Last night I went to see Selma, which opened with the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of Carole Robertson (14), Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14) and Denise McNair (11), and ended with the Voting Rights Act two years later. One of the film’s main characters is Pettus Bridge, the steel arch that spans the Alabama River and the site of “Bloody Sunday,” where armed troopers beat peaceful protesters without mercy. The bridge is named for Edmund Pettus (1821-1907), Confederate general, U.S. Senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The film’s power stems not only from its juxtaposition of violence and courage, but from its innocence. Black Americans put their lives on the line for things not much in vogue these days: the right to vote, something only 36.4% of Americans (and 41% of Alabamans) bothered to do in 2014; non-violence, in a country which today owns over 300 million guns; faith and community, where people of unimaginable courage turned to their churches for their strength.
Yet as I sat through the violence, the bloodshed, the humiliations, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt proud to be an American. African-Americans led the Civil Rights movement; the vast preponderance of its victims were black; the oppression they fought is older than the nation itself. But as I watched people hold America accountable for its own ideals, I realized that this was not just Black history. This was my history. And all the people who walked across that bridge were our greatest generation.