"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Selma to Montgomery: Praying With Their Feet


On Sunday, March 7, 1965, approximately 600 people began a fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama (the state capital). They marched to demonstrate for voting rights for African Americans. They were also marching in honor of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had died three weeks earlier after being shot by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother during a civil rights demonstration. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, the marchers were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and sheriff's deputies.

Footage of the violence in Selma was broadcast by ABC News, which (rather ironically) interrupted its broadcast of the Nazi war crimes documentary, Judgement in Nuremburg. In just two days demonstrations in support of the Selma to Montgomery marchers were held in eight cities, and thousands of religious and lay leaders, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. travelled to Selma where, on March 9 they once again travelled to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they knelt and prayed. That night one of the ministers, who had travelled to Selma for the march, was killed by white vigilantes.

The uproar and response by the citizenry to events in Alabama was so great that President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation before a joint session of Congress, saying,"There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights…We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone…" Just two days later Johnson sent the Voting Rights bill to Congress.

On March 17 a Federal judge ruled that the demonstrators must be permitted to march, and ordered that the National Guard protect them. On March 21, the voting rights demonstrators once again left Selma under Federal protection, and arrived in Montgomery on March 25 with some 25,000 demonstrators flooding the state capital. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965. Among other things, the Act banned discriminatory literacy tests and expanded voting rights for non-English speaking citizens.

Today, 45 years later, people still commemorate the historic Selma to Montgomery march, and the struggle for the right to vote continues. One of the participants raised the issue of voting rights for felons. Monks from the Bainbridge Island Nipponzan Miyohoji Buddhist Temple were among those who made the trek this year. One of the monks, Gilberto Perez, sent me a few photos (see slide show below). For the monks, this is just one leg of a long journey, praying with their feet as they walk for peace, justice and the abolition of nuclear weapons. For them, every step is a prayer for peace, and they take countless steps on their long journey.

Los Angeles firefighter Tony Wright bandages the foot of Buddhist monk Gilberto Perez as Erica Fox watches at Fire Station No. 14 in Montgomery on Friday. (Alvin Benn)

After the Selma to Montgomery march, they will begin the next leg of their journey that will take them to New York City, where they will join with thousands of other peacemakers to call on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to make good on the promises made in the NPT. In the continuing struggle for human rights, they will remind the nuclear-armed nations that the world's citizens have the right to be free of the fear of nuclear omnicide that still hangs over the world like a nuclear Sword of Damocles.

And so the monks and those who walk with them continue their journey, beating their drums and chanting with a nonviolent spirit like those who walked from Selma to Montgomery 45 years ago. May their nonviolent spirit touch everyone they meet along the way, disarming hearts and building a path to a world at peace with justice.

Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.



Photographic Credits: Panorama of marchers at top of post by James Karales (American, 1930–2002). Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales. Thanks to Gilberto Perez for photos used in the slide show.

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