What I Learned from Marching

By Colleen Ross
April 07, 2015

If your March was anything like mine, it was filled with stories, pictures, and news coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. It seemed everyone who is anyone traveled to Selma on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and took their photo walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I read all the articles paying tribute to the leaders of the civil rights movement in the New York Times. I watched Congressman John Lewis introduce President Obama and embrace him in front of a cheering crowd via webcam from my apartment in Washington, DC. I thought I had adequately honored the memory of the pivotal civil rights campaign.

I was unsure, therefore, exactly what I was doing when I boarded my own flight to Alabama on March 20 to participate in a commemoration of the march, organized by the National Park Service. While I was excited to visit the legendary sites and walk the path of my heroes, I worried that our time and resources were being misspent. As a young person mindful of the various and intersecting social justice struggles of our time, I was concerned that the other marchers and I would only look into the past and congratulate ourselves and our country on how far we‘ve come without acknowledging the injustice that persists today. Additionally, since the commemoration was sponsored by a government agency I expected a sanitized, feel-good version of history that ended with “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Checking into the campsite was my first indication of how the next five days would go. I knew that we were camping in tents, but when I arrived I learned that we would be sleeping on the site of a real “tent city.” This was land where black families had lived in tents, sometimes for years, after being evicted by white landlords in retaliation for their participation in the Selma voter registration campaign. The message was well received: this experience would not just be about the march, but also about the aftermath, including the problems that persist today. And while we spent our days learning about the Selma voter registration campaign and walking the route of the 1965 march, we spent our nights discussing ways to challenge the military-industrial complex, economic inequality, and racial injustice in our communities today.

Over the course of the many miles we walked, I talked to: high school students from Ferguson, Missouri; the editor of a new magazine about progressive politics in the South; a community organizer from Pennsylvania working with high-school students to advocate for statewide nondiscrimination legislation; and a woman who ran for a seat in the Tennessee state legislature and now is working on Medicaid expansion, among many others. Many people I talked to were educators, and they spoke to me about the purpose they find in their work— shaping our youth to create a more just future. There were grandparents and children under the age of ten. Lifelong activists walked alongside nonpolitical women and men. Everyone had a unique vision of hope for our country. We also met and heard from many of the “foot soldiers” of the original march, who have continued to stand up against racism in our country and challenge us to take action today.

What I learned from marching cannot be summed up in a short conclusion sentence. What I learned from marching was a new way of relating to the world and with one another. I learned an attitude that sees injustice, talks about it, and ultimately takes action; a reaction that asks questions, listens, and learns before acting; a mindset that understands that we are all connected, our struggles for liberation are intertwined; and our ability to build community and collaborate with one another is the only thing that will lead to progress.

I traveled to Alabama to understand and to honor the participation of women and men of faith in the Civil Rights movement, particularly the women religious who were key participants of the march from Selma to Montgomery. What I learned traveling 54 miles was that the march truly does continue today. The principles that led religious sisters to travel to Selma in 1965 are still relevant, and thousands—including the members of the NETWORK community—still hear and respond to the call to love one another and work for justice.