Wednesday, March 07, 2007


A tale of two cities

Take the name of a place that's known for what happened there in the 1690s. Make an anagram of that name that names a place known for what happened there in the 1960s.
That's my wording of a puzzle that was on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR's Weekend Edition around 1995 — my wording, because the web site only has the puzzles back to 1996, so I can't find it there.

The answers are

  • Salem (Massachusetts), in the 1690s, and
  • Selma (Alabama), in the 1960s.
And for neither place can we say that “it was the best of times.”


There's a lot of misunderstanding about the Salem witch trials, among those who haven't made a point of knowing about it. Ask the average person what happened in Salem — what, exactly, was done to how many people — and you're likely to hear that “hundreds” were “burned as witches”. In fact, 19 were convicted of being witches and were hanged, and one was pressed to death, having refused to enter a plea. No one was burned.

Not everything about what happened is clear, nor will it ever be. We don't know whether the young girls who started the chain of accusations were playing a prank that got out of hand, were intentionally trying to harm people, were mentally ill, or were afflicted with a physical disease that affected their behaviour. What is clear is that back then, unexplained things were often attributed to witchcraft, and unexplained behaviour was considered a symptom of possession by evil spirits. We might laugh at that now, but for the horrific results in 1692.

The Salem witch trials are a shameful part of our past, and in recent years the convictions have been officially overturned, a formality that has “cleared the names” of those accused. If you visit Salem, though, why not skip the cheesy witch “museums”, and spend a day at the excellent Peabody Essex Museum instead.


Selma, Alabama, was a central spot for the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. On Sunday, 7 March 1965, 42 years ago today, hundreds of civil rights marchers left Selma to march to the state capitol in Montgomery, some 50 miles away, to protest the blocking of blacks from registering to vote. The police were waiting, and the marchers were beaten and tear-gassed, leaving many bloody and 17 hospitalized. The unashamed police, believing themselves right, did this in front of the news media, and news photos of bloody marchers went around the world, giving the day the name "Bloody Sunday".

A march two weeks later succeeded in reaching the capitol, picking up supporters along the way and ending with some 25,000 marchers arriving there on 25 March. These protests publicised the systemic problems with voting in the south, and helped the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to require voters to pass “tests” before they're allowed to register. It also allows federal officials to take over voter registration under certain situations.

It was the Voting Rights Act, and, indirectly, the marches from Selma, that broke through the barriers for southern blacks, and that actually gave them the right to vote that had been granted by the fifteenth amendment to the US Constitution, 95 years earlier.

Two towns, each exposing shameful parts of our past. We don't accuse people of being witches any more. Some day, the other shame will have disappeared as well. In the meantime, we have to be happy with the progress we've made, remember it, and use it as motivation to continue.

1 comment:

Miss Profe said...

I visited Salem, MA with my brother about ten years ago, on Halloween as a matter of fact. Being the history geeks that we are, this was our first stop. We were very moved by all that we heard, read and saw. I also read about the Salem Witch Trials as part of a history course on Colonial America in college.

On the other hand, I have never visited Selma, AL. However, as a Black American, I know all too well the events which transpired there. Furthermore, I am a direct beneficiary: I was born the year thev Voting Act was made into law: 1965.

The thing that impresses me most about the South is that, unlike other regions of the country, it was forced to deal with its race problem.