Lynda Blackmon Lowery wasn’t afraid. At least not in the beginning.
On the morning of March 21, 1965 — the eve of her 15th birthday — Lynda hugged her father tight as she prepared to make history. Not only was she moments away from participating in the Selma to Montgomery march — a 54-mile protest to draw attention to the South’s failure to protect African Americans’ constitutional right to vote — but she was also the youngest of the marchers.
“(My father) told me to be careful, and to mind the adults,” Lynda says while seated across from me at an Eau Claire restaurant 55 years later. “And he told me he loved me, and how proud he was.”
In addition to his love and pride, Lynda’s father was also a little afraid.
Two weeks prior to the march, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, Lynda and nearly 600 others had endured a brutal attack at the hands of Alabama state troopers. Tear gas canisters clattered along Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge as nightsticks began to fly. That day, Lynda escaped with 35 stitches. Yet the physical toll only renewed her commitment to civil rights, no matter the cost.
For three days in late March, Lynda and her fellow demonstrators endured both rain and racial slurs, but at last reached their destination — the Alabama state Capitol. But just because they’d made it there, didn’t mean they still didn’t have a long road ahead to achieve racial equality. A road we’re still traveling today. But now, Lynda explains, a large part of the responsibility to continue that fight belongs to the next generation.
Which was part of the message she’d shared with DeLong Middle School students earlier that day. DeLong, in partnership with Blugold Beginnings, invited Lynda to speak in conjunction with the school’s The Big Read program, which featured Lynda’s book, “Turning 15 On the Road To Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March.” Thanks to Title One funding, every student and staff member at DeLong received a free copy.
The book serves many purposes: to educate, to instruct and to inspire. But if Lynda’s correct that future civil rights battles will be waged by the next generation, then perhaps inspiration is what young people need most. Thankfully, Lynda has no shortage of it.
Though there were any number of reasons to join the march — from voting rights, to the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, to the indignities she and other African Americans faced daily — for Lynda, it all boiled down to a promise she made to herself when she was seven. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Lynda learned that her mother might’ve been saved had she simply received a blood transfusion. Yet the all-white hospital refused to provide “white blood” for an African American patient, a decision that amounted to a death sentence. From that moment on, Lynda committed herself to working nonviolently for change.
As Lynda put one foot in front of the other along that rain-drenched Alabama highway, she marched for her mother, for her grandmother, for her community, and for her state. But at the time, she hadn’t realized that she was also marching for her country.
“I was naïve enough to think that what we was fighting for were the people in Alabama to get the right to vote…” she explains. “I didn’t think about the whole, big picture.”
It was a picture that became much clearer in the days leading up to the march. Eight days after Bloody Sunday’s shocking footage streamed into living rooms throughout the country, President Johnson at last introduced voting rights legislation to a joint session of Congress.
“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America,” he said. Five months later, the legislation was signed into law.
While passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 served as a major win for people of color and the country at-large, as Lynda explains, it also provided a false sense of security.
“For some reason we thought that when we got the right to vote, and then (school) integration, we had arrived,” Lynda says. “We closed our eyes, and while we were closing our eyes, they — meaning the powers that be — was taking another tactic to keep their foot on our neck.”
As examples, she cites school tracking and voter suppression — both issues that have sparked fierce debate in Wisconsin.
The key to fixing these problems, Lynda says, is education.
“You have to educate yourself, and educate others, and be aware of what’s happening. I used to tell people that while they were watching The (Real) Housewives of Atlanta and Honey Boo Boo, the United States government was dismantling affirmative action and cutting up the Voting Rights Act. And we let that happen,” she laments. “We got distracted.”
But there’s hope, she continues, in the next generation, many of whose members carry within them a deep and unrelenting commitment to equality and social justice.
“Look at Greta (Thunberg). Look at the children from (Parkland) … This movement is a movement for humanity now,” Lynda says. “What affects me … affects all of us. And it’s going to be our children that bring this movement round full circle and put unity back into the community and compassion back into the heart.”
If anyone can do it, it’s young people. Perhaps the rest of us ought to follow their lead.
Next Saturday: Patti See says good-bye to her childhood home.