The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, was so packed with people that Eastern Mennonite University senior Sara Ritchie could not see asphalt when she looked back toward the crowd.
Ritchie had traveled to Selma as an intern with The Faith & Politics Institute (FPI) and as a student at EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center. FPI was behind a congressional “pilgrimage” of 350 people, their largest to date. The pilgrims, which encompassed 100 Congressional representatives, including potential Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, traveled to Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event known in American civil rights history as Bloody Sunday.
Before the weekend of March 7, Ritchie worked primarily with an FPI administrator on making the briefing book for the “stewards and students” part of the pilgrimage. “This year it was a program for mostly high school seniors that were nominated by their host congressmen,” she said. “The program was supposed to narrow in on the fact that so many students were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.”
Although the congressional representatives on the pilgrimage were primarily Democrats, “there was a lot of bipartisanship, which was good to see,” she added, sharing close-up photos she took of former former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura sitting on a podium with First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama and Congressman John Lewis. (Lewis was beaten 50 years ago as a student civil rights leader in Selma.) Ritchie applauded the bipartisan arrangement on the podium, noting a commemorative pilgrimage “shouldn’t be about balancing political parties and political mission.”
The congressional delegation was met in Selma by as many as 70,000 others, according to CNN News, who gathered to mark the progress that has been made toward racial equality, while noting that the struggle is not over. Pilgrimage speakers, including Lewis and Obama, called for America to continue pushing toward racial equality. The central theme of this call, according to Ritchie, was reversing the 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“A lot of this pilgrimage was very tense because civil rights activists who fought so hard to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed feel that their work is now going backwards,” said Ritchie, who is majoring in history.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected minority voters from discrimination and was originally passed, in large part, due to the events of Bloody Sunday.
One of the highlights of the weekend for Ritchie was hearing Obama speak on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “It was really powerful to see John Lewis introduce Obama,” she said. “It was really powerful to see someone who had marched on the bridge for civil rights introduce our first African-American president 50 years later.”
The most powerful moment for her, though, was Sunday morning when Peggy Wallace Kennedy spoke at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Kennedy is the daughter of the late George Wallace, an unabashed white supremacist who was the governor of Alabama at the time of the Selma march and a leader in the fight against racial integration.
During Kennedy’s speech, Kennedy apologized to Lewis for her father’s actions towards civil rights activists while he was governor. “Kennedy said that sometimes she feels like she carries her father’s burden,” said Ritchie. “She apologized to John Lewis and ended her speech by saying ‘welcome home.’ For me personally, it was powerful to see someone who had strayed away from the political beliefs of her father and how the work of a generation sometimes takes time to reach someone. Her speech made me hopeful for other people who have those generational barriers to overcome.”