Monday, March 8, 2010

A-Changin': Lessons learned covering civil rights march, 30 years later

It’s been thirty years.

That’s what I realized as we drove around the by-pass through Selma, Ala. Sunday, on our way back from Alabama River camphouse to Birmingham. We took the by-pass to avoid the crowds on Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were gathering for the Selma-to-Montgomery Bridge Crossing Jubilee, this year marking the 45th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s Bloody Sunday.

I counted up and realized it’s been thirty years since I covered my first civil right march commemoration. I remember the day well and still retain the life lessons learned then as a 23-year-old cub reporter and photographer.

It was March of 1980, and the staff of the Selma Times-Journal was all on duty that weekend, covering the big 15th anniversary celebration of Bloody Sunday, the halted civil rights march for voting rights – the event that resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Just over a year out of Auburn University and J-school and about six months into what would be a decade of work covering the news wellspring that was Selma, Alabama, that Bloody Sunday anniversary was my first experience in civil rights rally and march coverage.

It was also my first in-person hearing of We Shall Overcome and my first exposure to the who’s who of the civil rights movement who call Selma home or are called home to Selma every year to remember what happened.

That day, we covered a rally at Brown Chapel AME Church, a beautiful, red brick church where one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sons spoke. Then, some of us followed the marchers and some of us went back to the newsroom to start writing and developing film.

That film developing was central to one of the lessons I learned that day. We’d all shot pictures at the rally and the beginnings of the march reenactment. Nikki Maute, Janet Gresham, Jean Martin and I all had our 35-mm cameras and Tri-X (400 speed) black and white film. We got some great shots, we thought.

But, for the first and last time in my dark room experience, I somehow switched the developer and the fixer as I poured these into a rarely-used 10-roll film developing canister. I realized quickly what I’d done: no images, no pictures. I’d ruined a frighteningly large batch of 15th anniversary negatives.

I still remember the dread of marching myself into the newsroom and editor Nikki’s desk to tell her. Speechless for what seemed like several minutes, Nikki said, it’s done, now let’s fix it.

Within the next hour, I located some others who had shot pictures at the events, including Frank Sikora, reporter then for The Birmingham News and author of “Selma, Lord, Selma.” He let me develop his film. And Frank’s pictures, along with some others we gathered, told our photographic story that day. We didn’t have the variety of likely award-winning shots we were sure were on those 10 rolls I had fixed into nothingness, but we got the special edition done, and Jackie learned the first of many lessons that life’s mistakes bring.

Learned lesson No. 1: When you make a mistake, admit it, own it and try hard to fix it.

That lesson served me well through life. Since the only way to never make a mistake is to never do, try and achieve, then we all need to know how to admit, handle and learn from our mistakes. Don’t make excuses; just try to make it better.

I learned other lessons from my first professional coverage of the civil rights movement that still defines the Alabama Black Belt.

These lessons are less direct and defined but stand on the strong premise that history has a lot to teach us, if we’ll listen and learn from it. And, people who sacrifice to make things better deserve to be remembered, listened to and learned from.

This is true if those sacrificing are civil rights pioneers (Selma’s F.D. Reese, Marie Foster and J.L. Chestnut come to mind) or if they are lesser-known heroes, our parents, our grandparents, our mentors, editors and others who came before us and tried to do the right thing. We must learn from them.

Even though I knew the history book stories well, it was difficult for me, then, to imagine having to march and face state troopers on horseback, in order to register to vote in the United States of America. But that’s how it was, then. This is not a small accomplishment being remembered year after year.

The civil rights movement had to force change, in many ways, because of fears and prejudices and the driving need to preserve power and -- we still see it today on all sides of the political spectrum -- the power of power.

But things change and continue to change.

That’s the big lesson I see as I look back at that enthusiastic, naïve young white girl covering her first civil rights rally. Selma is not the same; neither is Alabama or our nation. Certainly that young reporter is not the same either.

Change is the one constant. And we’d better get good at changing with it.

Song of the day:

The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan

“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Picture of the day: Selma Times-Journal newsroom, circa early 1980s. Some combination of this crew covered the 15th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march 30 years ago this week. From left, Jean Martin, Nikki Maute, Maxine McDonald, Janet Gresham, Jackie Walburn and Jeannette Berryman. In this picture, which I re-discovered while looking for some early writing samples, we were waving goodbye to one of the rotating sports editors.


  1. Best darn news staff the STJ has ever had!

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