On Saturday, March 7, 2015, I methodically adjusted my tie to center its lip as I made my way down U.S. Route 80 from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, where Majors Creek shares banks with The Alabama River.
I expected to have a range of emotions on this historic occasion commemorating the 50th year since "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, but I could not have anticipated the cornucopia of overflowing reactions that raced through me when I spotted The Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was captivated by the fact that this bridge is the site where brave people of all ages, of many races, mostly African-American, tried to march peacefully, saw what Congressman John Lewis always calls "a sea of blue," knelt to pray, and were beaten by Alabama State Troopers. That bridge and those 600 people were the centerpiece on the table leading Black people to have the right to vote in my lifetime. Fifty years later, we are now fighting to restore the Voting Rights Act.
My tie was the only thing centered about me, and the entire experience seemed surreal. While I felt overwhelmed by the expanse of people, I was more taken aback by the range of emotions people's faces revealed. Some were somber, others excited. It was easy to spot who was "on duty" because of their focused gaze and alert posture. There were families and people of all ages, mostly dressed in what we Southerners call Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Certainly this was a special occasion, and my insides felt like a blender with a reversible bladespinning counterclockwise with somberness and humility for a moment, then clockwise with patriotism and pride the next.
Selma is a mere 350 miles from my hometown of Augusta, Georgia, and back in 1965, sentiments toward people who are "not white" were as real and kindred as their Southern roots. Being back home in the South reminded me of some regional language distinctions that buttress cultural ones. For example, in the South, the three meals are breakfast, dinner and supper, while elsewhere, they are breakfast, lunch and dinner. We Southerners say the word "y'all" as singular for "you," and the plural is "all y'all." We love our tomatoes fried and green, our peanuts boiled, and our tea sweet. Back in 1965as brave people kept trying to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomeryour Southern schools were still populated along race lines.
And that brings rise to another language distinction of historical significance. Those days predated school integration. It's called "integration" in the South rather than "desegregation" as it's termed in the North because to de- something, you have to discuss the rest of the word, and that wouldn't have felt gracious or proper.Every year, I watch cable programs about Selma, which always include interviews with Congressman John Lewis ( Ga.-5 ) and others as they recall and retell what happened in 1965. But being there this Saturday, while many of the original leaders with whom I had the great privilege of working in the '80s in Atlanta filled me with awe. I have been blessed to share projects and time with Ambassador Andrew Young when he was Atlanta's mayor, and the same is true for many beacons cited by nameJohn Lewis, Joseph Lowery ( absent on Saturday due to illness ), Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy; we have shared victories together. And then it struck me: we also shared and pushed through similar struggles and pain.
I often joke that my parents raised me as if every day was going to be their last on earth. Nothing ever went unexplained or unexpressed. Both Mom and Dad watched the news if they were not working, and I joined them in silence. We discussed news reports after they aired. For our family, that meant we talked after Walter Cronkite said, "And that's the way it is."
Being in Selma on Saturday crystallized for me so many past and current intersections in my life. Quoting the late Sen. Edward M. ( Ted ) Kennedy as he spoke at a tribute for his brother Bobby, "In many ways it seems like only yesterday because the memories are so vivid and so enduring." Growing up as an Army brat, first at Ft. Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone and later at Ft. Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, I remember when we came by ship to New York from Panama en route to Georgia. My dad explained to me the meaning of The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, reminding me of how he and his Army buddies as soldiers protect us and keep us safe, and how the Army saved Mom from the concentration camp before I was born. But when we moved to Georgia, there was no way to shield how white kids treated me, far from the safety of the jungles of Panama.
There was no rational response to my constant question of, "Why, Dad, why?" "Dad, why can't we go to the swimming pool over there near our house?" "Dad, why can't we eat at THAT restaurant?" I was a kid smack dab in the middle of human disregard because I had dark skin, because of who I was. No, I never got beaten on a bridge, but I'd like to believe that's only because at age eight, I wasn't yet old enough to carry myself 350 miles. By the time the festivities ended on Saturday, and before Sunday's service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, I realized that my early life prepared me for what I'd have to endure later as an openly transsexual Latino immigrant. I also said some prayers of gratitude for the brave 600, those who followed on Turnaround Tuesday and for the thousands more who joined and succeeded on the third attempt, reaching Montgomery from Selma.
It's a precious lesson in powerful planning and persistence, and unfortunately, we need to call up that energy and dedication again right now to gain victories we thought we won long ago. Yes, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson and reauthorized under two Republican Presidents since. However, on June 25, 2013, The Supreme Court of the United States ( SCOTUS ) in a 5-4 vote, struck down Section 4 of the VRA, the part that requires some areas of the country to have federal government or federal court clearance to change their voting laws to ensure that those changes not restrict people's right to vote by enacting prohibitive voter ID requirements. The result of removing Section 4 has been some states enacting new laws mirroring practices that would have been shameful in 1965, let alone in 2015. We must demand that Congress fix this now. Ironically, on the next day, June 26, 2013, also in a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS struck down Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA ), the part that said a marriage is between one man and one woman. So while we hope and expect for marriage equality certainty to be fully resolved in June ( when SCOTUS rules on the cases it will hear arguments about on April 28th ), we have no certainty on how or when The Voting Rights Act will be fully restored. That's unacceptable.
Many packed up and went home after the Selma events, including me. But there is work to be doneno matter where we liveto honor the thousands from 50 years ago, as we follow their beacon and promise to step up our hard work ahead to reach full equality and justice for all, including our LGBTQ youth and their families. We work with strength, conviction, and love so that their children's memories can be gentler than some of ours. And indeed, together we shall overcome.
Diego M. Sanchez is PFLAG national policy director. This column also ran here: blog.pflag.org/2015/03/stunned-in-selma-on-saturday.html .