By Judy Zacek
On March 7, 2015, the U.S. observed the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” when citizens in Selma, Alabama, began what they intended as a peaceful 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capital, to press for removal of Jim Crow laws and practices that had deprived them of their legitimate right to vote.
As the marchers started to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, they were met by a wall of state troopers and a Dallas County posse, who proceeded to attack the unarmed men, women and children. People were beaten, trampled by horses, and left lying on the bridge.
Photos of the vicious attack appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world, and CBS interrupted the broadcast of the film “Judgment at Nuremburg” to air a live report of what was taking place. The ironic juxtaposition of a film about the horrors of Nazism and the live report of the horrors of racism was clear and helped awaken our nation to the need for action.
In the days that followed, President Lyndon B. Johnson called on Congress to pass a strong Voting Rights Act, and Congress – in a bipartisan move – responded. Hundreds of thousands of previously disenfranchised African-Americans were able to register, vote, run for office and enjoy the same civil rights as their fellow citizens.
As the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” approached, the call went out for people concerned about issues such as voter suppression to come back to Selma, so along with thousands of others I spent the weekend of March 5-8, 2015 in Alabama. I was privileged to meet veterans of the 1965 Voting Rights Campaign, to visit some of the landmarks of that struggle not only in Selma but also in Montgomery and Birmingham, and to hear eloquent speeches by political leaders and sermons by inspirational clergy of several faiths. While honoring those heroic markers of 1965, they also delivered an important message: our work is not yet done. Indeed, with voting rights under attack as never before, we as a nation need to renew our commitment to assuring that all are treated equally and fairly.
Being in Selma reminded me that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often remarked that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that it is widely acknowledged that the civil rights movement led by Dr. King and others inspired the disability rights efforts.
That’s what I call “the Selma connection” to the work of The Arc. The specific focus may differ, but both movements seek to remove barriers to full participation in society. Both are fundamentally social justice movements – and both depend on a commitment to ongoing advocacy to achieve their missions.
There have been many positive advances since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and there have been many remarkable improvements in the lives of people with disabilities and their families since The Arc movement began in the 1950’s. Those accomplishments came about because people of vision and determination were willing to come forward and push legislatures – and society – to do what was right.
In the year ahead, The Arc of Massachusetts will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding. This anniversary will provide an opportunity to look back over six decades and honor those whose vision, energy and support have brought about so many improvements in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It will also foster an awareness of how much more needs to be done.
In the months ahead you’ll be hearing more about The Arc of Massachusetts’ plans for celebrating its 60th anniversary. I hope you will join with us in renewing your commitment to improving the lives of those we serve.