The histories of nations are shaped by countless stories, both real and fictional; in most cases, the line between the two blurs. Having been exposed to the same discourse over the years, many of us do not even feel the need to find out the proportion of truth vs. exaggeration in these stories. It is not uncommon to benefit from these narratives in order to develop a sense of identity, belonging, and shared aspirations as a nation.
Despite this, some of these stories are both real, and as legendary as could only be imagined in an epic tale. What happened fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama, features these qualities, both as a national marker and a real story of heroism. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of what was to be remembered as "Bloody Sunday" – March 7, 1965. The achievements that came from that day – and the whole Civil Rights Movement – helped to move the US, and the world, closer to racial equality.
As remarkable as the achievements that ensued have been, it is equally heartbreaking to witness, in many countries across the globe, that discrimination – based not only on racism but also on religious convictions, social affiliations, and political positions – still exist, and often under the guise of legal justifications. In this article, I will stretch the story of Selma to relate it to a unique drama of discrimination ongoing in modern day Turkey, a strategically located country in the Middle East.
A young John Lewis, today a Congressional Representative (since 1987), led his SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and a crowd of around 600 on a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were planning to leave the city of Selma on a march to Montgomery, the state capital 54 miles east, to demonstrate their desire for equal citizenship rights. At the other end of the bridge, however, waited a line of state troopers. The non-violent marchers were violently attacked, leaving many heavily injured.
After re-grouping, another march was held, led by Martin Luther King Jr. This march and other demonstrations resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act which ensured every American citizen the right to vote regardless of race. Selma is an important threshold in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and it did not happen at the cost of nothing: thousands were arrested, many killed, and many more heavily wounded. Famously, the murder of an activist and deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, inspired the marchers. Yet despite frustration at the violence and discrimination, non-violence was a defining character of Civil Rights' activism, and the followers would not compromise on this.
First march, March 7: Bloody Sunday. Around 600 marchers were heavily beaten and dispersed.
Second march, March 9: Turnaround Tuesday. Around 2500 marchers joined by hundreds of people from around the country to support the demonstration. Minister James Reeb who came from Boston was beaten by Ku Klux Klan that night and he could not survive. Dr. King turned marchers back from the bridge to wait for a judicial order to proceed.
Third march, March 21-25: To Montgomery. Started with 8 thousand and culminated with 25 thousand marchers and they were able to deliver a petition to the Governor's office.
With endurance, patience, diplomacy, and stamina, activists were finally able to cross the Pettus Bridge, making their suffering known nationwide, and were able to make themselves heard in D.C. The commemoration of this event on its 50th anniversary was led, incredibly enough, by the first African American president of the United States. President Obama said on the site of the march and massacre, "In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history -- the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher -- all that history met on this bridge."
But one description Obama made that day portrayed the true character of the Civil Rights Movement:
"It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America."
This was an accurate description; for the followers of the Civil Rights Movement were not using violence. Instead, they constantly trained to restrain themselves when challenged by violence and curses. And after they were able to sharpen their wills to the highest point of resilience, they won over their oppressors. They did not tarnish their rightful cause with the filthiness of violence, and this mustered sympathizers across the nation, both black and white. The Minister James Reeb, who was killed after the second march, was a white man. In fact, three of the four martyrs who answered SCLC's (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) call and came to Selma, were white (Unitarian Minister James Reeb, Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo, the Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels).1
Fast forward to 2015. The United States still suffers from racism. The recent killings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and a few other places2 are sad evidence that racist violence is still with us and has not yet yielded, and that the march begun in Selma is not yet over. Still, however, these attacks, which have been earnestly denounced by the American nation as a whole and perpetrators are facing trials, cannot undermine the accomplishments of the non-violent civil rights movement and their white supporters.
The movie Selma, which was about the marches to Montgomery, was released around the same time when the trailers of a Turkish movie called Selam: Bahara Yolculuk (Peace: Journey to Spring) was being screened across Turkey. The two movies are related not only due to the extremely similar names, but because they feature the uniqueness of two epic tales of struggle for basic human rights and peaceful coexistence. They are the stories of two communities seemingly distant in location, time, and color, but mutual in goals and methods, in many respects.
Whereas Selma conveys the heroism of African-Americans striving non-violently as a part of civil rights movement, Selam reflects an episode of the Hizmet Movement's expansion to the world. The volunteers involved in this movement are professionals – teachers, business people, physicians, and people from all walks of life who cherish the peacebuilding ideas of Fethullah Gülen, a retired Turkish preacher, who promotes education and honors every human being with compassion and respect. Hundreds of schools, relief organizations, healthcare centers, and dialogue institutions have been established by the participants of this movement across the globe. The movie is about the successful opening of one of the schools in Central Asia and the self-sacrificial work of their teachers.
Yet, what is not featured in the movie is the discrimination the Movement is suffering in its home base, Turkey, where it also originated. There is a systematic oppression underway against the schools, media outlets and journalists, corporations, public servants, and individuals who are affiliated with the Movement. This has been ongoing since the outbreak of the enormous corruption scandal against the government in December 2013.
The government, which has been in a position of un-checked power since 2002, responded to the claims of corruption with incredible vitriol, reassigning "thousands of police and prosecutors … and the prosecutors who initiated the investigation were suspended. The government closed the investigation and destroyed evidence that was gathered."3 Heavily injured by these probes that included "claims of bribery, irregular gold exports worth billions of dollars and stashes of cash,"4 the government, which was trying to win upcoming local, presidential, and parliamentary elections, needed a scapegoat to lay all the sins on, in the public's view. The Hizmet Movement, the largest social mass movement in Turkey, with sympathizers and volunteers from all spheres of society, was a tailor-made candidate for this position. And thanks to the overwhelming majority of the media, which the government directly and indirectly controls, as well as the overhaul of the entire state structure through reassignments and undermining the separation of powers, they have succeeded, to a certain extent, in manipulating public perception. Today, there are many public servants and journalists jailed on no legal grounds, but solely because of an alleged affiliation with Hizmet. Among the constituents of the ruling party's supporters, a considerable portion believes Fethullah Gülen is an American spy secretly serving US interests by trying to overthrow the Turkish government! Accusations of similar sorts were alleged against the civil rights movement too. Robert Welch wrote in JBS Bulletin (John Birch Society Bulletin, June 1965): "Our task must be simply to make clear that the movement known as 'civil rights' is Communist-plotted, Communist-controlled, and in fact...serves only Communist purposes."
People are afraid to send their kids to Hizmet schools, and they don't want to work with sympathetic business owners. The signs of the schools are being torn down by municipalities, their companies are being raided by police, defamations of all sorts are being circulated through a paid-off propaganda machine, and witch-hunts of all sorts are being conducted.
Discrimination and segregation based on race as experienced in the US cannot be compared to the current political controversy in Turkey. Turkey has its own extremely weak record on human rights based on ethnicity and sectarian differences with Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds. Ironically, fellow sunni Turks who did not conform to the uncompromising definition of the new citizen under the ultra-secularist Kemalist regime have been subjected to state violence and defamation arguably no less than the previous groups. Yet, it is very disappointing to see a country which was once considered in the first decade of the twenty-first century as a potential model in the Middle East to have turned into a regime with only minor differences, if any, from its authoritarian neighbors.
One thing that Hizmet shares with the Civil Rights Movement is an approach to countering oppression: using non-violence and positive action. Through this policy, Dr. King and his supporters were able to gather much support from the rest of the nation and eventually acquired their rights. Non-violence and positive action are the essence of the faith-inspired Hizmet Movement, too, and thankfully, there is a growing support for them in many of the 170 countries where they operate.
Tyranny cannot last long, and Turkey will certainly wake up soon to once again realize the importance of this mass movement of education and dialogue. Retaliation in kind is not in Hizmet's nature, so they will not slander back, they will not curse back, and they will never hurt back – these are against who they are. Those who support the oppressors against Hizmet are doing so either because of their envy for the achievements of Hizmet, because they cannot really believe their government could be this corrupt, or because it is in their best interest to continue to work closely with the government for their personal and/or institutional survival; this is the most accurate definition of slavery, where perhaps not the physical bodies, but their wills, values, and virtues are being compromised.
I have been writing this article at the time when Mr. Obama was preparing himself for a eulogy to be read at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina. The reverend was allegedly killed by a white supremacist. Despite many achievements that were earned during the Civil Rights Movement and despite the many obstacles the US has surpassed, such mass violence shows the US still has a long ways to go to true equality.
The word Selma is considered to have descended from either a Germanic root – the shortening of Anselma, from Germanic "ans," which means god, and "helm," which means helmet – or from an Arabic root of "salam," which means peace. Thus, Selma stands for a Godly protection in peace. Selma, as in the Turkish movie, is a journey to spring. It is a one-way road for innocent victims to leave behind all discrimination and maltreatment. Challenged by these ongoing discriminations, we hope both Turks and Americans will be victorious in this "clash of wills."