Detroiters return to Selma, reflect on '65 march

Ursula Watson
The Detroit News
Dorothy Dewberry Aldridge, left, and Gloria House view the Rosa Parks Bust at Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Friday March 6, 2015, in Montgomery, Alabama.

As a youth Dale Rich of Detroit sat riveted as turbulent images from the South during the '60s were beamed to his TV.

"I remember watching Walter Cronkite and seeing the events such as the Freedom Riders and Birmingham," said Rich, 66, a former The Detroit News employee who went on to become a contributing photographer. "I was wishing I could photograph those events."

This weekend Rich, along with fellow Detroiters Jonnie Hamilton, Gloria House and Dorothy Dewberry Aldridge, joined the estimated 100,000 people in Selma, Ala., commemorating the 50th anniversary of a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.

While there are many milestones in the struggle for civil rights, Rich said the march from Selma is special.

"The end result was the Voting Rights Act, which is being chipped away now," said Rich. "Some people think that marches and protests don't do anything but here is something tangible. You see something that went on the books and made change, positive change."

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in voting on the basis of race, opposition was fierce in southern states such as Alabama, according to History.com.

In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council focused on Selma for a voter registration campaign.

On March 7, 1965 led by John Lewis, now a member of Congress, 600 people joined in the march from Selma, Ala. to the state Capitol in Montgomery—a 54 mile trek.

The peaceful march turned violent when police beat and tear-gassed unresisting marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Because of the violence, that day became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Jonnie Hamilton's eldest brother was one of the marchers. While he wasn't hurt that day, he was found dead a week later.

Hamilton, a nurse practitioner, said her grandparents owned property in a town between Selma and Montgomery, where civil rights activists could find food and lodging in the segregated South.

"Young people don't know the history," said Hamilton, 71. "They take for granted the right to vote, the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to stay at a hotel. They don't know the struggle that people went though to make it possible."

She added if people knew their history they would know that the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, extended the right to vote to all races. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote.

But African American men and women were deterred from exercising their right with poll taxes, tests and violence.

Hamilton said her mother taught her to recite the alphabet backwards. He mother learned to do so in order to register to vote.

"The right to vote was there but these laws were not enforced," said Hamilton. "The only way to do that is to make people accountable and people need to know history."

Like Hamilton, for Gloria House and Dorothy Dewberry Aldridge, that day in Selma and the years of struggle during the civil rights movement are not simply pages in history books.

House, an English professor at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, left the University of California, Berkeley where she received a bachelors of arts and masters of arts, to become a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Alabama.

According to Rich, House was arrested along with civil rights legend and then Committee-member Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Touré).

"She was in jail for two weeks before they were told to leave by gun point," said Rich of House's experience. "They were afraid because no one had bailed them out. When they left, there was a sniper who shot and killed a minister and wounded another."

Aldridge was the Detroit director of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe and was a part of the voter registration drive, said Rich.

She also worked with such noted persons as Hubert "Rap" Brown, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker.

"Sometimes you don't know the credentials of those who you are around," said Rich.

Members of the Detroit delegation visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Friday March 6, 2015, in Montgomery, Alabama.

The commemoration of that painful day in Selma 50 years ago is particularly poignant today with the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida; Michael Brown in Missouri; Eric Garner in New York; Tamir Rice in Ohio and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, said Hamilton.

Rich and Hamilton said that some of the 100,000 folks in Selma this weekend plan on walking backwards.

"It symbolizes that we are going back to where we were," said Rich.

UWatson@detroitnews.com

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