It’s not too difficult to get people to come to a big anniversary of a major event in American history, like the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday— especially when a popular president is speaking there. Yet, it is difficult to get people to think about that event and its long-term ramifications on an odd anniversary, when the celebration isn’t as big.
Fifty-three years ago today, a group of marchers led by Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and others attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on their way to Montgomery to protest the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black man who was killed by a police officer in nearby Marion. Since then, the practice of honoring those brave marchers commonly involves a bridge-crossing re-enactment and reminders of the importance of voting. Even though Americans too often shirk our responsibilities to take action against injustice and to vote, we are reminded (and admonished) annually on March 7 to change those habits for the better.
However, in addition to those obvious features of the commemorations, another feature of Bloody Sunday should be noted as well: the importance of the media. Scholars and historians acknowledge that, as courageous and forthright as those marchers were, Bloody Sunday may not have become an iconic event in America had the images from that day not been piped directly into American living rooms by the press, who were there to cover it. There could be no denials of what was happening in the Deep South when people all over the country saw it for themselves. The media coverage ensured that otherwise-uninvolved Americans saw that wall of officers in Selma as they moved toward the marchers then proceeded, unprovoked, to shove and beat them mercilessly, to shoot tear gas into their midst, and to chase them on horseback. Ordinary Americans had been shown the images of Emmett Till’s misshapen corpse in Mississippi and the images of dogs and firehoses in Birmingham in earlier years, and here was another brutal example.
In an election year, we are reminded of our right to vote, but today’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday should remind us, too, about our First Amendment right to a free press, because without them, we might never have known about these facts that we now take for granted. Efforts to sow distrust of the media are just as insidious as efforts to deny some people the right to vote, and we’ve got to be diligent in safeguarding both.
Image from the Library of Congress collection: Carol M. Highsmith