Column: What walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge taught me about civil rights today

Crowds march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015
on the 50th anniversary weekend of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march.
Crowds march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015 on the 50th anniversary weekend of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march.
Published Aug. 24, 2017

Recently, my wife and I visited historic sites in Montgomery and Selma, Ala., which commemorate the struggle for civil rights in our nation. We had planned our trip weeks before the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., but soon realized the timing was poignant.

Reading history and watching documentary videos and dramatic films are certainly good ways to learn about our past. But making the effort to personally visit iconic locations magnifies the impact of the experience. Being there matters.

Our motivation to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River in Selma, was to have our shoes follow the path of the hundreds of brave souls of all races who made their way in March 1965 on the 53-mile journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, highlighting the movement for voting rights on behalf of African-Americans who were denied this most basic tenet of citizenship.

The 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery trip was fraught with danger and distress. Blood flowed from the baton beatings by Alabama state troopers and attacks by police dogs. The Ku Klux Klan was there. All the while, the marchers prevailed.

As visitors more than 50 years later, we walked across that same bridge and learned a few lessons. First, Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general who, after surviving several Civil War battles, practiced law and rose in the ranks of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. His devotion as a klansman culminated in his achieving the high rank of grand dragon, which led to his election as a U.S. senator in 1896. He lived to be 86.

How ironic that a century after our nation's most divisive and deadly war, the American civil rights movement was propelled by the crossing of a bridge named for a man who fought for the perpetuation of slavery and labored throughout his long life for subjugation, racial segregation and leading an organization known for promoting lynching, mutilation and terrorist threats to strike fear in generations of African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and others.

Another powerful lesson came clear. Courage is an attribute needed not only on the battlefield. Facing up to danger is also an essential ingredient in advocating for change, which can bring its own physical peril, requiring brave fortitude and powerful passion for the cause.

While the red markings of Bloody Sunday have long ago been washed clean from the cement of that iconic bridge, the lasting impact of the important sacrifices of the marchers and their supportive allies in government, business, civic and faith communities are forever worthy of defending.

Our nation's history is chronicled by movements that address discriminatory laws, policies and practices in need of reform. In fact, with the notable exception of the captive slaves who were brought here in bondage, many of our ancestors were motivated to come to this country because of the promise of religious, ethnic, cultural and economic freedoms prohibited in their homelands.

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Over the decades, our nation has fought numerous foreign wars. To this day, our military forces battle against tyrannical governments and terrorist regimes whose people are subjected to cruelties we seek to alleviate, at great cost in human life, family stability and economic investment.

Change is never easy. Confronting an uncomfortable reality is not a simple task. But as we look back at the history of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, class, sexual preference, age and disability, it becomes clear to me that we have always been able to overcome differences and modify hateful emotions so that basic human rights will prevail.

I believe we have come to a critical crossroads in our nation where a direction needs to be chosen. Will we travel the high road of equal human rights or muddle along the path of hypocrisy? If we truly believe that we are all created equal, and we have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is time to renounce discrimination and move forward without fear, hate and rejection.

To me the answer rests on one simple yet profound principle, as written in Matthew 7:1-2: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged."

While our attention is rightfully focused on the increased visibility of groups spewing hateful ideology, promoting violence and terrorism against innocent citizens, law enforcement officers and religious adherents both at home and abroad, we should never be distracted from our duty to teach our children that humanity's greatest aspiration is peace, love and taking individual responsibility to work tirelessly to assure a better future.

Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute, advocates policies that bridge the generations in families and communities. He may be reached at