When I reach at 815 am, there's almost nobody here. I ease over the famous Edmund Pettus bridge and down into main street (actually Broad Street) Selma, Alabama.
Selma, where several hundred marchers began a march to Montgomery in late March 1965, a march that would end up breaking the back of segregation. There's some history there: they first tried to march on March 7 1965. The Alabama police beat them back at the other end of the bridge: the infamous "Bloody Sunday". Led by Martin Luther King, they did a symbolic march two days later, and the full trek to Montgomery later that month. But by the time they reached Montgomery, they were no longer several hundred. They were 25,000.
Months after they reached, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
And the legacy of that struggle is that today, a black man can run for President of this country. And his name is Barack Obama.
Every year they commemorate Bloody Sunday here, by walking from the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church through downtown Selma -- as far as Selma can be considered to have a downtown -- and over the Pettus bridge. This year, that's today. Both Obama and Hilary Clinton are making speeches in Selma, after which they will join the march across the bridge, and Bill Clinton will be there too.
So I am here nearly three hours in advance of Obama's scheduled speech at the Brown AME church. Since there are so few people around, I'm thinking I can go sit in the church and spend the hours just waiting for him. I'm so naively confident of this that I figure I'll wander around town for a while before heading over to the church.
On the way I meet Benson Webb at a stall outside his home. He pleads genially with me to buy a poster of the bridge, marked with several unintelligible signatures. I smile and say no, and we chat for a while. When he hears I'm from India, his eyes go round and big. "India? You've come a LONG way, man!" But then he hears I'm a writer. He lopes off and returns with an unmarked bridge poster. "If you a writer, I'm 'on' get YOU to sign right here, bro! You gon' be famous man, and when I see that novel you gon' write? I'm 'on' show people that sign a yours!"
He's a good man, Benson. Love the rhythms and inflections of his speech. Wish I spoke like that.
I reach the church at 845. There must be several hundred people in a long line that stretches down the road. So much for sitting in the church. So much for underestimating the hold this man Obama already has on people.
Me, I'm on my feet for the next eight hours: standing outside, talking to people, eventually listening via speaker to the service and to Obama, eating a hamburger, getting up close to Obama thrice and to Bill Clinton entirely by chance, shaking Bill's hand once and another that might have been Barack's hand I'm not sure, then walking with a crowd that must easily be 10,000 strong, through downtown and over the bridge.
He's a fine speaker, Obama. It's an uplifting, energizing experience being in the middle of all these people. And maybe I'll write about that sometime. But through the day, I'm simply struck over and over by the ironies.
I mean, if 42 years ago the Alabama police beat back the marchers, today they are respectfully directing people and the crowds in general, keeping the peace.
If then the Alabama establishment and many of its white residents tried every trick in the book to to deny blacks the right to vote, today there are white men with T-shirts saying "Al-Obama!", a woman holding up "Bama for Obama!"
If in the early '60s young idealistic students -- many of them white -- came from all over the country to help voter registration efforts here, facing serious hostility and even death, today young idealistic students -- many of them white -- have come here from all over the country to work with Obama's Presidential campaign. To work with this black man's Presidential campaign.
One of them hands me a card. "Join us!" he says.
Two short words, and he's on to the next person in the line. But I'm left thinking of how much, over how long, went into the simple fact of this man saying these two words in this place, at this time. Two short words, but in them is the spirit of Evers and Cheever, Schwerner and King, Meredith and Till.
It was much more than a bridge that they crossed here, back in March 1965.