This past weekend, I was fortunate to attend events commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, an event that helped propel the issue of civil rights into the minds of millions of Americans. As I visited the Edmund Pettus Bridge and saw where heroes such as future Congressman John Lewis were beaten and bloodied, the historical significance that I would be hearing from our first African-American President later that day and how we must continue to march for voting rights did not escape me.
I invited Jack Clarke Jr. as my guest, the son of the first African-American member of the Riverside City Council. Jack’s mother is from Alabama and experienced first-hand the brutality of living in the South during the time of Jim Crow, something he relayed to me and other attendees in Selma. A longtime local leader in his own right, Jack has fought for equal rights and social justice in our community for years and I was honored to have him as my guest.
Throughout the weekend, I was able to meet with numerous civil rights icons such as Dorothy Cotton, who was the Educational Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Bob Zellner, a white civil rights activist who came from a long line of Ku Klux Klan members, Charles Neblett, a freedom rider, member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and founder of The Freedom Singers, and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who poignantly talked about how she answered her young son’s question about why his grandfather was ‘so bad’ and how Governor Wallace repeatedly asked for forgiveness in his later years. Her willingness to speak frankly filled me with hope and gave me confidence in our future generations ability to overcome hate and treat all people with dignity.
I was also pleased to see that the Asian American community’s contributions to the civil rights movement were not overlooked, as Senator Mazie Hirono and Congressman Mark Takai brought lei’s for marchers. These lei’s served as a reminder of the Asian American community’s solidarity with the civil rights movement, much like the lei’s that Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis wore during the third march to Montgomery in late March 1965 – lei’s that were provided by Reverend Abraham Akaka, the brother of future United States Senator Daniel Akaka. I was also struck by the significance of the Civil Rights Memorial being created by Maya Lin, a Chinese-American artist who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The Asian American community has long worked for civil rights and will continue to work with the African American community in the pursuit of equality.
But perhaps the most moving point in the weekend came from hearing President Obama speak at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, President Obama delivered one of his finest speeches to date saying, ‘Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political and economic and social barriers came down. And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.’
As an openly gay Asian American, I consider myself a beneficiary of these acts. The men and women who marched in Selma exemplified courage, and I am honored to have been a witness to history. While we have made great strides over the last 50 years, there is still much more to do. Like President Obama said, ‘We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won.’
Let’s continue working for equality and justice – for all Americans.