The Selma March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 4, 2012 was part reenactment of the 1964 protest for voter rights and a 2012 march demonstrating against adding additional barriers to voting. I am a mature white woman raised in the south. I am disturbed about the recent explosion of televised discussions justifying adding voter registration requirements. The people talking are predominantly white middle-aged or mature politicians. I feel a strong sense of déjà. Oh man, I can’t believe I am hearing this rhetoric again.
I belong to the MSNBC Review Café where members can post an article about an interview. I decide that this event would be a perfect place to find someone to interview. I put brand new batteries in my rarely used hand-held recorder. I charge my camera up. My friend, Regina and I got up early that bright and windy March morning to drive down 82 West to Selma.
Selma is a small Southern town. The road leading to downtown Selma is dominated by tall churches that sit on wide grassy churchyards heavily shaded. We pass a large cemetery that is in deep shadow enclosed by a weathered black cast iron fence. I have to fight the urge to stop and go inside to explore. It is obviously very old. Then I wonder, is this the ‘white cemetery’? The initial impulse just doesn’t feel as inviting. I have come to Selma to honor those marchers that had the courage to gather together and march across that bridge to protest unfair barriers to voting. I realized that inside that cemetery along with so many good kind people were the haters. Men (and the women that supported their violent actions) now rested beneath some of those headstones. Were those men stirring in their graves today as so many of us, white, black, Latino and even Asian joined the march to protest any threat on those rights so dearly won?
Since we arrived early we were able to park only a few blocks away from the bridge entrance. Downtown Selma is full of two and three story red brick building that were once thriving local businesses. The main street and the ones immediately before the bridge were blocked off. Police cars lined each side of the main street, blue lights flashing.
There were people 3 or 4 deep behind each car waiting patiently for the go ahead to begin their pilgrimage across that bridge. Others wandered up and down the side street filled with vendors. Corndogs, smoked sausage, hot dogs, fried everything, drinks and merchandise were available. Few people were buying. I wondered if it was the economy or if the occasion just felt too solemn to walk around eating cotton candy.
Two o’clock came and went. I thought this was the time for the march to start. Rev. Al Sharpton had preached in Selma that morning in a nearby church and other national, state and local leaders had gathered to walk down Selma’s main street then march across the bridge. When I hazarded a guess out loud that Rev. Al was doing a lot more talking than walking, I saw more than a few agreeing smiles. I spent my time taking pictures of the crowd. I was determined to interview someone. I found a couple of elderly ladies with badges hanging from their necks, got their permission to take their picture but before I could get their names or ask any questions, their escort swept them away in the crowd and out of my sight.
Behind me I saw a young man with an AP badge hanging around his neck obviously working. I immediately focused on him like a medical resident watching a surgeon operate for the first time. He carried a small notebook and stood talking to different people writing as quickly as I had ever seen anyone fill a page. I kicked any illusion anyone there might have had of my good manners to the side of the street as I asked him his name so I could look up his newsfeed by his byline. His name was Andy Brownfield.
I unabashedly eavesdropped as he interviewed someone behind me. He was so smooth in introducing himself, asking his questions, silently putting the person he was speaking to at ease. He listened intently and I watched as the interviewee visibly relaxed. He wasn’t getting stilted responses but long thoughtful answers. I wanted to learn from a pro.
This built up my confidence. I began talking to people in the crowd. I meet this lovely woman and asked her if I could interview her. She was guarded and careful and I felt this was because she was black and I was white. She asked me where this interview would be published. I answered her and after her silent consideration for a few long minutes, she gave her permission. I showed her my voice recorder and she agreed to my recording her interview. “May I have your name?” I asked her first.
We talked for at least ten minutes. She had been a participant in the 1964 march and although only a child, she ended up in jail with her family. I couldn’t believe I was this fortunate to find this stately dignified woman in this crowd. We talked about her memories of the day. She described the things I expected but then when I asked what surprised her about that day, she spoke of the mounted policemen. She painted the scene for me of people being driven closer and closer together trying to avoid the horse’s hooves and the men’s cattle prods. She described how the older people were targeted as they were unable to run. She said many children tried to protect their grandparents and parents. She had been stung in the shoulder when she lunged in front of the prod aimed at her mother. I listened intently. Far too soon she told me she had to go. I thanked her for talking with me.
I watched the passing human walking parade and then joined the second line of tired, hungry and foot sore marchers finally able to begin their walk across the bridge. The picture you see here is of my friend Regina crossing that bridge. We got held up several times on our way up the bridge while Rev. Al stopped and spoke. None of the people near us could hear him. Evidently few in the crowd could either, for a lot of people stopped trying to listen and circled around the tight cluster that surrounded him. That opened a lane for us to go through.
I looked down at the Alabama River when I got to the top. It was placid and peaceful. I looked up and to the right were a line of mostly white policemen standing and talking against the bridge rail. They were on duty, watchful but relaxed smiling often at the crowd. There was no feeling of menace today. But I remembered the story I had just heard and thought about men on horseback terrorizing children, women, men and the old. “Please God,” I prayed, “never again. Please never again.”
We left before dark and returned home. I couldn’t wait to listen to my recording and begin this article. I pushed the button to play and my voice recorder picked up all of 8 minutes of sound. I heard shuffling, coughing and just plain noise but no interview, not even the first part with her name. I felt sick that I did not have a recording of her powerful and compelling voice describing her eyewitness account.
I am writing this article to confess how dismal my first attempt was at doing an interview. I don’t plan to stop. But that was the first and last time using only a hand-held voice recorder. I am buying a small notebook and multiple pens. I am going to follow Andy Brownfield’s example of conducting interviews.