From the moment I arrived in Selma last Sunday morning, a sense of reverence and wonder entered me, both for what had happened and what was happening. I journeyed to Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of events that, as President Obama said, were among the moments that decided this nation’s destiny.
On February 18, 1965, a 26-year old unarmed black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson, while protecting his mother, was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper. In response to Mr. Jackson’s murder, 600 people began a peaceful 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state and local police attacked them with tear gas and billy clubs. Millions witnessed the attack — known as Bloody Sunday — on national television. Two weeks later, thousands of people travelled to Selma to participate in a subsequent march to Montgomery. All of these events compelled Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
I traveled to Selma to pay my respects to those who marched, and continue to march, on behalf of justice. As Pam Tau Lee, a Chinese-American elder who was honored in Selma last weekend, said, “it was the civil rights and later the black power movements that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of people like me to dedicate our lives to fighting for needed change; change that can end poverty, white supremacy, patriarchy and wars of aggression, a change for a better America.”
Whenever people are in the extreme minority, they often feel at best out of place or, at worst, unsafe. Of the 80,000 people who gathered in Selma last Sunday, 95% were Black. Even though I was in the extreme minority that day, I never for a moment felt out of place, unsafe or unwelcome. As I crossed the bridge by myself for the first time, warm smiles greeted me along with thanks for coming to Selma. I shared with the folks I met that I was honored and humbled to be there and thanked them for paving the way.
Appreciation increased when I joined the Asian American and Pacific Islander contingent. Smiles turned to hugs and photos. My friend Ryan made a sign that read “Yellow Peril supports Black Power,” giving us an opportunity to tell people that, like Black folks, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were lynched, beaten, ridiculed, forced to live in internment camps, had their children ripped away, and worked in plantations and on the railroads in slave-like conditions. For many, it was the first time they had heard of our common legacies.
“For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed,” remarked President Obama in Selma.
These words hold a powerful significance in the South, because with each step taken or bridge crossed, danger and even death awaited. As one who lives on the West Coast, I had my biases about Southerners as closed minded, backward and suspicious. But in my travels through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama, my biases have been proven wrong, because people took the first steps and looked beyond their biases of me — a gay, Asian, touchy-feely consultant from San Francisco. They crossed bridges and invited me into their communities with open minds, hearts and spirits. For me, I have experienced a genuine sense of home and hospitality in the South that can be summoned up in one word — family.
I am grateful to be working in this remarkable and storied part of our country. I invite you to see beyond headlines and old stories and experience the South for yourself. Healing is happening here, as evidenced in the spirit of the people who, one brave step at a time, continue to cross bridges on the road toward justice.
In memory of my friend Kiyoshi Kuromiya (1943–2000), longtime civil rights and AIDS activist and bridge builder, who was clubbed by Alabama State Troopers and hospitalized while in Selma in 1965.