“We are on our way to see a city’s shame.” Dr. Murdoch gave us these grave words so we would not go into Selma, Alabama, as merely sightseers on a casual visit, but rather explorers seeking to understand truth. We were sojourners, time travelers, seeking to understand – and not repeat – history. Like always, the temperature in Selma was pretty warm that day. As we exited the bus and stood on the cobblestone in downtown Selma, everyone in the community was busy doing their own thing. Yes, we came to see the shame of a terrible time in this city, yet there was something very familiar about their shame. The kind of shame found in many cities, in many neighborhoods, in many churches, in many homes, and in many hearts when our misunderstandings gets mingled with power, stubbornness, hatred, and godlessness.
Edmund Pettis, for whom the bridge was named after, was, among other things, a Confederate general during the Civil War. After the war, he was a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. It was on a bridge named after him that several marches occurred, including the infamous Bloody Sunday march. There people protesting voting rights were ordered to disband and were kicked, tear gassed, whipped, knocked down, and some even beaten with barbed wire-wrapped billy clubs. This moment was captured by CBS news. American people watched from their living rooms as the shameful scene unfolded.
The ground we walked on still felt scorched. As a group we had watched the movie Selma together, so we were familiar with the events of that terrible day. Yet to stand on that bridge’s apex, feeling the breeze against our faces, hearing the traffic moving around us, and remembering back to a time that was not so long ago, we couldn’t help but ask, “Why?” Why did it have to be this way? Why was this the only answer? Like a robber who not only steals the jewels but also stabs his victim 100 times, the question is not simply about sin in the world or wrong doing, but why did the events that day on the Edmund Pettis Bridge have to be so violent, so torturous, so sad? Where were the believers? Could no one see what we now see so clearly five decades later?
A community’s shame, indeed.