Many Bridges Yet to Cross

The wind gently pushed my hair back and forth, as I adjusted my skirt for what seemed like the millionth time. With a swarm of reporters and photographers buzzing about, I was exceptionally aware of my outward appearance.

Small hands gripped tightly to my right and left, we began to walk slowly, then faster, then slower once more attempting to readjust our line, making it straight as an arrow piercing through the sky.

A line that stretched from each end of the bridge, we marched forward uncertain of what was ahead.

I squinted my eyes upward to read the sign, Edmund Pettus Bridge, just as it did 50 years ago. My feet continued to somehow make sense of one another as images of women, men, and even children being battered, sprayed with tear gas, and chased away by dogs plagued my thoughts.

I let out controlled gusts of air trying to regulate my breathing , while I  continued to sing out , “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around..”

This weekend I had the opportunity of a lifetime. While hand in hand with both my MBUSAM sister queens and the children of Selma, Alabama, I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. An opportunity 50 years ago would not be possible for many whom looked like me.

Upon my return to Nebraska on Monday, March 9th it took me quite some time to gather my thoughts to create this post. I truly can’t put all of the emotions I felt on that day into words, it’s complicated (for a lack of better words) . 

Never in my life have I felt excited, scared, proud, humbled, happy and sad all while an eery feeling lingered in the air. I’ve had several friends and family members ask me to expound on my experience, and regretfully, I am at a loss for words.

Prior to my experience in Selma, I went to the premiere of the film Selma, at a small theater in Lincoln, Nebraska. Interestingly enough the amount of people in the theater could barely fill two rows, yet I was moved immensely despite. After the credits rolled, I sat there motionless with tears streaming down my face, the film captured a part of history, visually, that I have never seen. Although, I learned about the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s peaceful protests in school, I wasn’t familiar with the brutality and violence that were a part of such.

History is an interesting thing within our society (American), our educational systems and school boards can essentially pick and choose what they want you to know, and on the contrary what they don’t want you to know.

It’s troubling to me that up until college, I knew absolutely nothing of Bloody Sunday, the tragic events that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the countless leaders that marched alongside Dr. King. For so many years I was missing a key piece of history that shapes who we are and moreover the rights we have today.

From that evening on, I wanted to learn more about Selma and what steps were taken prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1964, from both the president and blacks/AA .

A few days after viewing the film I tweeted on my personal Twitter account, “Something is telling me that I need to go to Selma, AL..” My desire to go to Selma was soon placed on the back burner with school, working two jobs, and pageant preparations consuming most of my time.

I told myself,”maybe another time.”

I redirected my focus, I went to two additional viewings of the film along with a panel discussion regarding Selma and the black/AA vote in Nebraska. Northern Omaha, has one of the lowest voter turn out rates in the entire state of Nebraska, additionally Northern Omaha is home to the largest amount of minorities within the state. See the problem here? I began to conduct research about what is needed to vote in the state of Nebraska (identification), where citizens can go to get registered to vote, what an absentee ballot is/whom can obtain one, how to vote via mail, and how to promote the importance of voting to teens.

When I talked to teenagers and even young adults my age they expressed to me that they didn’t think voting was important because their vote, “Didn’t matter” Till this day, I am stumped on how we can get more young adults to the voting booths (and not just every four years for presidential elections). Local elections are so very important, as often time our local officials will be voting on decisions that will impact citizens directly, mostly recently in Nebraska, the raise of minimum wage and steps toward legalization of gay marriage.

Shortly after basically giving up on the idea of traveling to Selma this year, an opportunity was presented to me to travel with the MBUSAM team and some of my fellow sister queens. Additionally, I was financially able to do so, thanks to generous sponsorship donations via my community, family, and friends. Overjoyed, I had absolutely no idea that over the course of five days I would experience so much in Alabama. As preluded to in my introduction, I was able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, be in Tabernacle Baptist Church, and hear personal accounts of those who walked across the bridge at a very young age. I was able to meet so many influential leaders, such as Rev. Jesse, Al Sharpton, Jackson, John Lewis, Danny Glover, the King Family, state senators, and various leaders from around the country.

Although the days were long, my feet never seemed to stop swelling, and we were running on 4-5 hours of sleep each day, it was an phenomenal experience, and one that I will cherish and share with others for many many years down the road. Part of the experience were the conversations that I was able to have with others during my time there.

From serving as agents of change, being leaders for African American youth, and how we can carry on the torch towards equality for all, I was challenged to think both about what I can do for my community and what all of the fearless leaders whom came before me really mean. Naturally a more quiet person, I was able to sit, listen, and absorb so much knowledge while I was there, that I feel even more confident as a leader and agent of change within my community.

Physically back in Nebraska, Selma is still heavy in my heart. From the feeling of walking over the bridge, to hearing moving stories from the sixty something year old woman who still has scars from the police beating her 50 years ago. My mind is like CD that is on a continuous loop, over and over I see, hear, and feel.

What I can make sense of in the overwhelming emotions inside, is that we still have much work to do. We all have our own Edmund Pettus Bridge to cross, and that’s a challenge that won’t be conquered alone. Whether it’s increasing the black vote in my home state, breaking down the negative images of black women in the media, or preparing myself to be a leader on an even larger platform. I will close with a portion of the powerful, amazing, and oh so inspiring speech that President Obama gave on Bloody Sunday.

“For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character. We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be. We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights. We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge. We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told. We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom. We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway. We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.” We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow. Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.” – President Obama.

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As always,

Devin J

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