We Dare Defend Our Rights

Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there.

Driving through Alabama today I am afforded a chance to look for the dead without receiving from the living the sad sorry gazes reserved for the senile and retarded. The National Park Service has made the site of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery into a historic trail, and I am driving it because I am in the neighborhood, and this is one of a handful of places that as an American I feel duty-bound to visit, in a category with Concord and Gettysburg. In 1776 we declared all men created equal, but it took us a century afterward to write it into law and still another to enforce it. In these places the past pounds on the door of the present, demanding our attention.

Entering the state I stop at the Welcome Center, where I am greeted and indeed nearly pestered by three smiling employees whose job it is to help me enjoy my stay, and to navigate the room full of trifold brochures that document every historic, cultural, and natural point of even the barest interest in Alabama. I have never been welcomed quite so warmly into a state — certainly not in Maryland, for example, let alone in New Jersey, where I am lucky if the baggy-panted youth behind the counter of the first convenience store over the border can look up from his Hustler long enough to grunt directions back to the Schuylkill Expressway: Neither of us wants to be there, and we both know it.

Alabama clearly wants to show its Southern hospitality — which, as all Southerners know, is good only to a point:

We Dare Defend Our Rights

In front of the Welcome Center a stone monument proclaims “Alabama: We Dare Defend Our Rights.” Finally, a statement of Southern pride on which blacks and whites can agree! It is due warning to Yankee idealists and cracker sheriffs alike. There is no burying of history here.

Driving the bleached highway, though, history demands a little more faith. Brown signs mark the marchers’ campsites, but at sixty miles an hour I can see only weeds. Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma where the march began has a facade I recognize, but its door is pasted with fundraising signs; the church hasn’t passed into the status of an artifact. Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge I try to see the marchers stolidly massed and the police waiting with tear gas and dogs on the other side, but the bridge is crowded by gas stations and hair salons and unlike the newsreel footage in my head, appears in full color. To see what’s not there I have to squint a little, as I might at the cross behind the pulpit.

At the interpretive center halfway from Selma to Montgomery I stop to look at photographs and listen to recordings of interviews and oral histories. I have heard much of this before, but it never loses its power. I would like not to be amazed by the simple courage of ordinary people standing up to do what any American today would consider an ordinary thing &mash; vote — but most of us can’t even get off the couch, and too many of us dare not even criticize our government, let alone face down state troopers. I would like not to be amazed, but I am. And then I see, in the face of the park ranger, something that makes me feel differently. I have never met a park ranger openly dissatisfied with the job, but she has an aura of pride that is infectious. She is the steward of something great and wonderful, and she quietly knows it. And I think maybe we will still dare defend our rights again in 2065.

As Montgomery dwindles in the rear view mirror I pass an SUV with a bumper sticker: Proud to Be An American. And yes, just now I am proud. But not in the way he thinks.