ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - Some have been asking whether the unrest in Ferguson is the new Selma ever since the movie hit theatres late last year. Granted, the question is a little glib. But, asking it can generate some very insightful responses. Especially if you ask the question in Selma.
Fox 2's Paul Schankman packed up a video camera and drove to that small Alabama town to talk with people who participated in the civil rights movement then. He wants to know what they think Ferguson might mean to the civil rights movement now.
Traveling the stretch of U.S. highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery, the same path the marchers marched, you can almost still hear their voices on the wind.
On March 21st, 1965 3,200 demonstrators left Selma, crossing over the Alabama river and headed for the state capital of Montgomery 54 miles away. Their cause was simple, bring an end to the roadblocks that made voter registration almost impossible for African Americans living in the deep south.
The march was inspired by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a voting rights protester, killed a few weeks earlier by an Alabama State Trooper. But, the marchers` first attempt ended in disaster.
For the people of Selma, the Edmund Pettus bridge was their West Florissant Avenue and what happened to them, on what became known as bloody Sunday, stirred the nation. On that day, March 7th, 600 protesters left from Brown Chapel and crossed the bridge.
They were stopped by state troopers who ordered them to turn around.
The marchers refused. The angry troopers plunged into the crowd attacking the marchers with billy clubs and cattle prods. It would become known as Bloody Sunday.
"Tear gas had begun to burst in the air and people had begun to be beaten down to the ground, dogs and horses had begun to push their way into the crowd just trampling over people as if they weren't human beings." said Sheyann Webb-Christburg.
Sheyann Webb-Christburg was the youngest protester caught in the chaos of Bloody Sunday. She was only eight years old. Reverend Hosea Williams came to Sheyanne`s rescue.
"As he picked me up my little legs were still galloping in is arms and I turned to him and said in my own childish voice put me down because you are not running fast enough." said Sheyann Webb-Christburg.
When pictures from the Bloody Sunday attack were broadcast that night on network television it caused a national sensation. Just as the images from Ferguson would do 50 years later. While the intensity of the police response in Ferguson was different from Selma they shared some of the same terrible optics.
Activists in Selma had been organizing voting rights protests even before Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed. The first demonstrations in Ferguson were spontaneous and relied on the galvanizing power of social media to take the place of a high profile leader.
Sister Mary Antona Ebo was one of six Catholic nuns from St. Louis who flew to Selma two days after Bloody Sunday to offer the marchers moral support. Sister Ebo still lives in St. Louis. Even though she is about to turn 91 she made sure to arrange a ride to Ferguson to lend her support.
"I`m not too sure that the governor`s group is going to be the answer, I am not too sure that people on the streets of Ferguson will be the answer but somewhere somehow some time has to be taken to listen to one another. We are not listening to each other." said Sister Ebo.
Maalik Shakoor, 19, lives in north St. Louis and spent a lot of time on the front lines in Ferguson. But, in 2012 he also made a pilgrimage to Selma through a St. Louis based program called cultural leadership. The trip included a symbolic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"Selma, there was physical barriers set in law that we wanted to fight and now it is more or moral barriers that we want to fight, we want to change the way black people are viewed and perceived in society which is definitely a harder and more philosophical battle to do." said Shakoor.
In 1965 Charles Mauldin was the head of the local student union. It was one Of the groups pushing for voting rights long before Dr. King led the march from Selma to Montgomery.
"That has always been a generational rift between the young and the older. The young folks are less patient, the old folks have a little bit more wisdom and that conflict, that tension works out in almost every social movement (umm) I see it working out in Ferguson." said Mauldin.
"We as the younger generation want things to change now. We have been fighting the same battle since slavery and we feel we have seen very, very subtle progress. But, it is not the progress we want. We still know there is a disparity between black and white and we are sick and fed up with it." said Maalik Shakoor.
The activists in Selma had been organizing voting rights protests even before Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed. The first demonstrations in Ferguson were spontaneous and relied on the galvanizing power of social media to take the place of a high profile leader.
"I don`t think Ferguson is the next Selma but I think it is part of the sparks that will make the next Selma," said Charles Mauldin. "We all realized that the movement was bigger than any of us individually and that is a lesson for Ferguson. It has the opportunity to be the next Selma for the modern times if it handles its politics well, and that means a lot of patience and even sometimes suffering and I know that is not an easy thing to tell people to do but we did it, and we won."
The journey from St. Louis to Selma and the underlying issues that have changed very little.
Some might think Selma would to try to run from its troubled history. But, today the town sells and celebrates the tumultuous events that made Selma a turning point in the civil rights movement.
The marchers in Selma accomplished their immediate goal. Five months after the march congress passed the Voting Rights Act. But, 50 years later in places like Selma and Ferguson many of the underlying issues have changed very little.
Fifty years after Bloody Sunday life in Selma is for many residents still a grinding struggle. Since 1965 the city`s population has dropped by about a third. Many businesses have long been out of business.
As in most small southern towns there are pockets of old world gentility. But, more than forty percent of the people who live in Selma do so in poverty. Lurking below all that Spanish moss in the city`s oldest cemetery there are ever-present reminders of a past not old enough to be considered ancient history.
"Selma has done more for the world than it has done for itself." said Selma`s former mayor James Perkins Jr.
Selma is trying to burnish its image, especially with the world looking in again next month, as the city marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march.
Then, of course, there`s the movie, sharing Selma`s history with a new generation. But, what is the takeaway for places like Ferguson from a place like Selma? Former Mayor James Perkins Junior Believes one answer is the power of the vote. He should know. He was Selma`s first black mayor.
"If you don`t vote, you typically don`t count in government. I think if Ferguson really wants to change its paradigm, its dynamic, the people are going to have to equate what happens to them on the street to what happens when they don`t go to the polls and vote." said Selma`s former mayor James Perkins Jr.
"It takes tilling the soil to get a good crop." said Charles Mauldin.
Mauldin knows to those fighting for social change it can be hard waiting for the harvest. But, he also knows what its like when the harvest comes in. His mother, Ardies Wellington Mauldin was the first person to register on the first day the new federal voting rights law went into effect.
A copy of her registration form was cast in silver and attached to the pen holder on Lyndon Johnson`S desk in the White House. But, Charles Mauldin says what happened in Selma was about more than voting rights. It was about empowerment.
"Nothing ever remains permanent. You have to struggle for it all the time." said Charles Mauldin.
What happened in Selma and what happened in Ferguson are largely viewed as an issue of white versus black. But, it`s also about daylight versus the darkness.
The concerns raised by Ferguson and the lessons taught by Selma. Though different in many of the details are bringing the issues that have long lingered in the shadows back into the sunshine.
Whether we discuss them or dismiss them many hard truths remain and until they are resolved. Can we say that old bridge in Selma has really been crossed?
"When you are 90, you keep wondering what is going to happen around the next corner and that is what I keep thinking. I can`t come home now God because I`ve got to see what is going to happen around this next corner." said Sister Ebo.
Alvery Williams is a community activist and Reverend Rodney Francis is the pastor of Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. FOX 2's Shirley Washington sits down to ask them about the similarities and differences between the events in Selma and Ferguson.
The march marches on as Selma marks the 50th anniversary of those historic protests. President Obama will be speaking at the bridge in Selma on the weekend of March 6th. There will also be a ceremonial crossing of the bridge open to the public.
The Urban League is taking buses to Selma for the anniversary.