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The Selma to Montgomery Bicycle Ride: Civil Rights and Bamas

(Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)
(Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — A partial list of things not present at the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march: A drone mini-copter, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Viola Liuzzo’s roadside memorial.

As Alabama, and the country, prepares to recognize the 50th anniversary of the 50-plus mile voting rights march, as well as the tragic events such as the March 7 “Bloody Sunday,” when protesters led by now-Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Hosea Williams were beaten by state troopers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Montgomery Bicycle Club did its part by sponsoring a Feb. 21 ride traversing the march route, which is now a national historic trail.

For those signing up with more ambition than ability (such as Washington-based writers) the club made sure to include some not-your-average athletic inspiration on the official ride T-shirts and jersey, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr., who led the March 21-25 march: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, keep moving.”

Or biking.

Speaking of clothing, the sartorial was evidently on the minds of race organizers.

“We wanted white people and black people shaking hands in the same funny clothes,” said Bruce Herbitter, the co-chairman of the Montgomery Bicycle Club 50th Anniversary Selma to Montgomery Bicycle Ride, adding that riders showed “great camaraderie.”

Given the emphasis on clothes, the race’s Alabama locale and the writer’s Washington pedigree, one couldn’t help recall a bit of D.C.-based slang.

“Bama”

Originated from Black youth in Washington DC.

1. Original meaning was “can’t dress well” or “fashion misfit”

2. Now the word has a more general use meaning “person,” as how Whites use “Dude.”

— The Urban Dictionary

Anyone in Washington who even tangentially knows John Stanton, BuzzFeed’s bureau chief (and a Roll Call alumnus) has heard the words many a time, particularly as it gets deeper into the night at, say, a drinking establishment, or on any of his social media outlets.

Herbitter certainly got his wish among the 355 riders. He said about one-third were from the Montgomery area, another third were from around the Southeast U.S. and the rest were from other parts of the country. Cyclist clothing is almost exclusively funny, if functional. There’s no way to make a bike helmet look cool, not even the new generation that tries to approximate watermelons or other such goofy things. David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman and avid cyclist, said in his memoir “Bicycle Diaries” that he’d tried for years to make his helmets look cool, to no avail. “Flight of the Conchords” mussed about with a helmet that looked like your hair. It’s no use. Nothing works.

On this day in Alabama, in the heart of the civil rights trail, we were all Bamas.

Maybe that was what the DJ had in mind when, as riders amassed at the Capitol to load onto buses that would take us to the start of our journey in Selma, he played “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 Southern rock classic is open to some interpretation. Al.com has an entry titled, “15 things we have to explain about the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’” that posits there’s more to the song than sticking it to Neil Young and says it’s not a neo-Confederate anthem. But at the very least, it’s complicated. One Southern friend said that’s what being a Southerner is, living with contradictions. But playing Skynyrd at an event commemorating blacks’ struggles to secure the vote? Weird.

Police Presence

“This is the Selma Police. This is the Selma Police,” the officer belted out of a bullhorn that went out once we were at the starting point. “I need all riders to line up on the street,” he continued, looking to make a little more organized the hundreds of people and their transport in his fair city.

The presence of the Selma Police and Alabama State Troopers means something far different in 2015 than it did in 1965. On March 7, and two days later, when King began another march across the bridge only to kneel in prayer and lead marchers back to the Brown Chapel AME Church (an event dubbed “Turnaround Tuesday”), the police were there to block the way and do violence.

In 2015, they made sure the bridge was closed to traffic so cyclists could have a clear path to the start of our path down U.S. 80, then continued to make sure we were safe while turning onto rest and pit stops along the way.

Then there was the drone mini-copter.