Thomas Smith was just a boy when peaceful protesters in Selma, Ala., were assailed by police armed with billy clubs and tear gas on March 7, 1965, a day that has infamously been dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”
Fifty years later, Smith, now chief of the St. Paul Police Department, was one of thousands who made the trip to Alabama to re-enact the civil rights march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“I’ve never seen so many people. … It was for me, very powerful,” Smith said Thursday.
Smith and about 70 local leaders, clergy and other community members from Minnesota headed south earlier this month to commemorate the anniversary of the clash and discuss race relations.
Other notable public figures who were there included Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, St. Paul NAACP President Jeff Martin, former Minnesota Vikings punter Greg Coleman and Debbie Montgomery, St. Paul’s first female patrol officer and a former City Council member who also participated in the march years ago.
The trip was organized by Unity Church-Unitarian and Above Every Name Ministries, said the Rev. Danny Givens, a resident minister at Unity and senior pastor at Above. The trip, funded by church and grant money, focused on building community, Givens said.
“The work around civil rights is still yet a work in progress,” he said. “There are still many bridges that we have to cross.”
While on the pilgrimage, the group visited several landmarks, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls were killed during a bombing in 1963, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
“We need to continue thoughtful conversations. … We need to continue to have conversations and look forward, no matter our race or religion,” Smith said.
This week, some who made the trip met again to talk about it. The coalition will meet again to determine how to apply locally the lessons they learned in Selma.