Perhaps it was appropriate that the Bridge of Discomfort bore the name of a tormentor and oppressor, a man whose life’s work was to institutionalize discrimination, hatred, and injustice. His name, Edmund Pettus, mocked them in block letters printed across the bridge truss.
Between where we are and where we want to be, there is always a Bridge of Discomfort. Crossing it takes discipline, fortitude, and sacrifice.
This is true in the literal sense, like when the civil rights activists strove for equal justice, respect, and opportunity by crossing that bridge in Selma. And, while we can’t compare our struggles with what they endured, it can be true in a figurative sense, like when we strive for better health, education, or financial security. In either case, crossing to the other side involves discomfort.
Selma, Alabama 1965
The 600 peaceful protestors, led by the late Congressman George Lewis, then a 25 year old young man, quietly sang hymns and chanted “Aaaamen, aaaaaamen”, as they crossed. From the crest, they could see a formidable phalanx assembled to confront them. Alabama State Troopers in riot gear were drawn up in ranks and files across the highway, supported with a cavalry-like troop of mounted sheriff’s deputies. Expecting violence, a crowd of spectators also gathered and heckled the marchers.
Lewis and the long column of his non-violent followers accordioned to a halt at the foot of the bridge. Ordered to disperse, they stood their ground. A news camera rolled.
The troopers advanced with riot sticks, and, reaching the marchers, began shoving. Within a heartbeat it was mayhem. The sticks slashed down and cracked skulls. Knocked to the ground, hands held up to shield themselves from the blows, marchers were tumbled and trampled. Horses charging forward, a yellow cloud of choking tear gas, courageous marchers rushing back, braving the slashing sticks to carry away their injured friends. Chaos and carnage. Horrific images. The camera rolled.
Images jar the nation
Later that night, those images jolted America when a special news bulletin interrupted their evening while they were glued to a star studded drama about the Nazi’s bigotry and hatred called Judgment at Nuremberg. Irony.
That footage galvanized the nation. Before the month was out, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led another march from Selma. This one made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge, and all the way to the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery. Along the way, the crowd grew to more than 25,000 marchers, of every race, creed, and nationality.
Five months later, in August of 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his next address to Congress, he used Dr. King’s own words, “we shall overcome.”
Overcome they did.
Let’s draw inspiration from the courage and commitment of those who crossed that Bridge of Discomfort in Selma in 1965. It’s true that the pursuit of anything that is worthy and noble will involve an uncomfortable crossing. But, with discipline, fortitude, and sacrifice, perhaps we too can overcome.
And as we go about our daily struggles, perhaps we can pause and reflect on what those intrepid souls in Selma had to endure and overcome to cross to a better future. And then, in awestruck gratitude, celebrate and honor the remarkable fortitude and sacrifice they demonstrated on that horrible day in 1965.