How Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma marches influenced the Black Lives Matter movement

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Jon San
·Producer, Yahoo Entertainment
·5 min read
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Dr. Martin Luther King addressing civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., in April 1965. (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King addressing civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., in April 1965. (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Yahoo Life is providing an up-close look at one of the most important and pivotal sites in the civil rights movement: the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Using augmented reality from home, explore the 3-D bridge and its history — from its inception as a tribute to a Confederate general to the site of King’s monumental march to Montgomery and, more recently, John Lewis’s funeral procession.

Serving as a guide on this immersive journey is historian, author and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In 2016, he produced and hosted the PBS docuseries Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, which covers the events that transpired on the Pettus Bridge.

Civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr. cross the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama after being turned back by state troopers. The marchers had intended to begin a 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery to protest race discrimination in
Civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr. cross the Edmund Pettus bridge after being turned back by state troopers on their second attempt to enter Selma. The third time was successful. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gates recently spoke with Yahoo Life about the legacy of King and the Selma marches, the Black Lives Matter protests — and the issue of the bridge’s namesake, a Confederate brigadier general from Alabama who served in the U.S. Senate.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 15: Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrives at the Statue Of Liberty Museum Opening Celebration at Battery Park on May 15, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Statue Of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation)
Henry Louis Gates Jr., seen in New York City in 2019. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Statue Of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation)

What’s the lasting impact of the civil rights marches?

I think the lasting impact of the civil rights marches is clear: Without them, the Voting Rights Act would not have been passed as soon as it was, and African-Americans would have been indefinitely delayed in participating in Southern politics. They also are blueprints for change and confronting injustice today.

Dr. King said, and I quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., seen on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015. Lewis had been beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" 50 years prior in 1965. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., seen on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015. Lewis had been beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" 50 years prior in 1965. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

How can Dr. King’s message and legacy be applied to what’s happening today?

It’s really a challenge for us to call out injustice wherever it's found, and in all of its manifestations, while also recognizing the responsibilities we owe to one another as citizens of this democracy — to lift one another up with dignity and compassion. Dr. King's calls for racial cooperation and Black economic equality, unfortunately, are still relevant today.

How are last year’s Black Lives Matter protests similar or different from Dr. King’s marches in the 1960s?

The Black Lives Matter protests took cues from Dr. King's marches by recognizing the power of massing people together in the name of justice. They seized the attention of the media and thus of the entire nation. Other similarities include a focus on youth, interracial and interfaith coalitions, and the role of prophetic leaders like the Rev. William Barber.

Differences include the fact that it was more secular and truly national and international in scope — more similar to the structural issues Dr. King was fighting for at the end of his life, and less about de jure [or legalized] segregation.

A protester carries an image of Martin Luther King Jr. during a protest against racism and police brutality on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
A protester carries an image of Martin Luther King Jr. during a protest against racism and police brutality on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s the impact of the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s election to the U.S. Senate?

It marks another milestone in the ongoing civil rights struggle. [He’s] the inheritor of the King legacy as the minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church. And his election is truly historic in that he's the first Black elected Senator in history from the state of Georgia — and the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the former Confederacy. He also brings the Black church with him in the tradition of the ministers who served during reconstruction. Three African-American members of Congress were ministers and 243 African-American office-holders, overall, were also ministers during reconstruction.

What are your thoughts on Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s equally historic election?

I'm ecstatic over Kamala Harris’s election! She's a proud HBCU graduate and the first woman vice president and the first Black and Indian vice president. She was born in October 1964, just a few months before the Selma marches. Her election as the first woman of color to be vice president means that Black women, so long held down by the glass ceilings of racism and gender discrimination, can aspire to hold one of the most powerful offices in the entire world.

A horse-drawn carriage carrying the body of civil rights icon, former US Rep. John Lewis, crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge as it prepares to pass members of his family on July 26, 2020 in Selma, Ala. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
A horse-drawn carriage carrying the body of civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 26, 2020, in Selma, Ala. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The fact that she enters office after the shameful, racist administration of Donald Trump is symbolic of the country's potential to right the wrongs of the past, as well as the present. But we still have a long way to go.

There’s been much discussion over changing the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Thoughts?

The final way to honor the memory of John Lewis and his fellow activists who were beaten so badly on Bloody Sunday would be to change the name … to the Congressman John Lewis Bridge.

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