It was a cold spring morning as I pulled into Selma, Ala. I had been at a conference in Tuscaloosa and had decided to pay my respects before returning to Minnesota. The early hours ensured that only a handful of pilgrims were present. We walked around, detached from each other, and silently observed the sacredness of the place. Somberness pervaded the air and hung like a well-worn tapestry over our vigil. I had wanted to visit Selma to stand in solidarity and yet being there left me bewildered.
Fifty years ago, Selma was the scene of some of the most publicized violence of the Civil Rights Movement era. As unarmed marchers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, State Troopers and a posse of local men attacked. Amidst the haze of tear gas and screams of pain and fear, witnesses were privy policemen viciously beating marchers with billy clubs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, a local leader, was beaten unconscious. The image of her lying bloodied in the streets would shock the world and incite global outcry against Bloody Sunday.
Selma still bears witness to that bygone era. As I walked the streets, the dilapidated buildings and aging infrastructure clashed with the commemorative events that would occur throughout the weekend, celebrations honoring the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement. There was also the evidence of several anachronisms; the night before, the Ku Klux Klan had left pamphlets around town and the Edmund Pettus Bridge is still named for a Confederate general and white supremacist. The victory of Bloody Sunday seemed tarnished by these contradictions and I was left dubious of today's social justice causes.
As I stood trying to reconcile the present with the past, I remembered that Nietzsche was incredibly concerned with the paralysis of man through history. While rarely associated with civil rights struggles, he offers a valuable lesson to those trying to understand the roots of social movements. According to Nietzsche, history should instruct us on how to live courageously in the present. Rather than being immobilized by the past, he implores us to employ the past, be it sublime or horrible, as inspiration for living our lives.
The bridge was my final view as I walked away, passing an elderly couple moving towards it hand in hand. While I was not entirely placated by the insights that Nietzsche offered, I was determined to return to campus committed to action. I began to appreciate the germ of what social justice work I had been previously involved with as tied to the events of Bloody Sunday. It was upon further reflection that I realized the significance of standing on the shoulders of those giants from 50 years ago. Their actions, and the history that they made inspire me to continue their work and to live my life in a manner befitting their legacy.
Nathan Detweiler '16 email@example.com is from Minneapolis, Minn. He majors in French, philosophy and political science.
Graphic Credit: ERIN KNADLER/MANITOU MESSENGER