When the Rev. Barbara Holmes marched in Selma, Ala., as a teenager in 1965, she wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement she saw playing out on the evening news.
Fifty years ago, long before she was president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, Holmes traveled by bus from Connecticut to Alabama with her father and members of their church.
They confronted threats in the parking lot of the church where they slept and listened to screams of hatred hurled at marchers the next day. On their way out of town, the students had to lie on the floor of the bus as gunshots sounded outside.
“We returned home shaken, inspired, and forever changed,” Holmes said Sunday, standing at the pulpit of Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul. She recounted her story to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 people who had just concluded a march of their own from the steps of the Minnesota Capitol up Cedar Street to mark the half-century anniversary of the Selma protest.
Even though the protesters in 1965 Selma met with violent resistance, their nonviolent protest put a national spotlight on the brutality facing minorities in the South, and on the difficulties of African-Americans across the nation to secure the right to vote.
The Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination at the ballot box and became a foundational achievement for racial equality, was passed by Congress later that year.
“Now Selma is a rallying cry for people in crisis around the world. Can you hear their cries?” Holmes said Sunday. “From the prison system, from the homeless shelters, to the fields of combat, they say, we are victims of violence and annihilation. And we say, ‘Selma.’ They say, we can’t see our way out. And we say, ‘Selma.’ ”
Each time she repeated the city’s name, the crowd’s voice grew louder.
Participants on Sunday struggled to reconcile the progress toward equality they’ve seen over the past 50 years with the stubbornness of the inequities still facing communities of color in access to jobs, health care and education.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said St. Paul resident and Alabama native Margaret LaFleur, 68, who marched Sunday.
She said she’s hopeful about all the progress, yet troubled at an inability to confront what she sees as the root causes of issues like high rates of incarceration of black men.
African-Americans no longer have to confront “Whites Only” placards on drinking fountains, she said, but she sees signs of racial struggle persisting. “The signs are down, but the issues are still there.”