By Sarah Cheshire
We walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge two-by-two, in silence. It is a tranquil Sunday morning—the water rumbles underneath us, the sun has just begun to permeate the thin layer of clouds above, and a gentle breeze ripples the Spanish moss dangling from the trees. In about an hour, the city streets will begin to swell with people, mingling and filing into the churches. But now, the sounds of the city are gentle and muted. It is hard to believe that 46 years ago, at this spot, on a Sunday like today, rows of silent marchers were confronted by uniformed men on horseback, flaunting clubs and bearing teargas.
When the only human sounds I hear are the cars purring past and the thud-thud-thud of our footfalls, hitting the pavement almost in unison, itʼs hard to imagine the cries of the marchers as they retreated into the sanctuary of the church, bruised and battered and bloodied.
Last night, I was talking to an elderly woman while waiting in line for the bathroom at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where in May of 1961, a mob of angry klansmen threatened a group of peacefully assembled church goers and Freedom Riders. The womanʼs husband was in the church that night. She was at home down the street with their newborn baby. “I thought I was gonna lose him right then and there,” the woman said of her husband. “Iʼll tell you, I was so scared.”
Being at First Baptist on a blue-skied day, laughing and conversing with friends from every background, nationality, and cultural context, itʼs hard to imagine that kind of fear.
At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in a dimly lit room containing the carcass of a greyhound bus and footage of the original Freedom Riders, I see an interview with Jim Zwerg, the Freedom Rider who, in that city in 1961, volunteered to be the first to step off of the bus in and into the hands of an irate mob. In the video, he is lying on a hospital bed, his face gaunt against the white pillow, bearing the marks of a brutal beating. I look behind me and see the real Jim Zwerg, who has joined us for the day.
“Were you afraid?” I ask him. “No,” he says, “no. I knew I was going to die.”
When my own fights have been subtle, and my actions removed from the immediacy of the issues at stake, itʼs hard to imagine this kind of courage.
There is an aura of peace to these places— the churches we visit, the bridges we cross, the back roads we travel down. At the surface, all seems to be at rest. The beatings, the slurs, the fear, the courage, seem unfathomable, like they occurred at a time and a place so detached from the present. But if I listen hard enough, I can hear whispers of the past— faint, like a gust of wind or a muted footfall.
At the 16th Street Baptist Church, where 43 years ago, on a Sunday like today, a klan bomb killed four young girls as they were changing in the bathroom for service, we listen as the Carleton Reese Memorial Unity Choir sings songs about freedom, clapping their hands together and swaying back and forth.
Carved into the base of the offering table, I notice the strong yet subtle words:
This do in remembrance of me.