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OpEdge: On the Bridge in Selma

Marc Jampole
March 9, 2015

by Marc Jampole

terri-sewell-selma-edmund-pettus-bridge-2012jpg-387a39c2d8661ad1IT'S EASY TO FORGET that there were three Selma marches in 1965. March 7th commemorates the bloody first march, in which state troopers and a county posse attacked six hundred unarmed marchers when they reached the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The marchers had wanted to walk fifty-odd miles to Montgomery, the Alabama state capitol, to raise awareness of the fight for voting rights.

The images on television were unforgettably horrifying, and America rose, almost as one, to support the marchers. People from all walks of life, using every means of transportation, descended on Selma for a second march. Now there were 2,500 marchers, led by Martin Luther King, who had sat out the first march. I haven’t seen the movie Selma, but as Taylor Branch tells it in Pillar of Fire, King debated whether to risk injury or assassination by leading the second march. I have always wondered what goes into the decision to put your life at risk for an idea. It must be frightening to contemplate your own death, and yet to still walk into the lions’ den.

Although the second march on March 9th was merely symbolic, it held the potential for more violence. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to get a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering with the next attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery. The judge decided to issue a restraining order prohibiting another march until he could hold hearings on the court order. So America watched as King led the marchers to the bridge, where he declared victory and said they would wait for the court order.

Much happened before the triumphant third march: The KKK beat to death a white minister and he died after the Selma hospital refused to treat him. President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before both houses of Congress. There were several protests for voting rights elsewhere in the South. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers. And of course, the judge granted the court order saying that the marchers could march because they were exercising their constitutional rights.

The third march, starting on March 21st, was almost anti-climactic, a five-day marathon of media coverage that started with 8,000 in Selma and ended with 30,000 witnessing another timeless speech by King on the steps of the Alabama Capitol Building. It was very much a victory party, since the marchers were well-protected by the troops and it was apparent that Congress was going to pass the Voting Rights Act. Thus, when I wrote a poem about Selma six years ago, I decided to focus on the second march.

Here is my poem, “The Second Selma March.” The poem, by the way, is a serious travesty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” about five nuns fleeing Prussian anti-Catholic laws who drowned when their steam ship, The Deutschland, sank in the North Sea in 1875. The arrangement of lines, stanza length, tumbling accretion of verbs, nouns and adjectives, hyphenated words, musicality and other aspects of my poem all come from Hopkins’ poem.

THE SECOND SELMA MARCH

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm...” —Gerard Manley Hopkins

It was on TV

for all the world to touch:

the bloodied men and women

reeling on the bridge,

the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama

feel with them the billy clubs

horn-bean branches, rifle butts

on blackbrown arms and legs, blackbrown noses, chins,

and lash of bull whips

swinging hard by hate-sieged men

in uniforms and gas masks,

tear gas melting lungs and eyes,

on TV for all to see, the bleeding broken

borne on arms and stretchers into church.

as one the viewers rise

from beer or dinner, stand and cry,

Is this my land, is this

the soil of equal hopes, of equal dreams?

and in a common rapture east to west,

people stop their meetings, drop their jobs,

board buses, railcars, airplanes, autos

bound for bloody Selma for another march,

another chance to show the world,

to show themselves they live in freedom's land.

Dead, dead, dead

if I should march to Edmund Pettus Bridge,

closed-door Martin's dread of next day's plan

before a watching world, confronts

protected points, every ledge and rock along the way,

every liquored angry cracker white with smarts:

lay of the land, way to escape

after drawing, pulling, piercing him with searing shot.

My greater fear:

to die or disappoint?

to cease to be or cease to matter?

March he does

leading new recruits from every state

before the pens and cameras, before the snakelike

seething men, march he does,

a new rhythm haunting him, a fearless rhythm,

relentless echo rhythm,

sun blister cloud water wind shatter rhythm,

rhythm ready to pay the price

peaceful ordnance steady step and turn.

And thousands march along, and multi-millions

watch as at the bridge the troopers wave

their clubs and court orders

and stop them, but only from crossing:

Martin prays

declares freedom victorious,

turns home to wait

for briefs in court, the slower march

inevitable camp and walk, sing and praise,

five days fifty miles to Alabama's capitol steps,

thirty thousand strong to witness Martin ask

How long, not long, not long at all.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.