Monday, March 07, 2005

Selma 40 years out


Today is the 40th anniversary of the Selma March, which was actually three. The first one, on March 7, 1965, ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in "Bloody Sunday." Intending to try again right away, the organizers turned to federal court for protection. With Judge Frank Johnson choosing to issue an injunction against the march altogether while he took the time to figure it out, on March 9 Dr. King led a second, "symbolic" march to the edge of the bridge.

Pettus bridge

In his March 17 opinion crafting the rules for the march to Montgomery--for granting the protesters their right to peaceably assemble and petition their government for the redress of grievances (in this case the wholesale denial of their voting rights), while also not totally disrupting traffic on the 54-mile stretch of a four-lane highway--Judge Johnson came up with a pretty remarkable formula: the protester's rights would be proportionate with the extent of the wrongs they had suffered.

It is recognized that the plan as proposed and as allowed reaches, under the particular circumstances of this case, to the outer limits of what is constitutionally allowed. However, the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon these plaintiffs and the members of their class (part of which have been herein documented) have clearly exceeded--and continue to exceed--the outer limits of what is constitutionally permissible. As stated earlier in this opinion, the extent of a group's constitutional right to protest peaceably and petition one's government for redress of grievances must be, if our American Constitution is to be a flexible and "living" document, found and held to be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs being protested and petitioned against. This is particularly true when the usual, basic and constitutionally-provided means of protesting in our American way--voting--have been deprived. It must never be forgotten that our Constitution is "intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs." With an application of these principles to the facts of this case, plaintiffs' proposed plan of march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for its intended purposes, is clearly a reasonable exercise of a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. (Williams v. Wallace, M.D. Ala. 1965.)

On March 21, two weeks after "Bloody Sunday," some 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery. On March 25 they reached the state capitol, 25,000 strong.

I'm taking this date as symbolic reminder that I need to start preparing for the seminar in the law and rhetoric of the civil rights movement that I'll be teaching in the fall at UNC Law School.

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