It has been fifty years now since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. On some level, we all want to identify with this historic event. Anyone who can remotely claim a connection to it (and some who probably can’t) proudly do so. I have heard it said that if everyone who claims to have been part of the original march actually was on that bridge it would have fallen. This is what happens with history. When it is happening, only a few choose the right side. When it is over, we all claim it. Now MLK has his own holiday and we were all on that bridge marching with him.
Except we weren’t. Look again. There is more to that scene. On the other side of that bridge there were a whole lot of white men, some cops and some deputies. Sheriff Jim Clarke (of KKK fame) ordered all white males in Dallas County over the age of 21 to report to the Court House and be deputized. Many of these deputies then joined other officers under the command of John Cloud and prepared to meet the protesters with force on this “bloody Sunday.” Some of these white men must still be alive today but, as far as I know, none of them have spoken out. They don’t seem eager to admit to being there, let alone to tell their stories. Fifty years later, it seems nobody wants to hear from or speak from the wrong side of history. But the wrong side of history has its truth to tell too.
When I imagine the events of that day I naturally want to identify with the protesters. I would like to believe I would have their kind of courage. I would like to think that I would have been on the right side of history and perhaps I would have been. But, if I am honest, as a white person and as a retired cop, a huge part of my own story is probably closer to those police officers and deputies than it is to Martin King. So I wonder, what were these officers and temporary deputies thinking?
Until they do speak out, we don’t know. So I am going to take the liberty of guessing. First of all, I bet they were scared. The fact that so many were forcibly deputized speaks to the deep anxiety white people in Selma must have felt. I imagine some of them were thinking thoughts like “These f—ing n—rs, who do they think they are coming here and causing trouble in this peaceful town? I had way better things to do today than stand here by this damn bridge and do this dirty job. I don’t want to be here.” I bet others were angry at King thinking “That coon King is a damn trouble maker. How does he have the nerve to call himself a Reverend? Ministers are supposed to be about peace and law and order, not politics and protest. We all got along here fine until this outside agitator came into town.” I bet others, standing on the east side of the bridge, focused on their physical discomfort thinking “ My feet are tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I would rather be home today than doing this.” I bet others were thinking things like “These protesters just want attention. We don’t have a race problem here. White folks and Negroes get along fine with each other. It’s just a matter of everyone knowing their place and staying in it. King is an outside agitator creating problems where there are none. He encourages people to break the law like they are doing today, disobeying a lawful order to disperse. If they don’t turn around they will get what they deserve. All I know is I am coming home safe today and I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t get hurt. I am ready for them. Just let them try.” I wonder if, in the midst of them, there were at least a few who saw something good in King and in the protesters, but were afraid to say so lest their community reject them as n—er lovers. I wonder if there might even have been at least one of two who wondered if what they were doing was right. I am betting, though, that most of them felt like THEY were the good guys, not the protesters. I bet most of them really believed that they were doing the right thing, standing up for law and order and public safety, protecting themselves and their families from something evil and bad. I doubt very many believed on that day that they were on the wrong side of history.
I wonder how, fifty years later, these men feel about what they did. I would love to ask them, if any were willing to speak. But even more, I wonder where I stand today. I would like to believe I am making choices about my life that I will later feel proud of that will put me closer to being on the right side of history. Don’t we all? But the truth is, history is always clearer in hindsight and human beings always make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Protesters make mistakes. Bystanders make mistakes. But there is still, as King often said, a moral arc in the universe. History is going somewhere and it matters where we stand. Even if none of us can know perfectly, we can all get a clue. If the path we have chosen involves beating someone bloody it is likely to be wrong. If the path we have chosen is full of “us versus them” it is worth questioning. If the path we have chosen somehow denies the full humanity of all God’s children, we are likely to be on the wrong side of history. So let’s hear the stories of the past, from both the right side of history and the wrong side of history. Let’s have enough humility that, at least in some ways, we might be wrong and let’s move forward as best as we can in ways that lead us closer to the right because, in the end, God’s justice and God’s peace will prevail and when that moral arc of the universe eventually does bend toward justice, it will matter what side we were on.