History and heroes: Chicago’s mark on Selma

The film Selma shows the struggles civil rights leaders endured, to push for a law that would put an end to discrimination at the polling place, now known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

An while the small town in Alabama is a long way from Chicago, our city has several real-life connections to the march that inspired the movie.

Former Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman, at the tender age of 16,  joined the Civil Rights movement as a field organizer. Tillman was among the 600 who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest blacks being denied the right to vote.

Demonstrators were met by an army of state and local police armed with tear gas, batons, and men mounted on horses. Tillman, like others, was beaten and forced to retreat.

“Their Billy clubs were not like night sticks,” Tillman says.  “It was like steel.  Like a piece of steel with a rubber on it.  And they had some other thing they’d stick you with, that they would brand animals with.”

The next day, Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr. spoke before a packed-house at Selma’s Brown Chapel and encouraged the distraught to press forward.
King’s words, paired with images from Bloody Sunday, spurred thousands like then 24-year-old Paul Adams to action.  The Chicago resident made his way back to his home state to join Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in another attempt across the bridge.

Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, Dr. King would lead a successful 54 mile, five day trek from Selma to Montgomery.

“I don’t think the walking was the problem,” Adams says.  “The problem was would you make it? Would somebody come by and blow your head off? I think that probably the second tensest time for me was in Lyons County which was notorious for black people folks disappearing.”

President Lyndon Johnson mobilized the National Guard to protect more than 25,000 who made it to Montgomery.

The marches set the stage for dynamic change.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed congress less than five months later ending obstacles for blacks trying to vote.

“We stand on the shoulders of a lot of people and I think it’s our responsibility to push the next generation to the next level,” Adams says.

This stretch of history is revived in the movie Selma,  a project featuring Chicago’s Queen of Talk Oprah Winfrey and Chicago’s Very Own rapper Common.

“We come from a tradition of people, not just black people, people that have fought for our freedom and we have that in us,” Common says.

“We were just trying to create a piece of work that raised the consciousness so that people could see the light in our history,” Oprah says.

Far from the turmoil that put it on the map, today Selma is a quiet town. So small, it doesn’t even have a movie theatre. Many businesses and homes are shuttered  and it seems all that’s left are remnants of history.

But on March 7th of this year, thousands will gather in Selma to mark Bloody Sunday during its Golden Jubilee March. It’s a celebration that attracts civil rights leaders,  politicans, and movie stars—all hoping to pay homage to those who sacrificed 50 years ago.

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