This story was published in the June 2015 edition of Her Family.
Damon Bell took one step onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heard silence. Real silence, the kind that made him pause and remember.
This was where 600 people marched 50 years earlier, hoping to complete the 54-mile journey from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Instead, they were brutally assaulted by Alabama law enforcement officers, beaten with billy clubs, crushed by horses, and attacked by dogs in what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It would be the same path the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would take in his dress shoes in second and third marches to the capitol.
Now, here was Damon trudging along in his gray and white Air Jordan sneakers. He could feel this in the silence—the weight of history heavy on his 12-year-old shoulders. His father, Jermaine, had tears in his eyes.
“They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going
to get a chance to find out where I came from.” -Damon Bell
A white man sauntered up to Damon and his group near the middle of the bridge. He was holding a huge white sign that read simply, “I’m sorry.” He explained how he had lived in Selma when the marches happened and thought there was just nothing he could do to help.
“It was a sight I’ll never forget,” Jermaine recalls.
Damon wanted to explore the rich history of his people’s struggle. So, when the Omaha Housing Authority sponsored an essay contest in which students were asked to detail why they would like to make the trip to Selma, Damon just had to enter.
He wrote, “They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going to get a chance to find out where I came from.”
OHA football coach Gannie Clark hosted the contest, wanting to share the experience of Selma with a younger generation. He agreed with the sentiments in Damon’s essay.
“We need to teach tolerance before we are doomed,” he says.
OHA wanted to offer a chance for young people to participate in events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination for voters. Despite the thousands of people in attendance, Damon says, the entire day “was peace, a lot of peace.”
He saw influential black leaders such as President Barack Obama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III. And he talked with actor Chris Tucker, who gave Damon his autograph
At a museum in Selma, Jermaine noticed Damon on his phone as they observed the footage of what happened that fateful day on March 7, 1965. Damon just couldn’t stand to see people get hurt.
Jermaine told his son he needed to watch it even if it was tough.
“He needs to know what actually happened,” he says. “Our right to vote came with blood, sweat, and tears.”
Damon feels everyone should vote and even if someone believes it doesn’t really matter, it is important to take the chance.
Clark, who lived about 90 miles from the bridge, says the outing was good for Damon and the other kids to see a different perceptive. “Racism in Omaha is like racism in Selma,” Clark says. “I told the boys during the trip to use their anger to speak out, use their anger to fight against any kind of injustice. It isn’t a black/white thing. It is an American thing.”
Racism is getting worse, Jermaine believes. He doesn’t feel people are making progress. Damon knows it is still an issue, but feels like the world is changing.
He hopes the future will be full of peace. His goal is to someday be a professional football player or an engineer.
When Damon is not attending Scared Heart School as a sixth grader, his classroom is at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop where his father has worked for the past 20 years. Damon is a fixture there almost every day, listening and learning from such men as owner Dan Goodwin and others. Goodwin marched on Washington and shook hands with Malcolm X. A shop window broken over 46 years ago—intentionally left unrepaired to this day—is a powerful reminder of racial tensions in Omaha. A bullet (Goodwin believes fired by police) smashed the pane during the 1969 riots that erupted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed girl, 14-year-old Vivian Strong.
Jermaine says that is what makes his son a smart kid, learning both sides of the table.
Despite living in “the hood,” Jermaine will never leave. “I love North Omaha,” he says proudly.