SELMA, AL – Presidents Bush and Obama and their wives, Congressman John Lewis and numerous of his legislative colleagues, and various clergy, including Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios, traveled to Selma, the Alabama city most famously known for the 1965 marches that sparked a major turning point in American civil rights, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of those tumultuous and transformative events.
The Selma marches were a turning point for all Americans. Certainly for the millions of African-Americans and other persons of color who had been denied the right to vote by prejudiced segments of Southern Society that made that basic American principle a practical impossibility because of a combination of Draconian red tape, intimidation, and actual physical (sometimes fatal) force. But also for white Americans, most of whom felt an increased sense of pride to live in a nation where the basis of their Declaration of Independence became more meaningful in deed, not just in word, and fewer of them, who begrudgingly acknowledged that the majority of their fellow Americans did not equate superiority and inferiority with skin color.
Also benefitting in 1965 was the Greek-American community, whose members were oppressed in the South as well for decades – inspiring the establishment of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) in 1922 – the face of which that year and for many years since was Archbishop Iakovos, Demetrios’ immediate predecessor.
After brutal attacks by Alabama State Troopers on civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, led by John Lewis, whose skull was fractured, a day that lived in infamy as “Bloody Sunday,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon fellow members of the clergy across the United States to join the cause. Iakovos answered the call and marched, hand-in-hand with King, two days later. That iconic photograph was captured on the cover of LIFE Magazine (March 19, 1965). The 2014 film Selma depicted the events, in which Michael Shikany portrayed Iakovos, and Greek-American actor Michael Papajohn played the role of Major John Cloud, the commanding officer on Bloody Sunday.
President Obama offered balanced words – though some media outlets chose to report only one side of the message – suggesting that while racism has not been eradicated over the past half century, a great deal of progress has been made. “If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years,” the president said, “ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.” But, he added: “a more common mistake is to suggest…that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the ‘race card’ for their own purposes.”
President Bush’s attendance of the event, significant as he was one of only four other living presidents, was only marginally reported by the media.
Notably, the Bushes took their seats first, followed by the Obamas, consistent with protocol of a former First Couple entering prior to the current one. In great reverence to Congressman Lewis, however, he was the final person introduced – after the two First Couples. Lewis’ own address can be summed up by his statement, which he delivered with powerful emotion, that “there is still work to be done.”
Archbishop Demetrios, who walked across the Pettus Bridge, told the press: “Today we remember the fight, the faith, the persistence and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we also remember the courage of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory and their time together here in Selma. It is a very significant and moving day, a day of deep emotions, thankfulness to God for what was achieved, and fervent prayer for the work that lies ahead.”
Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, who attended the commemoration, described it to TNH as a “once-in-a lifetime opportunity to participate in a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. In 1965, 25 year-old John Lewis, with whom I now serve in Congress, led that march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He and dozens of others were savagely beaten by Alabama State troopers on March 7 in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The country’s outrage at this senseless violence turned the tide in the struggle for federal legislation to protect the right to vote. Days later, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would bring a Voting Rights Act to Congress and four months after that, it passed.”
The Congressman expressed a heartfelt “thank you to John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the other foot soldiers of the civil rights movement who refused to back down in Selma. We know that there is one thing above all others we can do to repay the debt we owe you for your bravery and sacrifice. It is the one thing we must encourage others to do as well. It is the thing that will restore hope and power to our democracy.” Sarbanes’ father, Paul, was elected to the Maryland House of delegates and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate.
Michael Shikany, who gave an extensive interview to TNH in January (“Selma Shows Arch. Iakovos as Champion of Civil Rights,” Jan. 31), again shared his thoughts, this time about the commemoration: “Naturally, even though I only had a small role in the great movie, I feel very close to what’s happened there this weekend and even what happened 50 years ago. I tried to learn more about Archbishop Iakovos. I found that he is an icon among the Greeks in this country.”
Michael Papajohn told TNH he considered it “an honor to be a part of the film Selma.
Then, to actually watch the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday was surreal for me.
It was a defining moment in history that is appreciated and will never be forgotten. On that day, Archbishop Iakovos and others answered a call to action by Dr. King. A call that we have on a daily basis of bringing us one step closer to the dream.”
Papajohn also said that when he first met Shikany on the set, who was dressed as Iakovos, he approached him and asked: “ti kaneis?” (“how are you?”) to which Shikany responded “kala” “fine”).Source: The National Herald