Morgan State President David Wilson, an Alabama resident who grew up about an hour from the site of the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, is returning to the area for this weekend's 50th Anniversary commemoration.
But amid the popular sentiment over an event highlighted by the recent motion picture, "Selma," Wilson said he initially vowed not to attend. He felt he didn't need a motion picture – which he says he still hasn't seen – or a commemoration to understand the moment's place in America's social fabric.
"When I speak of issues of poverty and justice, I'm not just engaging in some ephemeral intellectual discussion, it's personal for me," said Wilson. He grew up during the Jim Crow era in impoverished McKinley, Ala., about a half hour west of Selma, in a region known as the Black Belt for the color of the mineral rich topsoil that helped make cotton a staple crop.
Wilson said he was invited to attend the Selma commemoration by a community foundation in the Black Belt region he helped launch while serving as vice president for university outreach at Auburn University.
After initially deciding not to attend, he thought back to how those years shaped his youth.
The son of share croppers, he and his siblings had to till the fields during a harvest period so extensive that he didn't attend formal school on a regular basis until seventh grade. His elementary school classes comprised five grades in one room, with one teacher.
Desperate for a better life, fueled toward education by such teachers as the sister of Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy, Wilson left the area bent on never returning, graduated from Tuskegee University then onto Harvard. Years later he returned his home state for the Auburn post.
It was there he visited Selma on university business and met Mayor Joe Smitherman, who presided over the city during the March 7, 1965 event that became known as Bloody Sunday, when protesters were beaten by sheriff's deputies and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Wilson said Smitherman once gave him a key to the city.
Wilson's reflections prompted him to change his mind about the Selma event. He was slated to leave for Alabama on Friday.
"I decided I needed to do this," said Wilson. "I owe it to my parents and my grandparents to be a part of this 50th anniversary because of all the sacrifices they made. No one in my family were civil rights leaders, but all the stuff civil rights leaders were fighting for were to lead them to a higher level of advantage and respectability."
Wilson said he will take part in some of the events this weekend, which are part of a slate that runs through Aug. 8 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the voting rights act.
"No way I would have done the things I did had it not been for those marchers being brave enough to fight for freedom and justice," Wilson added. "As a son of Alabama and the Black Belt, I wanted to be there to pay homage to my ancestors, many who died so we can have the choices we have."