Wednesday, April 4 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s assassination. For the past month, the Alabama Public Radio news team has been examining Dr. King’s work and his impact here in Alabama. You’ve heard a photographer from Montgomery recall documenting King’s work. APR guest reporter Ousmane Sagara shared how people in his nation of Mali remember Dr. King. You also heard about the house where King hid from white supremacists, just days before his assassination. Now APR’s Alex AuBuchon reports on another place in Alabama closely connected to Dr. King, and how his influence is being felt by a new generation…
“It was a day I will never forget. I will never forget that day and the beating that I took that day.”
We met Theresa Burroughs earlier in our series. She owns the safe house where King hid from armed Klansmen in March of 1968, and that wasn't her first brush with the civil rights movement.
On March 7, 1965, Burroughs and around 600 more civil rights activists, most of them black, marched from Brown Chapel in Selma hoping to reach Montgomery. They wanted to protest measures aimed at preventing African-Americans from voting. They were met on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police batons and tear gas.
“You know, we were just knocked everywhere. They just beat the hell out of us, I tell you.”
That day became known as Bloody Sunday. And every year, civil rights advocates gather in Selma to retrace those marchers’ steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and remember their sacrifice.
The bridge is often the focal point of Bloody Sunday. But just a mile and a half away, there’s another monument to the fight for voting rights.
“This is the house where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived as he planned the Selma to Montgomery march.”
The house is Jawana Jackson’s family home, which has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-1960s. It essentially became the headquarters for the civil rights movement.
“And, of course, our lives changed drastically, from a house that had a mother and a father and a little girl, almost overnight became a house where the world came in.”
Jawana was about five at the time.
“And I wish I had been just a little older to understand the gravity – to understand the historical significance. To the world he was Martin Luther King, Jr. To me, he was Uncle Martin.”
Jawana runs the Jackson House as a museum and foundation. And it’s filled with artifacts from the era:
“Of the beds in this house, of course Uncle Martin slept in every one, and over the years my mother, for practical purposes, bought new mattresses and box springs. But this is the original mattress and box spring that was on the bed when he was here.”
Photos of King and countless other historical figures fill the walls of Jackson House.
“This is the room in which Dr. King and his lieutenants booted up the morning of the second march.”
And then there’s the spot where King saw all this effort pay off.
"...because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right."
“The museum contains the very chair, the very television that Dr. King was sitting in the night that President Johnson announced that he would indeed sign the Voting Rights Act, which he did several months later in August of 1965.”
“You hear so much about the march, but not what went on behind the scenes,”
That’s Elisia George. She’s part of a student group from Trinity Washington University touring the Jackson House.
“And just to be able to be here and experience and feel the spirit of the people who planned it, and what they probably had to endure, and the changes their decisions made in this place, was very impactful for us.”
George is African-American and came to the US from the Caribbean as a child. She is a DACA recipient and she says there are parallels between the 60s and today’s debates over immigration.
“In a country that's supposed to be the home of the free, people are still not free. They weren't free back then because of the color of their skin, and now they're not free because somebody has made a decision that they didn't make, and they're being punished for it. And I believe that, just as Dr. Martin Luther King and the others stood up for the rights of African-Americans to be able to vote and be a people, that God is going to raise somebody to stand up for these young people, that they too can be free to live in this country, that's supposed to be the home of the free.”
Theresa Burroughs says she hates to see young people of color taking their right to vote for granted—especially considering what she and others went through.
“Somebody cried for them, and somebody died for them, and didn’t even know their name. And yet they won’t go and vote.”
Burroughs may have reason to be concerned. Attendance for this year's bridge crossing jubilee was down sharply compared to 2015. That was the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday", which drew huge crowds. However, young people like Elisia George seem to be recognizing Burroughs' sacrifice, and her call to action may be getting through.