Congress can’t agree on much these days, but on February 11, the House unanimously passed a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal—the body’s highest honor—to the foot soldiers of the 1965 voting-rights movement in Selma, Alabama.
The resolution was sponsored by Representative Terri Sewell, Alabama’s first black Congresswoman, who grew up in Selma. Sewell was born on January 1, 1965, a day before Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma to kick off the demonstrations that would result in passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) eight months later. On February 15, 2015, Sewell returned to Selma, which she now represents, to honor the “unsung heroes” of the voting-rights movement at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the red brick headquarters for Selma’s civil-rights activists in 1965, taking the pulpit where King once preached.
The film Selma has brought renewed attention to the dramatic protests of 1965. Tens of thousands of people, including President Obama, will converge on the city on March 7, the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers, including John Lewis, now a Congressman, were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers.
At Brown Chapel, Sewell stressed the disturbing parallels between the fight for voting rights then and now. She cited the Supreme Court’s gutting of the VRA in 2013 and the spread of voter-ID laws that disproportionately burden minority voters. “The assaults of the past are here again,” she said. “Old battles have become new again.” Sewell’s mother, Nancy, Selma’s first black city councilwoman, read the names of the two dozen foot soldiers as Sewell presented each of them with a gold certificate. The loudest applause greeted 85-year-old Frederick Douglas Reese, who strode down the aisle in a sharp pinstripe suit. “My principal!” Sewell called him.
Reese is the ultimate unsung hero—the most important figure in Selma’s voting-rights movement, but virtually unknown outside town. While president of the Dallas County Voters League in 1964, he signed the letter officially inviting King to Selma. As leader of the Selma Teachers Association, Reese led the first major march of black public school teachers in the segregated South; they sought to register to vote. He marched behind Lewis on Bloody Sunday and alongside King and his wife, Coretta, from Selma to Montgomery two weeks later. Molotov cocktails were thrown at his house, and he was fired from his job because of his activism, but Reese never wavered. In 1972, he became one of five black members elected to the City Council—Selma’s first black elected officials since Reconstruction. He was principal of Selma High School and superintendent of the city schools, and has pastored the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church for fifty years.