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Keeping Her Eyes on The Road From Selma
Published on Friday, August 22, 2003 by the Washington Post
Keeping Her Eyes on The Road From Selma
March Organizer's Focus Remains Even as Movement Goals Multiply
by Libby Copeland

Selma has changed and it hasn't changed, which is something you learn if you grow up black there. Grow up the oldest child of civil rights activists and you acquire a kind of X-ray vision, seeing right to the innards of things, the ulterior motives and the stubborn adherence to the way things are, the history of struggle behind the faces of your elders.

Given all this, staying in Selma today is a little like choosing to live in slow-mo, especially when you know what it's like to live elsewhere, and you have the means to get out. Activism may be sexy in Manhattan, it may be sexy in college towns, but it's not sexy in Selma. It's just hard.

Malika Sanders, left, an organizer of the 40th anniversary March on Washington, goes over plans with Lynn Cothren. (WP Photo/Susan Biddle)
So to Selma activist Malika Sanders, the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington feels less like a commemoration and more like the shape of the future. She is one of the event's main organizers, and traveled up from her Alabama home town this week to finish preparations for tomorrow's event. At 30, she knows the history of the civil rights movement probably as well as anyone can who missed the '50s and the '60s. Yesterday, she's down in the small exhibit area beneath the Lincoln Memorial, waiting for other organizers to arrive to discuss the tents and the speaking arrangements, and meanwhile she's elsewhere in her head. She's imagining what it must have been like to ride the bus to Washington in 1963. She is a quiet woman who sometimes talks in fast, excited riffs, like now.

"You ride with this fear, you ride with this excitement. You ride worried about your children that you couldn't bring. And suddenly you're in this place where people are talking about the beloved community . . . and joining with all these people that you couldn't even have a conversation with in the South."

What a rush it must've been, Sanders thinks. She moves out into the sunlight and toward the memorial steps, past tourists sweating into their tank tops. This feels hopeful -- no, triumphant. Isn't it amazing (you say to her) how much things can change in a few decades?

At which point, Sanders -- reared amid schools and churches still effectively segregated years after segregation ended, under a formerly segregationist mayor who managed to stay in office from 1964 until 2000 -- remarks, "I think it's amazing how much things can change and how much things can stay the same."

But what, exactly, does it mean to be a civil rights activist in this age?

If the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington is any indication, the shape and purpose of the modern-day civil rights movement are not so easy to get your head around.

Consider this: The message of the 1963 march was simple and galvanizing. It helped push through the Civil Rights Act, essentially ending discrimination in public places -- a bill that President Kennedy had proposed and that President Johnson signed into law after the former's assassination.

By contrast, the 2003 anniversary of the march is squishy, a stew of issues brought forward by a broad-based coalition, including gay and lesbian rights activists, affirmative-action champions, feminists and organizations rallying against the occupation of Iraq. Instead of a march, they are organizing five tented teach-ins addressing six themes: economic justice and jobs; 9/11, Iraq and global peace; education; criminal justice; civil rights; and voting. The event is intended to kick off a 15-month effort to get more people to register and vote in the next presidential election.

It's doubtless facile to argue that the modern world is more complicated than it was 40 years ago, though some days it sure seems like it. Maybe the decades soften our focus. But from the perspective of time, the dilemma of 1963 is easily seen in stark, black-and-white terms. You stood on one side of the issue or the other. You believed in segregation or you didn't.

"It was easier to frame it then, because even though the issues were dynamic, they were still generally focused around race," says Sanders, who heads the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, a group that prepares black youth to continue the civil rights legacy. Last year she was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Award, a $50,000 grant.

Nowadays -- in part because of all the other movements that grew out of the fight for civil rights -- there is no one gulf so strongly dividing the nation. There are many special interest groups, and there are many struggles, as recent anti-globalization protests (with their anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-aid-to-Israel and anarchist contingents) can attest. And then, there is the complicated war on terrorism.

Is this conglomeration of issues harder to sell? Perhaps. But Sanders argues that it's necessary.

"The goal that I'm most excited about is uniting progressive forces," she says. And no, that's not quite as neat a headline as, say, "We want voting rights." But ours is a "microwave society," she argues, a society that likes things done simply and quickly, even as the civil rights movement has become more complex. Access to good jobs is connected to environmental justice, she says, because a good income is meaningless if you haven't got good health.

"I see the issues of the early civil rights movement as a beginning," she says. "It only makes sense that our analysis deepens."

Sanders's parents are both Harvard lawyers prominent in their community: Rose (who works in civil rights) and Hank (a state senator). Her childhood was a flurry of marches and protests and civil rights commemorations, punctuated by meetings with luminaries such as Jesse Jackson, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Touré) and Coretta Scott King.

A friend of Sanders, Eddie Blue, 32, says growing up black in Selma in the wake of the civil rights movement "made us different kind of creatures, different kinds of beings. We were very conscious."

So it's not too surprising that by the time she was 12, Sanders decided civil rights work was her calling and Selma was where she'd do it. As a teenager, she helped lead a five-day student takeover of Selma High School to protest a scholastic placement program that she, her parents, her friend Eddie Blue and many others argued excluded black students from advanced classes. Later, she was part of the successful "Joe Gotta Go!" effort to elect Selma's first black mayor in 2000 in the place of Joe Smitherman, who will always be remembered for saying "Martin Luther Coon" (a slip of the tongue, he said).

Sanders is sitting, on a different day, in the headquarters for the march, a white rowhouse converted to office space on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill. The space ebbs and flows with traffic. At one point, there are only two volunteers (Sanders included) in the building, and then there are eight, with half of them talking into their cell phones. The house phones ring constantly, and Sanders pops up every few minutes to deal with various issues, like how a check should be sent (by wire? Fed-Ex?) and whether a key organizer can make it to a key meeting. There are countless conference calls taking place. The phone rings now, and she gets up and walks through the living room, where Jo Patterson is sitting on a couch, thinking about 1963.

Reared in the area, Patterson, 53, remembers going to the march. She doesn't remember much about the events of that day, except "it was a different kind of love in the air." The crowd had a "cohesiveness, the sense of knowing who they were even though it appeared they had nothing."

That was the essence of 1963, really: The sense of moving toward a certain goal, the sense than a crowd could change things. They knew they were better than the world was letting them be. They knew they were part of a movement.

The question is whether the 40th anniversary of that rally will feel anything like that.

"Today, rather than building momentum, a march like the 40th anniversary rally is an effort to rouse something that isn't organically there," says John D'Emilio, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and biographer of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. "It's just very different."

You ask Sanders about that when she comes back to her seat, and she says, "You don't get the '60s without the '40s." Which is to say, she foresees another surge in the civil rights movement some years in the future, and the efforts of the here-and-now are laying the groundwork for it.

Then she heads out into the living room again to take care of ever more phone calls about ever more details. It seems like everyone out here is on the phone. The volunteer running the front desk takes her face away from the receiver long enough to tell the man sitting by the radio, "Can you turn it down?"

Just then, an excerpt from "I Have A Dream" comes on. Those powerful words, the fists and feet of a movement.

"Oh, you can leave it," the woman says quickly. "Leave it."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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