On March 7th, 1965, six hundred civil rights activists began marching for fair voting rights in Selma, Alabama. They were attacked and brutally beaten by policemen, having only reached the Edmund Pettis Bridge. This day, which came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” now marks a pivotal point in the American Civil Rights movement.
The resistance from law enforcement hardly subdued the efforts; thousands more united in the following weeks, conducting another march backed by the national government. A multi-racial crowd of almost 50,000 people met the marchers in Montgomery on March 25th to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 fewer than five months later.
The 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march brought with it nationwide events, a new documentary, and a lot of speculation of how the country has changed. Though racism is still a visible issue today (think the recent news from Oklahoma), the Selma political victory is clear evidence: grassroots campaigns can work.
The climate justice movement intersects with efforts to combat systematic racism in more ways than one, particularly in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Low-income communities, communities of color, and the developing world are most impacted by natural disasters, toxic pollution from power plants, and devastating fossil fuel extraction practices. Though least responsible for the problem, these communities are most affected by environmental destruction. In a piece for 350.org, climate activist Yong Jung Cho argued that the climate movement must be “firmly and outspokenly anti-racist,” so that the marginalization brought on by institutionalized racism will not worsen the effects of climate change in these areas.
This March, we are reminded of the hard work of past activists; not only the Selma protestors, but also the human rights workers, suffragettes, environmentalists, and countless others who have made sacrifices to change the status quo. Proven by the weeks following Bloody Sunday, all it takes is attention and momentum for action on a smaller scale to become national news.
With the oil giants looming on the other side, the divestment campaign can sometimes feel like an impossible battle. Even so, the recent Keystone XL veto is a perfect example of how influential the combined voices of the public can be. A team of passionate people can start something bigger, whether it’s six hundred marchers or a group of college students working toward divestment.
Our movement and those of the past may have had different objectives, but they are united by a call for justice. It’s so important to remember the successes of previous activists – they are constant inspiration. Let’s honor their hard work by furthering the call for justice.