Reporter's Notebook: Selma Showed Me Not to Write-Off the South

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Crowds gather before a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)Mike Stewart / AP

Last November, my Honors professor recommended I pursue a social justice opportunity with the Equal Justice Initiative. The two-year, fully-funded postgraduate fellowship is designed to prepare young professionals for a social justice-oriented and nonprofit management careers. As my eyes scanned the description of the desired candidate, I thought to myself confidently: “This is me.”

However, this changed quickly when I arrived at the following line: The job is located in Montgomery, Alabama.

As a senior approaching job and graduate school season, I knew had to be realistic about my post-graduate plans. Before moving to New Jersey in 2005, I had lived in New York with my family for a little over a decade. Economic circumstances considered, I was willing to move further North, out West, and even beyond the borders of the United States to pursue my dreams, but I would never consider moving to the South.

So I did not apply to the fellowship.

As a woman of color who is aware and proud of my history, it disturbed me that I viewed cities like Montgomery — albeit landmark locations for movements for Civil Rights — as “unchartered” territory for my identity to flourish, as if I had nothing to claim in those spaces.

Nearly five months later following the initial discovery of the program, I found myself in Montgomery, Alabama with my Journalism professor and a student group of Ithaca College young women. We were here for a very special occasion: To report on the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” for NBC Nightly News. We arrived late Thursday night on March 5 with just enough hours to get rested for a day’s worth of reporting the following morning.

By Friday afternoon on, I was wishing I could turn back the clock to December 31st — the final day to complete and submit the EJI Justice Fellowship application.

I am ashamed to admit that I once harbored these feelings against the South, but I know I am not alone. In fact, after telling a colleague of mine about my decision not to pursue the fellowship, he agreed. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do it,” he said.

As a woman of color who is aware and proud of my history, it disturbed me that I viewed cities like Montgomery — albeit landmark locations for movements for Civil Rights — as “unchartered” territory for my identity to flourish, as if I had nothing to claim in those spaces.

I created these mythic and myopic constructions of the South to mask a deep fear to confront what Wahneema Lubiano in “The House That Race Built” calls “a profound betrayal of democracy.”

The South was a trigger. I did not want to remember the dark histories. I did not want painful memories of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow laws. These wounds are still very deep.

I had to understand that the South does not belong to the former slave owners or the colonizer. It belongs to the people who made it strong, who made a commitment to thrive in spite of.

However coming to Montgomery and experiencing Selma during the commemorative weekend meant airing out the dirty laundry. I knew I could not report the stories of “Bloody Sunday” with dignity without recognizing the black excellence and black resilience that exuded from the people on Selma’s historic streets.

I had to understand that the South does not belong to the former slave owners or the colonizer. It belongs to the people who made it strong, who made a commitment to thrive in spite of. The 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” is a commemoration, a celebration, and a recognition of how far this country still needs to go with regards to race relations. We should not put our attention or our cameras up on the shelf until the 100th anniversary.

“Bloody Sunday” is not only significant because it is the 50th anniversary. It is significant because of the sacrifices that the foot soldiers made to contribute to the political, social and economic progression of people of color. Therefore, we cannot — and should not — forget or homogenize the South, but we must take steps to heal, making amends with its dark past.

Ithaca College Students
Ithaca College students of the Park School of Communications traveled to Selma to report on the 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and contribute to NBC News reports. (from left to right): Ciara Lucas, Kelli Kyle, Candace King, Kristen Welker, NBC Correspondent, Sara McCloskey, Tiara Braddock, Hannah Basciano.Candace A. King
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