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Selma Bound

Memphis women head to Alabama to remember the fateful Sunday march of 1965.

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On Sunday, thousands will descend upon Selma, Alabama, to remember the bloody Sunday 50 years ago when white state troopers attacked peaceful marchers who sought voting rights for black citizens.

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Memphians Rychetta Watkins and Joy Turner will be among those retracing the demonstrators' steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the attack. With them will be 500 fellow members of Girl Trek, a three-year-old national nonprofit that helps black women live healthier lives, primarily through local walking groups.

During the #Selma50 events, speakers will no doubt expound upon the marchers' determination and the subsequent 1965 Voting Rights Act (since gutted by the conservative faction of the Supreme Court). But without the physical capacity to walk, to put one foot in front of the other, to advance steadily despite the blasts of fire hoses, tear gas, police dogs, and even bullets, the movement would not move.

Without the act of walking, history would be stripped of the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Bloody Sunday march, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and even parts of the Underground Railroad.

"So much of what the activists did was centered around walking ... and claiming their right to public spaces," said Watkins, a program development consultant. "The Girl Trek story is about understanding our history and understanding that our strength begins with our physical health."

Both women take inspiration from one of Girl Trek's heroes, Mississippi voting rights activist and sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer.

Her most famous quote, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," spoke to the frustration that accompanied black Americans' attempts to gain the franchise.

But Hamer's words could also have a more literal interpretation. A video of her 1964 testimony before a Democratic National Convention's committee shows an overweight Hamer who gets stuck between two tables as she leaves the room. She can be seen breathing heavily as a man rushes up to move a table so she can pass by.

Hamer was just 59 when she died. I wonder if she would have lived longer if her existence as a black woman had not been endured, as author Zora Neale Hurston described in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, as the mule of the world.

Science has now proven what we could only intuit during the movement's early years: Chronic stress makes you sick, increasing your risk of weight gain, depression, and heart disease. It's no surprise that black women, subject to the double whammy of racism and sexism, are more likely to be obese, to have diabetes, heart disease, and to die earlier than white women from those diseases.

For Watkins, the intersection of human rights and health reminds her of the days when she was first learning West African dance. She asked her teacher: What do I have to do to be good at this?

The answer: You have to be strong.

"That resonates on so many levels," Watkins said. "We get trapped in this stereotype of a strong black woman in only an emotional sense. Too often we think it's a virtue to sacrifice our physical health to take care of our families and our communities."

Black women are strong because we have to be, Watkins said, but we can be smarter about how we fortify ourselves. "It starts with honoring your body," Watkins said. "That is what enables you to do all the rest."

Turner sees the Girl Trek trip as an opportunity to recommit to better health and voting in all elections, not just presidential ones. She was struck by the police brutality toward would-be black voters as captured in the riveting historical movie Selma.

"I don't think I would be strong enough to be out there walking arm in arm, getting beat in the face," said Turner, a grant and contract administrator for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

But she does have the strength to get on the bus and head to Selma. Said Watkins: "The journey continues for full equality for all Americans. The journey to make sure this country lives out the truth of its creed is by no means done."

To mark the distance of the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery, Girl Trek members are encouraged to pledge to walk 54 miles during the month of March. To learn more, go to girltrek.org.

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