by Teju Cole
When I went down to Alabama last month, I listened repeatedly to John Coltrane’s Alabama. The introduction of the song has a discursive quality to it, like a black preacher’s exhortations. And that, it turned out, was what it was: the keening saxophone line, built over rolling piano chords (like a congregation’s murmuring), was a paraphrase of the eulogy Martin Luther King, Jr., gave after a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four girls.
Alabama’s earth is red like West Africa’s, dusty, unpromising. On this earth one expects nothing to grow, and on it everything grows. Kudzu and Virginia creeper run riot. This is fertile earth. William Christenberry likens it to brown sugar. James Baldwin wrote: “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”
I was sad all the way to Selma. We drove from Gadsden, where cattle prods had been used on protesters in 1964. Down through the counties, across land that had known human love and life long before the white man’s arrival. Selma’s not much, a main drag, Broad Street, that chucks you out of town via the Edmund Pettus Bridge almost as soon as you arrive. The town is much smaller than those others in whose company it evokes the civil rights movement: Montgomery, Birmingham. In the hot sunshine of a Sunday, it was stunned and quiet, with the fable-like air of a crumbling movie set. Selma is named for an Ossianic poem; to me it melds “soul” and its Spanish cognate, “alma,” into a single moody word. Selma’s shops are closed that day. People are few and drift about in the sun like people in Google’s Street View. But if you take a left some crossings before the bridge, and a right, you come around to a housing project and, across the street from it, the clean and well-kept Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for those marches fifty years ago.
Long after history’s active moment, do places retain some charge of what they witnessed, what they endured?
On Sunday March 7, 1965, six hundred people, led by John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just after crossing the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers and local police. The men in uniform wore masks, and some of them were on horseback. They gave a brief warning, and then shot teargas and charged into the crowd with billy clubs. They rolled through undefended people with a sickening carelessness for human safety that the corresponding scene in Selma—Ava DuVernay’s necessary and otherwise fine film—failed to match. That’s the point, perhaps: that what we watch from the safety of a movie theater cannot, and should not, relay to us the true horror of things. For how would we bear it?
But watch the original footage. These Americans brutally beat unarmed women and men, thorough in their mercilessness, cheered on by other Americans, sending more than fifty Americans to hospital. The footage made the difference, and shocked the nation’s conscience. It accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
How not to link it all together? Selma and Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland, torture by the CIA and mass murder in Gaza, the police state and slave patrols: no generation is free of the demands of conscience, and no citizenry can shirk the responsibility of calling the state’s abuse of power to account.
Selma was a small town then, and is a small town now. On Sunday December 7 when I visited, the headline of the Selma Times-Journal was “Surprise At Parade: Fire department mascot Sparky makes return at Christmas parade.” The lede: “Sparky the Fire Dog has returned and he made a grand entrance the morning of the Selma-Fallas County Christmas Parade. The dog costume was stolen from a vehicle parked at the Station 3 firehouse on Oct. 20 and found weather-damaged, dirty, torn and missing pieces behind the old Pancake House...”
I walked down the Pettus Bridge alone. I thought not of Sparky but of John Lewis, whose face and whose spirit I like so much, his light brown trenchcoat, his back pack, the concentrated dignity in his small frame. I felt these things in my body, tried to honor with my solitary stride the bravery of those women and men, and in the silence of my walk, the steep drop of the Alabama River to my left, the clear air ahead where there had been smoke and atrocity, I began to hear again Coltrane’s Alabama, not a melody but rather a recitation delivered with the saxophone.
Then the drive down to Montgomery, winter’s dry bright landscape flicking by. This bitter earth, these crumbling signs, the things that may have happened in these woods: in this place, I touched on a fissure in America’s unfinishable history. Selma to Montgomery on U.S. Route 80 is an hour’s drive, some fifty-four miles. It was a walk of four days in 1965, and on that third and successful march, many thousands walked together, 25,000 of them by the time they surged into Montgomery and rallied at the Alabama State Capitol. Around those days, some died. Klan work.
“These children,” sings Coltrane’s line in 1963, “unoffending, innocent, and beautiful.” McCoy Tyner weeping on piano. “Were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes every perpetrated against humanity.” Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. After Montgomery, after the memorial to the many murdered during those years, the placid-looking Court Square where tens of thousands had been auctioned into slavery, Dr King’s church, the Rosa Parks museum and the woman who was so much more—so much smarter, so much wiser, so much more tactical—than her best known act of refusal: after all this, we went to Birmingham. And Birmingham was heartbreak, too. At the 16th Street Baptist Church, my soul took fright. How could humans?
History won’t let go of us. We’re pinned to it. Days later, after my return to New York and with Alabama still in my ear, I’m in the crowd of tens of thousands for a march that takes us some miles through lower Manhattan. The language is close in its keening. Rosa Parks, John Coltrane, Martin Luther King, Jr., not a melody but a recitation, an exhortation. The raised voices echo down the caverns of the city’s streets. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.