Standing outside Dexter Avenue King Memorial church in Montgomery, Alabama, March 13, 2015, closing day of the 50th anniversary re-enactment of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, the tallest of the Buffalo Soldiers looks me in the eye and cooly remarks, "We're in a bubble here."
Another Buffalo Soldier has been taking pictures of the men on the rooftops above us. I hadn't thought to look up, but there they were indeed, training binoculars and cameras down at us from just about every rooftop. I assume they are police of some sort, and although I don't see weapons I think they must also be armed. The Soldier I had been talking to refuses to look up. He says, “I’m home sick today.”
I didn't ask the Soldier to explain his remark about a bubble, but I'm sure what he had in mind was that that day's police protection was an artificial and temporary thing in contrast to the current widespread and regularly reported police killings of unarmed Black people. And he clearly felt personally threatened by the police cameras. He had called in sick to be able to take the day off from his job to be in Montgomery with the marchers.
There were at least twenty uniformed Buffalo Soldiers who had come on their “iron horse” motorcycles, and were determinedly heading up the church steps to attend the speechmaking following the end of the march up at the Capitol steps. They didn't all get in, which is how I got the chance to talk with a few of them. I had only a vague recollection of the history of the all-Black U.S. Cavalry regiments formed at the end of the Civil War, so I just said, "I've heard about the original buffalo soldiers but I don't know much about them and I just want to ask what the story is, what you guys are about." Their answers were polite, brief and determined: "We are the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club. We keep alive the memory of the original U.S. Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers and keep true to their tradition of service to our country and our community."
I reflected on how the Buffalo Soldiers, clearly representing Black Pride and at least suggesting Black Power (they did not seem to be armed), were a kind of re-enactment within a re-enactment that day. I also reflected on how different the atmosphere of this 50th anniversary Selma to Montgomery march was from the 1965 event. I hadn't been there myself, but I told the Soldiers about looking into that history and finding an account saying that Klan elements in 1965 in collusion with local authorities had been talking about putting snipers on the Dexter Avenue rooftops to pick off the march leaders – but had been persuaded, in large part by Red Blount, the rich white founder of the modern Republican Party in Alabama, not to try any such thing, that "it would be bad for business."
However, although the 1965 march was allowed, it was not well protected and was indeed bloody all the way from Bloody Sunday in Selma to Montgomery and back (remember Viola Liuzzo).
In contrast, during this 50th anniversary re-enactment Montgomery authorities were very friendly and helpful. That morning at St. Jude's church on the western outskirts of Montgomery where we marchers began the last five-mile segment leading to Dexter Avenue and the Capitol, Judy had asked the police unit commander there for help getting Jim Scott's guitar to the Capitol, where we hoped he would be performing as part of the culminating ceremonies of the march, so he wouldn't have to carry it the whole five miles. "Sure, that's no problem, I'll put it in this squad car and you can get it out at the Capitol."
But indeed there are bubbles within bubbles. While the 50th anniversary Selma to Montgomery march was primarily organized by the entity first headed by King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it was also organized "in collusion with local authorities," just with a difference. A search on the internet for "Selma to Montgomery 2015" turned up not SCLC at the top of the results list but dreammarcheson.com, "Commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March . . . we invite you to celebrate the many dreams that started here by visiting Selma, Lowndes County and Montgomery." With an official “The Dream Marches On” logo, unauthorized use or duplication of which without express and written permission from the City of Montgomery is strictly prohibited, email or call toll-free Meg Lewis at the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce for more information, and WE THANK OUR SPONSORS, showing the logos of 26 corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, BBVA Compass Bank, Honda, Hyundai, AT&T, the Montgomery Advertiser, AARP, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama etc etc.
That is, whatever SCLC or the marchers thought the event was about, it was to be “good for business,” well worth the massive police protection.
Another difference between this re-enactment and the original march was that SCLC was not insisting that focus be kept on voting rights, but allowing signs, chants, and speaking on many issues/dreams. Judy, who never needed assertiveness training, got close enough to where march leaders were about to present their petition to Governor Bentley on the steps of the Capitol, and was able, since she knew many of those leaders, to get them to raise a chant of Medicaid Now! Medicaid Now! as the Governor came down the steps. There, a few of the up-front march leaders turn their backs to him, but he shakes hands with the others, says he will do what is right for all Alabamians, takes and puts in his coat pocket what he is handed, and turns to go back up the steps to his office. One of the pocketed pieces of paper is a letter Judy has written urging him to "execute justice, not people."
The speech-making that followed inside Dexter King Memorial church of course was led off and closed with serious SCLC preaching and teaching; and included teenagers speaking up for LGBT rights.
Judy and I had brought New England folksinger Jim Scott with us. Jim was touring his "Pete Seeger Songfest" program, had done a concert in Fredonia the Saturday before, and Judy thought she could arrange for him to lead the crowd at the church in "If I Had a Hammer," or "We Shall Overcome." I was skeptical about that prospect, and at first it looked as though we wouldn't even be able to get into the church. It is less than a block away and in sight of the Capitol, but there were about a thousand people in the street, most of them between us and the front steps of the church. But Judy led Jim Scott through and around the crowd to a side entrance and got him into the church up near the altar and introduced to people in charge of the program.
I hung back, deferring to all those other sincere pilgrims, including those Buffalo Soldiers, which is how I got the chance to talk with them. But then Judy stuck her head out of the church doors and yelled to me, "Jim, come on in, Roger and Roberta are saving a seat for you."So I got into the church, sat through a lot of familiar sermonizing and at the end was moved by the crowd, led by Jim Scott, standing and enthusiastically singing and clapping out "If I Had a Hammer," and joining hands with arms crossed to sing a convincing "We Shall Overcome."
Afterward, Jim Scott remarked that he was strongly impressed by seeing how immediately urgent Black issues were to the people he walked with and talked to that day, matters of life and death; in contrast to so many people he knew in New England and the rest of the country, who even though in sympathy could not feel directly or immediately affected and for whom the issues remained primarily abstract matters of morality and politics.
I told Jim I felt the same way. Although I had been a somewhat reluctant marcher and attended only that last day's into-Montgomery segment, I was at the end of the day very glad that I had come to be with people who were not just participating in a re-enactment but in their own lives addressing serious issues – voter inequality, income inequality, inadequate or no health care, sexism, racism, police violence, militarism..
Yet I have to say I fear "Business As Usual Shall Overcome." It's good that the 2015 re-enactment march was not, like the 1965 march, bloody there and back. But the "collusion" with authorities is scary. March leaders repeatedly reminded the crowd they were not there just to celebrate or commemorate a past victory but again wake the nation to make needed change. But I note that the “official” Dream Marches On message of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, supposedly giving whole-hearted support for the march, focuses only on commemoration and celebration, and that of no particular dream but “many dreams.” As though to say, “just pick the dream of your choice and dream on . . .” Let’s have the Governor say a few meaningless words, pocket any demands for change and return to his office. Let’s not have anything happen that would be bad for business or wake a nation.
The Slowdown Dirty Truth take on all this: Indeed there are bubbles within bubbles. Business As Usual is itself, including not just the usual corporate suspects but the usual organizational, institutional and personal making-a-living "busy-ness,” is a fantasy dream, another kind of bubble. In the not very long run, even resolving any one or even all of our yes, pressing issues, will not matter if our climate- and habitat-destroying growth-at-all-costs economy – that has, yes, created the living-as-usual comforts so many of us enjoy – is not stopped.
Indeed, most of our most pressing immediate problems are not even solvable in a business-as-usual context. To proceed without that realization is to live and act in a bubble.