Driving down Broad Street, the main drag through downtown Selma, Alabama, I looked out at the faded building facades and the empty streets and wondered if we were in the right place. We parked the car and crossed the street toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A few cars passed by, but other than that, we were completely alone. I thought that such a historical place would be bustling with tourists, even in the gloomy weather.
There’s a plaque at the foot of the bridge commemorating the events that took place there fifty-four years ago, on March 7, 1965, when 600 peaceful protest marchers attempting to cross the bridge were attacked by armed troopers. Looking over the edge of the bridge and down into the slow moving waters of the Alabama River below, I was struck by how calm it was. It was hard to imagine that such a violent event—earning the name “Bloody Sunday”—ever occurred here.
I tried to think about what it must have been like on that day on the bridge. If I had been there, would I have marched with them? Would I have continued forward, even under the threat of violence, even if it might cost me my life? Would I have stopped to help those who were injured along the way? Or would I have fled?
When I was invited on this trip to Alabama, I was apprehensive at first. Growing up and learning about the violent history of America’s southern states, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and police brutality, I wasn’t sure Alabama was a place I should visit. At the same time, I knew that Alabama was also home to some of the most pivotal points in our country’s history. It was in Montgomery where the bus boycott led to the end of segregation on public buses. My curiosity won out, as long as I got to pick which historical sites to visit.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was at the top of my list. I couldn’t miss the chance to stand in such a historic place. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood and inspired thousands to peacefully protest their rights as equal citizens, where President Barack Obama commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This bridge represents one of the many sparks that fueled the progress of the civil rights movement. I can never fully comprehend what drove them to keep marching toward those armed troopers, but what I do know is that the events on that bridge helped shape the political scene which made it possible for me to exist.
My parents had very different backgrounds, both culturally and geographically. My dad was born in Nalerigu, Northern Ghana, the eldest son of the Chief of our tribe. My mom came from a white middle-class family in Southern California. Yet both my parents believed that everyone should be treated equally, no matter the color of their skin.
As the civil rights movement gained traction in the United States, Ghana was breaking free from Britain’s colonial rule. On March 6, 1957, Ghana officially became an independent democracy, but with this new government came tumultuous times. My grandfather knew that this independence would affect our tribe and their way of life. Instead of grooming my dad for the chieftaincy, he encouraged him to pursue an education, even if it meant leaving the village.
My dad took his father’s advice and was accepted to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. By the time my dad got to Portland in the 1970s, Ghana had already been through its first coups d’état, with several more following until 1992. If not for the victories of the civil rights movement in the United States, my dad would have chosen to go to Europe to further his education. And if he had not gone to Portland, he never would have met my mom.
Although my mother was not prejudiced, her parents did not approve of her relationship with my dad at first. He was not the wealthy, white man they had pictured for their daughter. But after my grandma met my dad, she quickly changed her mind and welcomed him into the family. My grandpa, on the other hand, refused to attend the wedding. Almost a decade passed before he and my mom mended that relationship. I was seven years old when I finally met my grandpa for the first time. My dad’s parents were worried about how this marriage would affect their way of life, but they accepted my mom and always treated my sister and me with kindness.
Being African and American makes me feel like I’m always trying to balance the two halves. People in the United States see my skin color and see me as a black woman, but in Ghana my mixed heritage means I’m considered more white than black. When we moved from Ghana to Arizona, people didn’t think my white mom could possibly be my real mom. Her blonde hair and blue eyes, next to my brown skin and kinky hair, caused a lot of confusion and even made me question it sometimes.
Even though I am a black woman, my ancestors never crossed the Atlantic into slavery. They didn’t survive centuries of oppression, to then live under the harsh conditions of Jim Crow and segregation. However, standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, after twenty-four years of living in this country, I felt a connection to all those men and women. They weren’t fighting only for their own freedoms, but for the generations to come.
Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. Because of the groundwork they laid, I was able to grow up with opportunities they could only dream of. My parents were able to legally marry because of the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967), which declared that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. When I turned eighteen, I was able to cast my first vote thanks to the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which was finally passed after the events of Bloody Sunday.
We’ve come a long way as a country, but we still have a long way to go. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, after the march to Montgomery in 1965, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Aza Issifu is a former employee at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She holds a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Arizona and currently resides in Phoenix.