SELMA – The worship service from inside Brown Chapel AME Church projected on a huge screen, the crowds gathered in groups holding signs displaying “Black Lives Matter” and the sun added more color to each face of the 17 John Brown University students and two faculty members in the crowd.
“It was incredibly humbling to be able to walk across the same bridge that Martin Luther King John Lewis, and so many others walked across 50 years ago,” Emma Wingert said.
Participating as part of the trip, Wingert said, “I honestly don’t know if I would have been brave enough to take part in the march then. I hope I would have; but regardless, I am so thankful that so many people did, because the effects have been incredible and yet there is still a lot more to do.”
The group participated in the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act march in Selma, Alabama on March 8. Beginning at Brown Chapel and marching towards the Edmund Pettis Bridge, more than 80,000 people marched: families, students and people from around the world.
Mary J. Smith proudly sported a jean jacket with the words in green and red, “Original Freedom Rider.” Smith recalled riding a Greyhound bus from Nashville to Memphis and then to Jackson, Miss. as part of a freedom ride. She was 19 years old at the time.
“It was terrifying, but it was something we had to do, even though it was something our parents didn’t know that we did,” Smith said.
Smith attended Sunday’s rally with her fellow freedom rider friend Frances Wilson Canty. The two women discussed the challenges involved in the freedom rides, which helped to integrate bus terminals in the South during the fall of 1961. Both Smith and Canty were students at Tennessee State University in 1961 when they decided to leave college and join the freedom rides.
Canty was 23 years old when she rode the same ride with Smith; both rode alongside Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia. The two women explained that, for years after the rides, most were silent about the mission.
“We accomplished what we set out to do, but it wasn’t till 2008 that we truly got recognized for it,” said Canty.
The women reflected on traveling to Chicago years later and being on the Oprah show. Canty said the most important thing is to stand up for what you believe in, and, if it hadn’t been for her faith in God, she wouldn’t have participated in the freedom rides.
Smith said, “The opposition would have won had we not gone.”
In 2008, both Canty and Smith, along with 12 others from TSU, were given honorary doctorates due to their participation in the freedom rides.
Kurt Schultz stood underneath a tree outside Brown Chapel.
He and his fellow faculty partnered with Concordia University, a private Lutheran institution founded in Portland, Ore., and put on a five-day civil rights symposium in Selma.
Schultz had decided to attend the march to participate in a vital part of American history.
“I want to affirm the continuation of our rights and freedoms,” Shultz said.
Domenico Libreri, student at Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran institution in Indiana, said he attended the march because of the importance of its history.
“The history books aren’t the complete story. Coming here, I am actually seeing history come alive,” Libreri said.
Libreri is currently taking a class focused on civil rights, and he explained that it is so much different to actually be a part of the events as opposed to reading about them.
Thousands of people, young and old, braved the sun and crowds to replicate that historical moment. Although many were not able to physically cross the bridge due to the massive crowd, the peaceful pilgrimage marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
“We were very fortunate to witness and participate in living history,” said Communication Professor Marquita Smith, who traveled with History Professor Trisha Posey for the three-day adventure.
Smith and Posey, along with students, visited several museums in the capital city of Montgomery before attending the anniversary celebration on Sunday.
“This event was symbolic of how people of faith united to change the nation for the better,” Smith said. “I can’t think of any better way to challenge and encourage students to continue that same Christian spirit, positively shaping lives, communities and their congregations.”