Lynda Lowery had been jailed nine times before she was 15 for her civil rights activism. By the time she reached that age, she was the youngest person to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
March 21 marked the 53rd anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Now, another protest centering around violence is brewing. On March 24, students who survived the Parkland, Florida, shooting, which took the lives of 17 students and teachers, will march on Washington to protest gun control in the United States.
“[The Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School Students] are fighting against violence and using nonviolence to do so,” Lowery told Blavity. “It gives me hope and makes me proud that they can look back and see the nonviolent movement was a successful movement.”
Seeing something of herself within the students of the tragic school shooting, Lowery remembered finding the catalyst for her activism in her mother’s untimely death. She was only 7 years old when her mother sustained injuries and a sickness she had not yet understood. Her mom was taken to the closest hospital, which was for whites only. Her illness was barely attended to, and she passed away from this neglect.
“My mother died, and my grandmother and aunt were saying that she wouldn’t have died if she wasn’t colored,” Lowery recalled. “At the time, I knew white people didn’t like black people, but I didn’t know they would hate me and my sister so much that they would let my mother die; or hate my grandmother so much that they would let her daughter die; or hate my father so much that they would let his wife die. So at the age of seven, I vowed that when I got big I was going to change things. I was going to make sure nobody ever grew up without a mommy again because of the color her skin.”
Between this promise and the hurt experienced from her mother’s loss, Lowery’s grandmother felt it was important they go to church to attend a sermon by a well-known pastor: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lowery was 13 years old when she was first moved by the words of the iconic civil rights activist.
“I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about – the right to vote and nonviolence – but I knew it was something I wanted to help with,” she said. “He was saying ‘You can get anybody to do anything with steady, loving confrontation,’ and I felt like I heard him say, ‘Lynda, you can do this!’ I jumped up while he was speaking and yelled, ‘I can do it!’ and my grandmother yanked me back down. Back then children were supposed to be seen and not heard.”
By then, it was too late for her grandmother or anyone else to stop a young Lowery from speaking out. On Jan. 2, 1965, Dr. King came to Selma. He led marches in protest of voter restrictions that made it difficult for black people to vote. Those in minority communities were forced to pass tests in order to vote, and whites were not held to the same standard.
“[The tests] had questions like, ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap?’ Or, ‘How deep is the Alabama River?’” Lowery remembered. “Nothing to do with the Constitution.”
The injustice continued, and although many regarded the protests as mature acts of nonviolence, Lowery remembers them as a children’s movement. Many demonstrators were forced to go to jail for the day. Parents often refrained for fear of losing their jobs and the consequence it might have had on their kids. So Lowery, her friends and other black students organized themselves to be at the forefront.
“We had black teachers who were the smartest people we knew but who could not vote because they couldn’t pass the registration tests,” Lowery said. “So we kids marched because it was something we felt we had to do to bring about change. We would march, and officers wouldn’t take us to jail. They would take us to the National Guard Armory for the day and wouldn’t allow us to sit. While we were out of school, students whose parents didn’t let them march played their own part and took tests for us, and the teachers allowed it. Everyone was supportive of our movement.”
While Lowery’s father championed her activism, he often warned her not to get hurt. However, on March 7, also known as Bloody Sunday, protests turned nasty when demonstrators were beaten. Lowery, who was just 14 years old at the time, was beaten so badly that she required seven stitches over her right eye and 28 stitches in the back of her head, where there is still a lump today.
But the racial violence didn't deter her. When Dr. King asked for citizens to walk from Selma to Montgomery to protest the unjust murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a peaceful protester who was killed on Bloody Sunday, Lowery made her second vow to return to Selma.
“I was going to go. I was going to run away if I had to. I wanted the governor to know that I had 35 stitches, and nobody on that bridge who was beaten had done anything to deserve that kind of brutality,” Lowery said. “I wanted the governor to know that I was going to grow up and be an educated, black woman, and he had met his worst nightmare.”
Lowery turned 15 on the second day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, and today, as she watches students the same age as she'd been when she took the political stage, she cannot help but feel proud.
“The movement has come full circle, and this is how it’s supposed to be,” Lowery said. “Our young people are awesome in their thinking, and they need to take wisdom from their elders in the old movements and put that logic into their own thoughts today; they can be extremely powerful.”
Looking back on the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago and where we are today, Lowery is happy with her work but sees that there is much more to be done. However, nothing will be finished if youth believe their vote, voice or activism does not matter.
“If anybody told me 53 years ago that I would be fighting nonviolently for the same things I went to jail for, was beaten for and walked for, then I would have told them that they didn’t know what they were talking about,” Lowery said. “I’m on a mission now. We started a job we could not complete in our lifetime and we need the energy of the young to come in and complete it. This is your time. This is your time to make a difference.”