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Three African-American Police Leaders: Why We Walked from Selma to Montgomery After the Police Killing of George Floyd

Heather Prince

    Jimmie Lee Jackson was an African-American civil rights activist and church deacon from Marion, AL. After trying to register to vote unsuccessfully with family members, he believed it was his civic duty to work against the oppressive laws and tactics that made it impossible for Blacks to vote in the south. Mr. Jackson - inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -went to Selma, AL to help with voter registration. After participating in a peaceful organized march, Jackson – who was unarmed – was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper. Mr. Jackson’s death was one of the catalysts that led to Dr. King’s 1965 march of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators from Selma to Montgomery.

    Similar narratives exist today where African Americans have suffered from excessive police use of force. Over the last two months, we have watched the nation respond to acts of injustice, racism, and police brutality. Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds have united in their protests and demands for legislative action and policing reforms. As African-American police leaders, these disturbing events have caused us to deeply reflect on how we navigate the landscape of being Black men in America while leading within the ranks of our police departments.

    In a time where there is a desire to abolish or defund the police, we found ourselves confronting history on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a former Confederate senior officer to take the same journey of the civil rights marchers in 1965.

    Standing on that bridge on the first day of our own pilgrimage, we imagined activists on one side and Alabama State Troopers on the other - an image we see from the police lines and protestors today. Although law enforcement has made progressive reforms, it seems that we continue to revisit history. Our feelings are found in an expression by poet Maya Angelou who said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

    Under the scorching August Alabama heat, we walked in the footprints of civil rights leaders and activists, taking the 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery. Over the next two and a half days were walked approximately 20 miles a day, getting rained on, often feeling dehydrated with swollen feet and pain in each hip. What kept us going was remembering the peril the civil rights activists experienced during the 1960’s and feeling the support from motorists who offered encouraging words after stopping and talking to us and honked their horns in support. During our journey, an Alabama resident reminded us, “This is not a physical journey, but a spiritual transformation.”

    On Sunday morning we found ourselves standing on the stone steps of the Alabama State Capitol, where we reflected on what we learned along our journey to bridge the gap between police and community.

I See You:

    In today’s discourse, if you are pro-police, you must be racist, and if you think black lives matter, you must think blue lives don’t. In our judgement, this is a false dichotomy that brings disharmony. For many African Americans, police misconduct reopens a chronic wound that is often treated but never healed. As American police departments, we should be working continuously to better meet the needs of underserved communities. This ideology does not discredit the men and women who risk their lives daily to serve and protect. Police leaders and communities alike need to acknowledge officers who do not dishonor their calling. However, Officers who understand history have the strongest commitment to ensuring it isn’t repeated. “I see you” means; Above all, I acknowledge your humanity. During the time of the Selma to Montgomery March, Alabama State Troopers saw activists as enemies rather than human beings. As police leaders, we should be the strongest advocates for and examples of civil rights and equality.

I Hear You:

    Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” The challenges we have as a nation are not rooted in policing or government. They are rooted in the moral failure to enact changes in policy, systems and legislation that perpetuate public harm. “I hear you means” that one will take fundamental steps to implement changes for improvement. The Selma to Montgomery March resulted in challenging the unjust nature of the law and ultimately led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We as a nation are overdue for legislative reform of our criminal justice system to reduce disparate impacts on people of color and advance fair, equitable justice for all.

I Am Accountable to You:

    Dr. King stated, “People do not get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other, they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Police play a vital role in keeping communities safe, but we the police must be able to listen and feel uncomfortable for truth to be spoken. Police and communities have to engage in progressive dialogue and work together in order for there to be sustainable change.

Evidence-Based Policing
    As pracademics, we share the sentiment in the infusion of more research in policing. We need more evidence-based policies to inform our policies and procedures. In a time where we need to heal moving forward, we need to increase trust and legitimacy with our communities. Gallup recently conducted a poll showing confidence in the police is at a near 30-year low.

    Partnerships between researchers, community members, and police must be established and strengthened if we want to see the trend move in the opposite direction. We need more research looking at de-escalation training so we can keep officers and community members safe. Our commitment to you is that we will continue to use our platform to push for more evidence-based policing policies​ to increase legitimacy in policing.

    The late Congressman John Lewis stated we must work to “redeem the soul of America.” For us, as scholars and police leaders, it means we must have a collective conscience as police and community to never settle for the status quo. There is work to be done. On the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, white Americans, although it was unpopular, walked with African-Americans to achieve a democracy that would represent justice for all. During our walk, persons from all walks of life including police said thank you for what you are doing and thank you for your service. We all must be committed to addressing our 54th mile to eliminate the injustices that face our nation.


Tarrick McGuire is a Deputy Police Chief in Arlington, TX, and expert on community-police relations.

Shon Barnes is a retired Deputy Police Chief of Salisbury, NC, and recognized for research in racial disparities.

Obed Magny is a police officer in Sacramento, CA, and an expert in emotional intelligence.