Bernard J. Kleina
Bernard Kleina Photography
Building B, Suite 918
2100 Manchester Road
Wheaton, IL 60187
Three months ago I returned to Selma, Alabama. I was there 50 years ago when
Dr. King crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on his way to Montgomery. I hoped when I returned this time, it would be just me and President Obama, but evidently about 100,000 other people thought the same thing. At least this time I wasn’t arrested.
My photos of the 50th Anniversary of the Bridge Crossing are disappointing. I was in bad shape. Most of the photos were taken from a rented wheelchair or car window.
Here is the way it went down. One old photographer, one wheelchair, one camera, one wide angle lens, one wheelchair pusher, John Petruszak, two who played the role of Moses, parting the sea of people, Sara Pratt and Faith Cooper, and hundreds of good and gentle souls who let us wheel against the wave of people to return to our car.
The old man with the camera remembered how it was 50 years ago in Selma when he answered Dr. King’s call for clergy to support the nonviolent protest movement for Voting Rights in Selma. He remembered how Reverend James Reeb also answered the call just a week before him and was beaten and killed by thugs on the streets of Selma. The old man remembered how a public housing family, living next to the Brown Chapel, welcomed him into their home during his stay there. Maybe this is why he worked for fair and affordable housing for more than 45 years.
The old man with the camera remembered how, each day, he and many others would march in solemn dignity from the Brown Chapel to City Hall demanding that everyone have the right to vote. Invariably, the marchers walked two by two, dressed like they were going to church. In fact, the marches always began and ended at the Brown Chapel. The peaceful nonviolent protests impacted not only Selma, but the entire country. Remembering this and more, he wondered why anyone now would want to take away or diminish our right to vote, which was won over the blood soaked, scarred bodies and tear-drenched eyes of the heroes who fought for civil rights.
When the old man was in Selma for the 50th Anniversary, tears of disappointment
and hopelessness began to melt away. But now back in Chicago, they are frozen again.
He shares the frustration and suffocation written in the words on a T-Shirt he photographed; “We Couldn’t Breathe Either”.
The old man remembered when he was arrested and jailed two days before the march that made it to Montgomery, for just walking in a Selma neighborhood without buttons or signs and with just four other determined protesters. He wishes to this day that he could have photographed Sheriff Jim Clark, State Troopers in riot gear, and the self-appointed, community anointed posse given only a badge and a club, who surrounded him and 150 or so other peaceful freedom fighters. The irony of the police in riot gear was lost on the troopers, but not on the world. Even with all their riot gear, guns, clubs and badges, they were more afraid of us, than we were of them and we were unarmed. Our power over them was as Dr. King said; “in our unity and the force of our souls, and the determination of our bodies”.
Ultimately, Selma was about voting rights. For people of color, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a moat, not a bridge. When black voters went to the polls, they were not only denied their right to vote, they were humiliated by questions asked of them that college professors would be unable to answer.
In 1965, crossing the bridge was more than a symbolic gesture. It was a crossing that ultimately changed the law and maybe even a few hearts along the way. And yet the old man wondered why 93 million eligible voters chose not to exercise this right when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
Everyone in America voting is a sure path, perhaps the only path, to justice. But this is a bridge America still needs to cross.
View photographs: Selma, Past and Present