Like many who spend a lot of hours behind the wheel, I am addicted to audiobooks. The week before Easter, I was invited to give a reading from MARRIAGE AND OTHER ACTS OF CHARITY at the library in Rockport, Massachusetts, so I found myself driving down the Maine Turnpike listening to the third volume of historian Taylor Branch’s spectacular trilogy on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. The first is called PARTING THE WATERS, the second, PILLAR OF FIRE and the one I was listening to was AT CANAAN’S EDGE, and it was gripping stuff. (Highly, highly recommended!) The courage, tenacity and patriotism demonstrated by both leaders and rank-and file members of the civil rights movement during the long years when there was neither support nor basic protection available from any source, and no recourse—n0ne!—when brutal and lethal violence was directed at black Americans and the whites who joined them in the struggle…It was so moving that I had to turn off the CD player at intervals, to give myself time to recover.
I had just finished listening to the story of the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery. I’d forgotten (if I’d ever really known it) that there were several attempts to make the trek. On Sunday, March 7th, 1965 six hundred marchers of all ages, virtually all of them black, assembled themselves into a long and tidy line and set off from Selma, Alabama, intending to arrive at the state capital in Montgomery and either register to vote, or offer a non-violent witness to the fact of their disenfranchisement. The marchers were met by a wall of State Troopers who, with local police officers and a large number of white civilians, attacked them with tear gas and nightsticks and drove the unarmed, helpless marchers back across the bridge in a nightmarish orgy of violence and fear. Fleeing citizens were beaten and gassed, officers on horseback ran them down or chased them literally through the front doors of their own homes. Fifty six of the wounded eventually ending up crowding the only hospital in Selma that would accept them as patients, while others were treated in makeshift field hospitals in churches. This was the occasion on which John Lewis, later a congressman, had his skull fractured by a State Trooper’s nightstick—and as the widow of a Maine State Trooper, and a law enforcement chaplain, it is painful to bend my mind around the idea of evil wearing a badge.
The event made for a terrible, compelling news story at the time, and it loses none of its power in the re-telling, even some forty- five years later.
So I had just turned off the CD player to recover a bit when my eye was caught by a number of strange, black shapes in the sky. At first, I couldn’t imagine what they were. As they came nearer, the shapes resolved into large, military helicopters—six or seven of them, flying fairly low above the trees and moving steadily in formation toward me. Helicopters?
My mind wrenched itself with some difficulty away from the broken bones of the Selma marchers and the mortal souls of those Alabama troopers. I contemplated this strange and perhaps meancing oddity. I could hear the whupwhupwhup of the rotors. “What the heck are six large military helicopters doing, flying up the Turnpike?” I asked aloud, and then suddenly I remembered: It was the president. Of course! They had said, on the news, that he would be visiting Maine to give a speech. Relieved, and eager to be welcoming, I flashed my headlights and honked as the helicopters thundered through the early spring sky above my head.
In a few days, it would be Easter, which happened to fall, this year, on April 4th, which was also the anniversary of the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered by a white racist. Christian ministers in Maine would note the anniversary during their services, although none would allow this to be the major theme of the morning. There were stones to be rolled from the mouths of tombs, miracles to be remembered: “HE IS RISEN,”declared the marquees outside the churches, with the grammar peculiar to Christianity at Easter time, and those of us who gave up sweets for Lent could celebrate by stuffing ourselves with jellybeans and marshmallow chicks.
You want to know what is really incredible about those people—all of them, from Martin Luther King to an eight year old girl— who set off down the highway on their way to Montgomery? After the crushing, terrifying violence of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7th…two days later, they tried it again.
Crazy! Righteous, yes, and beautiful in their courage, but they had to have been absolutely nuts to risk themselves that way, to have such faith in…well, in America. In us.
Barack Obama and I were pre-schoolers—three or four, say— on March 7th, 1965. On April 1, 2010 (Yo! April Fools! says God) I was a forty-seven year old woman, thinking about Selma with tears in my eyes, and he was the President of the United States, flying just above the promised land.