Thursday, April 25, 2013

What happened when I crossed the bridge to Selma

The bridge leading into Selma, Ala. arcs across the Alabama River with a length of 1248.1 feet and a width of 42.3 feet. The central span is the most decorative element, a silver flourish over the otherwise basic arches. Its name is the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It's also US-80. And it happens to be a flashpoint of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement, and my all-too-human cowardice.

Edmund Pettus Bridge. April 2013.

I never thought I'd see this bridge in person. I recognized it only from textbooks and documentaries -- the background for helmeted state troopers facing off against determined young black men in the Deep South. I remembered a future Georgia congressman was among the marchers. I knew it had turned violent, and that U2 had written a song that vaguely touched on it. I thought, as I do about so many markers of history when I encounter them without cropping or voiceovers, that it would be bigger.

The area around the bridge didn't seem to match its significance. On one end was a series of abandoned and run-down strip malls, hodgepodge memorials, and a Voting Rights Museum that didn't appear open. On the other was historic Selma, a pretty little downtown that at first seemed quaint until I realized the main drag was empty, despite it being a sunny spring Saturday. The entire scene felt like it was grasping, almost desperate.

The disconnect gnawed at me. Where was the uplift? Where was the dream fulfilled, the redemption story I'd been taught every February during our Black History Month curriculum when I and my (mostly white) classmates acted out a struggle that (we thought) had ended two decades before we were born?

I was as desperate as the boarded-up shops waiting for tourist dollars. I wanted that bridge to sing to me. I craved a sign that it had all come out ok, that the struggle and bloodshed had been worth it. Instead, the town seemed thwarted, as if its sadness -- the heavier of the elements -- had squashed its hope. Had Selma given up its present and its future to the cause? Was it worth it? Did it work?

Over the Bridge Records. April 2013.

Later I stood along the river walk and looked at the bridge from afar. Such a generic span, without the technical wonder of the Brooklyn Bridge or the evocative grandeur of the Golden Gate. Yet I was drawn to it with a ferocity I've never felt at those other places. It forced uncomfortable questions on me: Would you have marched across me? Would you have held the line? Or would you have watched on TV?

Of course I can put myself on the side of right in theory. But values and courage don't work that way in real life. The issues of our time are often ambiguous and almost always contentious. Taking a stand requires work, moxie, and Teflon skin. You have to prepare for hurt and heartache, and hope that it amounts to something meaningful in the end.

I want to be someone who marches across the bridge to defend what I believe is right. I want to embrace the risk that maybe my cause won't win, and then fight anyway so it doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to participate, not spectate. Is that urge half the battle? Is it enough to get me at least to the edge?

I never thought I'd see this bridge in person. I never expected to be in Selma. But I'm glad I did, and was, because it took being there -- crossing it, observing it, experiencing it -- for me to finally grasp what my teachers had been trying to drum into my heads during all those February lessons: that conviction is nothing without action.

Joshua 4:21-22. April 2013.

Prayer #246: On the Bridge

A bridge is not a conveyor belt. It will not roll beneath my feet or glide me forward. It will enable me to get from Point A to Point B, but it is not responsible for the getting.

Help me get to getting, Lord. Move my feet, leaden with fear. March me toward right, and stand with me in the crossing.

Amen.

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