, the letters all squiggly and small. “John?” Now in letters all big and bold. Then, on the next page, Powell’s lens pulls back to reveal the bridge. The question comes again. “Can you swim?”
And I think about that, about what that must have been like. To think about jumping, falling, being pushed into this river, this Selma to Montgomery, cotton is king, slave trading river.
But the river was never an option. It offers no escape from the violence. The words of the police are like a buzz saw: “Troopers – Advance!” And Powell gives us the Krak!, the Thunp! and the Whap! of billy clubs, the Tink-ti-Klink! and PPSSHHHT! of the tear gas bombs.
And Lewis goes down with a Thud! and an “oof!” His hands claw the pavement of this bridge. There is a shadow of a peace officer, billy club raised above his head. Then the page bleeds to black.
That is what I’m thinking of as I’m standing halfway across the Alabama River: Krak! Thud! “Oof!” And everything bleeds to black.
And I think, of course, of Ferguson, Missouri. And New York City. And black and white and shades of gray.
And I think of voter I.D. laws and long lines at the ballot box and how we seem to be making it harder, not easier, to cast a vote, forgetting or pretending to forget that voter suppression has always been more of a danger than voter fraud and that if John Lewis and all those people from here, here in Selma, had not walked across this bridge and faced those clubs and those bombs and those thugs in uniform then we would still be bleeding, bleeding to black.
And March 7, 1965 doesn’t seem so long ago.
And this city of Selma, Alabama doesn’t seem so lost to time, after all.
I think of John Lewis’ story of Jim Lawson, the leader of the Nashville Movement. Lawson was a student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. He helped to open Lewis’ eyes. Helped to open all of our eyes.
Lewis writes in March: “Jim talked about the Montgomery bus boycott, about war resistance, about nonviolence. He spoke of Gandhi, this little brown man from India using the way of nonviolence to free an entire nation of people. And how we could apply nonviolence, just as Dr. King did in Montgomery, all across America – South and North – to eradicate some of the evils we all faced: the evil of racism, the evil of war. Jim Lawson conveyed the urgency of developing our philosophy, our discipline, our understanding. His words liberated me. I thought, this is it …this is the way out .”
And standing on the bridge, I am thinking of all of this: of Nashville and Montgomery and Albany and Birmingham and Selma. And I am thinking of the blood that was spilled here, of the bodies that were bruised here. I am thinking about freedom, and soul force, and nonviolence, and human dignity.
And I am so glad that I came back to Selma.
Thank you, Ava DuVernay, for bringing me back to Selma. Thank you, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, for bringing me back to Selma. Thank you, Wolf Van Zandt for bringing me back to Selma. Thank you, St. James Hotel, for bringing me back to Selma. And thank you, Mr. Hereford, wherever you may be, for bringing me to Selma for the first time, for sending me to Sunday School at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for making me drive that magnificent Ford LTD across the Edmund Pettus Bridge just because we could, just because there was no one there to stop us.
Trust me when I say this, because I know. Everybody needs to go to Selma. Now, more than ever.
Selma. Selma, Alabama.