You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Was Being Sold in Selma

Honoring civil rights legends and hawking political agendas

Saul Loeb/AFP

“It’s not a true black celebration until somebody is selling Shea Butter,” read a tweet sent Sunday afternoon from Hiram College professor Jason Johnson, accompanied by a picture of a vendor’s stand and hashtagged with #Selma50, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights demonstrations.

He’s right. I can’t think of too many carnivals, parades, or outdoor concert events that attract a primarily black audience at which I couldn’t find a vendor selling oils, soaps, or similarly aromatic methods of helping us avoid ashy skin. But even as I watched from afar as thousands commemorated the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protest, I could see that the man hawking shea butter in Selma had plenty of company, including President Obama and Republican Senator Tim Scott. 

Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the president gave a speech that resembled a more straightforward and unvarnished edition of his famed “A More Perfect Union” speech from his first White House campaign. Now, as then, he was selling change, this time to a Congressional delegation in town to honor the 1965 activists. Obama delivered a relatively hard sell to them, imploring them to go back to Washington and get their colleagues to revive the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was critically injured by the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling two years ago. He called them out with more poetic language than they probably merited:

Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.

The thing is, there isn’t much “partisan rancor.” Outside of scoring some cable-news points, Republican House members who are safely ensconced in gerrymandered districts have little motivation to respond to the president’s pleas. Two years after the Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, they have barely lifted a finger to do what that decision allowed them to do: draw up new rules based upon the “new” racial conditions in states governed by the VRA. As we’ve seen, Republican congressmen appear content to stand aside, allowing their states to continue blocking access to the polls for those unlikely to vote GOP. 

I was largely pleased with Obama’s remarks, but I was disappointed with his demand that we ask Rep. John Lewis—who had his skull cracked 50 years ago Saturday by police during the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965—whether things have changed since then. It felt like a rebuke to the activists hoping for more change. 

Other politicians, like Congressional Republicans Jeff Sessions and Rob Portman, worked the media in Selma this weekend, largely uttering generalities about honoring voting rights activists from 1965 while largely avoiding questions about the weakened state of voting rights in 2015. Senator Scott, though, really went for it. He tried to sell the public on a politics without racial conflict—one that Republicans had an inordinate role in creating. 

Initially Scott, the first black U.S. Senator elected in the South since Reconstruction and the honorary co-chairman of the delegation in Selma, seemed like he wanted everyone to not make a mess. “We ought to have an experience that brings people together and not make it into a political conversation,” he said. Making a weekend honoring voting-rights activists not about the political history of voting rights is odd and self-serving, particularly from a Republican like Scott who has supported the kind of restrictive voter-ID laws the president noted as damaging in his address.

Scott likely sensed that. That’s why, in comments to TIME this weekend, he tried to pin a medal on the GOP for civil rights victories. “If you look back at the Sixties at who supported the Civil Rights legislation, it was Republicans more so than Democrats. The history of racial equality has included both parties consistently,” Scott remarked. “What we’ve done, to sully it sometimes, is to try to put it into a partisan politics prism so as to spew venom towards one side, so we will stigmatize one party as being more racially accepting than another.”

But Scott’s defensiveness reveals his disingenuousness. America’s harsh racial realities are now in our faces more and more often. Just recently: Ferguson’s financial apartheid, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers at the University of Oklahoma singing that “there will never be a nigger” in their frat, and the Friday night shooting death of unarmed black man Tony Robinson at the hands of Madison, Wisconsin police. We pay more attention to voter suppression and to other forms of systematic discrimination. That means people like Scott, who are working diligently to hold us back, are easier to spot. Perhaps that’s why he’s upset.

Folks today are happy to be racist or to restrict racial progress so long as no one ever deems them personally racist or intolerant. Today’s politician can stand in the way of racial progress to win the favor of a constituency or to enact his own personal dogma, as Scott and other members of his party have done for some time now. But infer in any way that they are bigots—or, just as importantly, serve the aims of bigots—and the gloves drop. Obama should test their resolve. As a second-term president, he is transitioning to campaign surrogate. He and fellow Democrats need to loosen their restrictions and talk about race—and Republicans’ transgressions—as frankly as the rest of us.

Depending upon one’s point of view and political aims, the pageantry of this weekend’s ceremonies in Alabama could have led one to mistake protest for parade. In moments in which Americans are celebratory or memorial—or, as in the case of Selma, both—we often fall into the convenient escape of metaphor and emotion, overridden by our consuming national appetite for symbolism and sentiment. The insult Scott delivered to our collective intelligence was exacerbated by his presence and role in Selma’s commemoration. 

But going forward, whether or not we think of it as a tribute to the Selma protesters, we shouldn’t buy the rhetoric of anyone who prioritizes their own sensitivities and insecurity about being deemed racist over the reality of racial discrimination itself. We should be past that by now. This weekend reminded us that we know better.