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Making This a More Perfect Union: Remembering Bloody Sunday

55 years ago on March 7, 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 champions of civil rights began the first of several nonviolent marches and risked their lives and limbs literally and attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to make this country a more perfect nation. So many people crossed the bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for the simple purpose of attempting to register Black Americans to vote. Their mission and their purpose were to force this country to live up to its many principles, statements of morality, creeds and founding documents. Representative John Lewis (D. Ga.), a member and later

one of the youngest leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of the leaders of the marches.

Photo of young Representative John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Photo of John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he was with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Before Becoming a Congressman for the United States
Civil Rights March showing the many people who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Civil rights activists march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, starting the second march to Montgomery. In the first march, the marchers had been attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers and local law enforment. Only the third march actually made it all the way to Montgomery. (Photo by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

I think it is important to use this anniversary to make a distinction between the words and writings of those who created the country in which we now live and the events that occurred on that day. The Declaration of Independence, First Continental Congress, July 4, 1776, the following paragraph was included:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Photo of police officers stopping marchers from proceeding on to vote after they crossed the Edmund Pettiu Bridge
Photo of police in riot gear and deputized citizens of Alabama approaching unarmed marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Police and attack dogs attacking marketers who cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Photograph demonstrating how the police and deputized citizens of Alabama and their attack dogs attacked the marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

 

The author of this blog, a somewhat increasingly-jaded attorney who writes to you now about this event that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” has read the words in the Declaration of Independence as well as the other founding documents of our country many times and has become growing late disconcerted by the contradiction between their meaning and reality. I have also spent a great deal of time studying the law of civil rights and about the civil rights movements in this country in particular and other countries as well. But all I am is a simple civil rights lawyer for people with disabilities who works for a nonprofit organization in Denver, Colorado. So why am I writing about this?

Because I care about making this country in which we live a more perfect union so that all human beings regardless of race, religion, gender, disability or ability, and all other human beings obtain and receive the same respect and are entitled to belong just as much as any other human being. There is no superiority of any one of these groups, and there is no meaningful type of “nationalism” which is just another word for shutting out other human beings that are different. The civil rights movement that led to my ability to be able to practice law for people with disabilities, although created by my brothers and sisters with disabilities who came before me, was also built on the broken skull of John Lewis. When I view these photos, tears wells up in my eyes no matter how jaded the process of practicing disability rights law and reading American history has made me become. I do remember reading one of my favorite books, Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch and calling my good friend, colleague and mentor, Amy Robertson, and saying something like, “I guess disability civil rights lawyers have one advantage over those who represented the great civil rights leaders of the South and others throughout our country and around the world. At least no one is bombing our houses.” Don’t get me wrong, we certainly get our share of slurs throughout the wonders of social media, newspapers and other outlets of incivility. Usually, it comes from the other side (meaning those who oppose our equality, belonging and humanity), often it comes from people who are simply ignorant about the issues, but it sometimes even comes from within our own community. I could certainly cite to many words written and spoken by the “Founding Fathers” of our country that lead me to reach the inevitable conclusion that the entire country was built on a series of lies. First of all, I, like many of you, was taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. I find it extremely difficult to understand how an individual came to discover a land that was already inhabited by a large number of people who, as far as most of us now, were perfectly content with their way of life. They were definitely human beings, and they were here first, living and existing in a way that worked for them until those who came before and after Columbus destroyed their culture, most of their population (through the spread of disease and outright murder) and all of their way of life because our ancestors* thought we knew what was best for the natives of this country now known as the United States of America.

The second major lie in existence when the words quoted above were drafted (often called “Original sin”) committed by those who “founded” this country was the bringing of in innumerable number of human beings from Africa, a continent almost as far away as it could be, to come in shackles on boats and conditions almost certain to cause most of them to die to this country for the sole purpose of being the property and working for our ancestors. Now, as a result of the great works of people like John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and so many others, the same year that the dogs took bites out of those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the same people who were gassed, knocked down by fire hoses, beaten with billy clubs shot, and arrested, our federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson, sent troops to assist those who are not permitted to vote to be able to do so and passed The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (The Civil Rights Act of 1964 somehow managed to exclude this most important alleged inalienable right of all Americans who were in the words of the First Congressional Congress “created equal” and endowed with exactly the same rights; also interesting is the fact that it took until 1920 for women to have the right to vote; I guess the “Founding Fathers” really meant it when they said “all men are created equal”).

When reviewing that paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, it is difficult to say at what point in history (according to our “Founding Fathers, ” human beings in our society should determine when the government is destructive of the ends set forth in that document, when we as a society have stopped securing the Safety and happiness of our people (coming Social Security benefits and the possibility of attaining healthcare if you have a pre-existing condition, denying any form of long-term care and lying about it in front of TV cameras while having the United States Justice Department argue the exact opposite in federal court), whether the actions taken by our current government are light and transient causes (it is hard to imagine how 400 years of slavery coupled with the continued income inequality based on things like race or disability, The routine murdering of people of color by law enforcement with absolute immunity, the ruining of an entire society and culture leaving only a few to rise up, resisting compliance with the law or changes in the law that will allow the equality that apparently all human beings in this country are supposed to have — “the repeated tyrannies and usurpations”), whether these and other evils have risen to the level of being so insufferable as to require the change or abolishment of government in comparison to the reasons taken by the “Founding Fathers.” And who in the world (literally) did they think they were kidding when they said, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world[?]”

Nevertheless, as President Barack Obama reminded us during the 50th anniversary of this same series of marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, change has occurred. It has occurred because we have made it occur. It is just that so much more needs to be done. Lawyers are limited by what laws allow us to do. Legislators are motivated by monetary interests and paid lobbyists against whom we have severe inequality.

I am extremely indebted to and thankful for my colleagues, friends and those who came before me whom I never met, all who have disabilities and their colleagues, who made it possible for me to assist in enforcing the civil rights of human beings — people with disabilities. It certainly seems a shame 30 years after the law was written that our society has not come into compliance, and that entities resist with such vigor, that people who would rather die than be disabled and yet they take advantage of those simple modifications that people with disabilities need enable to live equally with nondisabled people (like the example of the police car that parked in the access aisle next to my van at our office), but I can only imagine what those who survived Bloody Sunday must feel regarding the treatment of a population of people who were brought to this country four hundred years ago to do the work and be the property of white people who now hate and despise this population in such a way as that they are incarcerated them in enormously greater proportions than whites, the income inequities between Blacks and whites are extraordinary, and no one can really say with a straight face that equal treatment has been achieved throughout the country.

So in an attempt to return the bright side. I still continue to believe that we are trying to build a “more perfect union.” At least enough of us are, and there is no doubt that great changes have been made. It seems as though it is a never ending fight. And it seems as though we will never “win.” I can’t see it happening in my lifetime, so you Millennials better take it over. You are all humans too. The only tools we seem to have in our European white system of governing and thinking of the creation of laws and enforcement of them. It seems unfortunate that that even though what is required to bring about equality and belonging is often ignored, forgotten or aggressively opposed; we should continue to strive to come up with a better way. By writing this blog, I ask that we will focus on that day, Bloody Sunday. In addition, as we consider during this presidential voting season filled as it is with vitriol and concerns about whether we are actually getting accurate information about candidates and viruses and just about anything else that we must think about in order to improve ourselves and our country that we do the following: Consider where we have come from, what it will take to get to where we are going, to remember always what our fellow human beings have endured before us in order to get to where we are today and to always, always work towards ensuring the existence of the innate equality and belonging of all human beings and building that more perfect union.

Hanging on my wall just to the side of the front door of my house is a very large framed poster of Thurgood Marshall with a quote from him: “in recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” I put it there is you can’t leave my house without seeing it. What more can be said then that if we are going to create equality, belonging any more perfect union?

* I use the word “our” to refer to mostly white Europeans who settled in this country. Certainly those whose ancestors who were brought against their will and those who this country has tried to ban, remove and prevent from entering cannot be included.


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