Selma & Sharpeville

The Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March, regarded as a milestone of the modern civil rights movement, began on this day in 1965. The 3,000 who left Selma had become 25,000 by the time the march arrived in the Alabama state capital three days later, under full, if sometimes reluctant, police and military protection. At Canaan’s Edge (2006), the concluding volume of Taylor Branch’s award-winning trilogy, America in the King Years, chronicles the march in compelling detail, from the number of dynamite bombs found at departure to King’s explosive speech upon arrival: “How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?… How long? Not long!” Nor was it long, measuring by the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson five months later.

The UN has proclaimed today International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, not because of Selma but because of South Africa’s Sharpeville Massacre, which occurred on this day in 1960. Today is also World Poetry Day; excerpted below are the concluding lines of “The Child,” written by the South African poet Ingrid Yonker to commemorate Sharpeville and similar anti-apartheid protests, and read by President Nelson Mandela during the opening of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, in 1994:

The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
Nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
Nor at the police station in Philippi
Where he lies with a bullet through his head
The child is the shadow of the soldiers
On guard with their rifles saracens and batons
The child is present at all assemblies and legislation
The child peers through the windows of houses and into the hears of mothers
This child who just longed to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
The child grown into a man treks on through all Africa
The child grown into a giant journeys over the whole world
Carrying no pass

The poem’s last line refers to the specific cause of the protests in Sharpeville and elsewhere, the Pass Laws requiring black Africans to obtain and carry documentation proving they were authorized to live or move about in areas outside their designated “homelands.” The Pass Laws included a range of additional restrictions, for example the stipulation that black Africans could not hold a higher business position within a company than the lowest white employee.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at