On the Way to Selma: Of Hashtags and History

I’m from South Carolina. Growing up, the black history that was taught in class and which surrounded me (on historical, preserved plantations) was that of slavery. It was veneered with the gloss of Gone with the Wind and soaked with the romanticism of a lost-cause war and a lost-world nostalgia. Sure, we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks during Black History Month—but never discussed were the ugly realities of sundown towns or segregation policies that still de-facto divided our communities or the vast, systemic racism that loomed over it all. Slavery was bad, they told us, but it’s over. It was a long time ago. We’re okay now.

It’s been a long process—and one that may never be completely done—to unlearn those insidious messages and to see the contemporary reality of racism in our nation. To see that the work is not yet done. It never has been.

I’m thinking about that now, as I go to Selma. I’m thinking about the things some people told me when I compared Selma fifty years ago to Ferguson today (and I’m not alone—look at Common’s lyrics or the picture comparisons or the hashtag #SelmaIsNow on Twitter). They told me: It’s not the same. They don’t have it as bad as they did back then.

The frustration. The ways I think of to respond (Not “as bad”? Is that the society we want to live in?). But at the core, those who say this are not seeing the reality: the problems have changed (the school-to-prison pipeline now, police brutality with guns instead of billy clubs, new restrictions on voter rights, and so much more), but the problem is the same. That same cruel, stealthy idea idea, worming through the makeup of our society—that some lives matter more than others. And that some matter less.

These #BlackLivesMatter signs from our 21st century protests would have spoken truth to the powers of the Jim Crow era or the antebellum period or any other time in American history. #BlackLivesMatter was what the Civil Rights movement was about. What abolitionism (at its best) was about. And it’s what our issues of today—the voting reform and immigration policies and ecological justice that we will explore at the Marching in the Arc of Justice conference—will be about, too.

I don’t live in South Carolina anymore. I’ve come a long way from that naive little girl I was. I live near Los Angeles now, and just this past week, an unarmed, homeless black man was killed by LAPD officers on Skid Row. His street name was Africa. A hashtag started trending: #CantKillAfrica.

I think of those voices again. The stock reply. It’s not as bad as it was back then. And yet… #CantKillAfrica. #CantKillMichaelBrown. #CantKillTamirRice. #CantKillJohnCrawford. And on and on, an achingly long list of beings with inherent worth and dignity who should’ve been alive. Who were killed.

I want to honor the spirit of that hashtag, in Selma this weekend and in my life. You—police officers, vigilantes, crippling systems of poverty and oppression, all of us implicit in injustice—can’t kill any of them. You can’t kill them without accountability. You can never really kill them, because we will carry their spirits on. #CantKillJimmieLeeJackson. #CantKillMartinLutherKing. #CantKill, for we will #MarchOn. Selma is now. And those lives—that matter, that matter, that matter—are marching with us still.