In the Suburbs: Missed Selma march, but will never forget the unnecessary victims

In early March 1965, when I was a junior at Northern Illinois University near Chicago, I walked through our student union one evening and saw a bus with a sign reading “March in Selma, Alabama.” Several students, both African American and white, were trying to recruit as many of us as possible to travel to that protest march to be led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I walked back and forth for about a half hour, trying to decide if I wanted to go. I was certainly angry enough about how many places in the South were disobeying or ignoring the guidelines of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and how many protests were already underway. But in the end, I didn’t get on that bus and to this day, I still have regrets. I also wonder what direction my life might have taken if I had become a protester or activist.

And then two weeks ago, after the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, pleading “I Can’t Breathe,” I missed another opportunity to march when a group of Fairfield’s non-violent protesters rallied, and was very disappointed in myself again. That day would have given me the chance to truly be a part of a long overdue movement to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, and they deserve to be honored and respected.

As I watched the footage of our committed protesters on the Fairfield Green, I realized that I could not remain silent in the wake of this inhumane treatment by a police officer. And if there are more opportunities to speak out or be visible, I hope to become involved.

The death of George Floyd, coupled with the same treatment toward Eric Garner in New York and a host of other African American victims around the United States, who were allegedly singled out as targets in adversarial situations with the police, finally pushed Americans of all races and creeds over the edge. Millions of people worldwide could no longer stand idly by while the lives and rights of African Americans are being trivialized on our nation’s streets.

Yes, there were some activists who chose a more violent path, but those individuals or groups were a minority compared to the legions of non-violent marchers, who began their crusade on the day of George Floyd’s death and have continued to march more than 2 weeks later. And their voices are finally reaching municipal, state and federal legislators, who really should have acknowledged long ago that Black Lives Must Matter.

In the last two weeks, I have heard many people commenting about why there is such a groundswell of people speaking out and shouting out now for equal treatment of African Americans by the police. My opinion is that if not now, when will there be another opportunity to make things right?

The people who are marching peacefully have not ignored George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” and appear to have no intention of stopping. They have seized the moment to ask once and for all, “When will the police treat African Americans suspected of crime with the same kind of dignity as whites? When will deadly choke holds be outlawed? When will the “trigger” of unexpected behavior by an alleged African American lawbreaker not result in a police officer pulling a trigger that takes a life?

These protesters are demanding answers to those questions today to municipal, state and national legislators. And they don’t just want answers. These marchers want actions and legislation. Charges and arrests should no longer be overturned by union power that easily restores police officers whose behavior toward African American men or women goes beyond the boundaries of racial profiling.

George Floyd’s death not only screamed “I can’t breathe,” his death became the long-overdue catalyst for people of all races and cultures to say, “Enough! All black lives matter. All black lives must be treated with respect and dignity by law enforcement.”

I read this week that Governor Lamont had signed an executive order to “reform state police, banning chokeholds, mandating intervention and written reports for excessive force, and requiring the creation of a public portal with town-specific data on when force is used by police. Clearly he heard the message of protesters in towns like ours across the state.

And legislation is underway in the House to toughen up on inappropriate law enforcement behavior now and not 50 years from now.

I am proud to support any continued peaceful protests and will look for opportunities this summer to become involved where I can. I am happy to affirm, more than 55 years after I missed the bus to the Selma march, that Black Lives Do Matter.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears on Friday. He can be reached at