From Selma to Ferguson and back: Has anything changed?

Story highlights

50 years ago, a brutally squashed civil rights march in Selma led to the landmark Voting Rights Act

Now, the Alabama city is again in the spotlight with the new movie "Selma"

The leaders of this struggling city respect its brave past but quarrel over how to move forward

Selma, Alabama CNN —  

There are places where ghosts of the past linger. One of them is Selma, where the Edmund Pettus Bridge carries Highway 80 over the murky Alabama River.

Some residents wish the city had torn down the bridge and built a new one after the brutality that took place on it five decades ago. But the 75-year-old structure still stands, and anyone who knows its history is forced to ponder it in crossing.

The ghosts are here on this winter day as Faya Rose Toure picks up her signs and strains to get out her chants, her voice hoarse from previous protests. She often hurls her wrath at power brokers, and today William Riley, the city’s police chief, is one of her targets.

She has chosen the bridge precisely because of what it symbolizes.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot! I can’t breathe!” she yells with about 15 others, referring to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner’s in New York. The unarmed black men were killed by white police officers, their deaths sparking nationwide protests.

But added to her chorus is this: “Show the tape!” It’s a demand that Riley release footage of a police shooting in Selma more than a year ago.

Toure, a longtime activist, draws strength from the civil rights struggle that reached a crescendo at this bridge. These days, she feels the movement coming to life again, reinvigorated by Ferguson.

Toure’s salt and pepper braids are tied back. She wears a T-shirt advertising the Save OurSelves (SOS) Movement for Justice and Democracy over a red long-sleeve shirt and pants. Her crimson lipstick matches her shirt perfectly.

She lies in the middle of the bridge’s road in a “die-in” mimicking others that have recently unfolded across the nation.

On March 7, 1965, a protest on this bridge – named after a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard – exposed America at its worst. White troopers beat back 600 civil rights marchers on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery. The protesters’ demand was for the removal of impediments that kept black people from their right to vote.

That march, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” moved the nation to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The new movie “Selma” portrays that day in vivid detail.

Some, like Toure, believe Ferguson has the potential to become the Bloody Sunday of its time.

Protesters in Missouri made references to Selma, and now the nationwide release of the film January 9 also has thrust the town back into the national spotlight.

But how far has Selma come since Bloody Sunday?

Toure sees it as a place that requires help as much as it ever did, a city long forgotten by a nation that changed because of it. Others, including many in the ranks of the city’s new leadership, want to honor the past but caution against dwelling on it.

So it is that Selma’s history hangs heavy over its people, who quarrel about the present – and how to move forward.

On this day, Toure’s die-in clogs traffic on the bridge. City employee James Benderson, out on a lunch break, phones the police.

“Is this a genuine protest or a staged media event?” he asks, skeptical that the year-old Selma police shooting is worthy of protest.

Toure’s husband, nine-term state Sen. Hank Sanders, ambles over to the police cars that pull up. He uses his status to stave off trouble.

“Officer,” he says, “I understand this is just for four minutes.”

The officers back off. Toure gets up and leads about a dozen others down the bridge toward their next stop.

Manifestations of a struggle

The police department sits only a few blocks from the bridge in downtown Selma, which is sprinkled with drugstores, banks, offices and shops. Many buildings look weary from years of neglect and offer nothing now but darkness, dust and disillusion.

“Selma, a nice place to live,” say the banners on the lampposts.

Inside Selma’s original City Hall, helmets, billy clubs and bullhorns fill glass display cases along the first-floor hallway. Also featured: a gas mask and a cattle prod.

Riley, the police chief, found these items in the basement and thought they should be dusted off and exhibited at police headquarters. They’re pieces of history that serve as reminders, he says, of where Selma once was.

Riley is not in his office to hear Toure’s chants outside. But even if he were, her accusations of police brutality in Selma would not faze him.

Toure has taken to the streets to protest the killing of Ananias Shaw, 74. Police say they shot and killed him in December 2013 after he rushed an officer while wielding a hatchet. Video of the incident, captured on an officer’s lapel camera, proved the shooting was justified, officials said. A grand jury heard the case, saw the footage and decided in June not to issue an indictment.

Ferguson, Toure says, awakened her to what she considers a total lack of transparency in the Shaw case. She and family members demanded the release of the video. It was finally shown to family, and to CNN, a few weeks ago and recently released to the public. For family members, it raised more questions than it answered.

Riley has no illusions about the tensions between police and black men.

“There’s a problem that needs to be looked at,” he says. “What’s going on in America, a lot of people are upset.”

His voice rises as he shares details about talks he’s given his own son. It’s a conversation repeated in many black households.

“If the police stop you, don’t fidget! Don’t move your arms around. … Look at yourself. You’re big. You’re 6-foot-5, 210 pounds. I don’t want them saying your actions made them afraid of you. I’d rather deal with a ticket or deal with an arrest than deal with a coroner.”

But to put the Selma shooting in the context of Brown’s in Ferguson and Garner’s chokehold death in New York, he says, is “wrong and disingenuous.”

“We’re no Ferguson,” Riley says, and saying otherwise not only hurts the message but also insults Brown’s family.

Ananias Shaw was armed. He was black. So was the officer who shot him.

The majority of Selma residents – 80% – are black, much like Ferguson. But the two cities could not differ more when it comes to leadership.

Riley is black, as is Selma’s mayor, district attorney, school superintendent and the majority of the city council. These leaders have ascended, taking seats once denied African-Americans during slavery, then under Jim Crow.

They are perhaps the greatest manifestation of the struggle that took place in this city.

So it may seem odd to see a longtime civil rights lawyer and activist like Toure focus her energy against a black establishment. But that is the new Selma, she says. Yes, there are black faces. But what prevails, she says, is the same white mentality that black lives don’t matter.

“Selma is the birthplace of democracy. For this to happen here. …”

An outsider looking in

Riley was lured to Selma from the East Coast in 2008. The police force had already changed from majority white to majority black by then. But a 2007 assessment called for improved training, aggressive recruiting and consistent disciplinary action.

Selma was looking for an outsider to step in, someone untouched by local politics.

That person was Riley, 53, a married father of two who had retired as a captain from the police department in Newport News, Virginia.

David Oyelowo stars as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in "Selma."
Paramount Pictures
David Oyelowo stars as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in "Selma."

Riley says he knew there were those who didn’t want him here – “a small number of people,” he says – either because he wasn’t a familiar face or because his face was black. But he’s paid them no mind. Any hangup about him is their problem, not his, he says.

Moving here, he welcomed a new challenge. Friends thought he was crazy.

“Oh, hell, man! You’re going to the South?” he remembers some saying, with a laugh. “You’re not going to last down there.”

But last he has – for seven years, come March.

He’s grown to love small-town policing. Selma is the sort of place where residents call him directly, knock on his front door and show up on his lawn to settle disputes.

Riley isn’t the first black police chief in town. That title belongs to Earnest Tate, who retired in 2002.

The way white officers looked at Tate, he knew they didn’t want him around. But he refused to be daunted.

“If you don’t like me, I’m going to make you like me,” was his attitude, he says. They warmed up quickly, and Tate, now 78, rose up the ranks.

Since arriving in 2008, Riley has focused on the work and less on gaining favor, perhaps a luxury he enjoys thanks to those before him who paved the way.

Riley has chipped away at the crime rate, beefed up partnerships with the community, implemented in-house training programs and acquired equipment to improve policing, including the lapel cameras that recorded the shooting of Ananias Shaw.

And as a result of the Shaw shooting, officers in this cash-strapped city now have Taser guns. Had one been used on Shaw, he might be alive today.

Riley describes himself as forward thinking but acknowledges that the past, at times, weighs heavy in Selma.

“There are tensions in the air – whether it’s you or the Pope, I won’t lie to anyone,” he says. “But when you approach Selma coming over that bridge, you recognize the city has great potential.”

Spirit of the time

Toure believes Selma could benefit from the events in Ferguson, which she sees as a pivotal moment.

“When those people walked across the bridge, they didn’t know it would lead to the Voting Rights Act,” she says. “Selma was the right time and right place. And Ferguson could be that.”

She says police justify the killing of Brown in the same way police justified the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young, unarmed civil rights protester who was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965.

The trooper, James Bonard Fowler, faced no repercussions for 42 years. Finally, in 2007, he was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor manslaughter charge. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

But Jackson’s death galvanized civil rights activists at the time to organize the march that became Bloody Sunday.

“Ferguson is energy, the spirit of the time,” Toure says. It’s the first time in many years she has seen black people awaken from complacency.

She drives around town in her brand new cream-colored Kia Soul. Her iPhone rings incessantly. She likes to talk, every sentence laden with the moxie that has made her a brand in Alabama.

She turns onto Boyntons Street, renamed just a few months ago to honor civil rights activists Sam Boynton and Amelia Boynton Robinson. Sam Boynton died in 1963; his wife went on to play an instrumental role in making Selma a battleground for equal rights. Now 103 and living in Tuskegee, Alabama, Boynton Robinson is portrayed in the new movie.

The street named for the couple runs only five blocks on what was Lapsley Street, not the entire stretch of the road. That’s why Toure felt the renaming was bittersweet.

It was a slight, she says, especially after the city council agreed to erect a new monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general accused of massacring black soldiers and a “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. Toure fought the effort but two black council members joined their white counterparts in voting for approval.

Toure drives into Live Oak Cemetery, past Spanish moss-laden trees and rows of Confederate flags marking the graves of the Old South. In the middle, workers are installing the monument.

“We fought hard but we lost this one,” she says, shaking her head.

A young black man is watering the fresh sod. She is glad to see him working – so many young people are jobless in Selma – but is appalled at the sight of black youth tending to the Confederacy.

“Hey,” yells Toure. “Do you know who Nathan Bedford Forrest is?”

“No,” replies the man.

“Just read about him. He was the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.”

For Toure, the honor bestowed on Forrest exposes Selma’s ghosts.

“He gets an acre of land and a monument. The Boyntons get five blocks,” she says. “What does that tell you?”

Toure has been a thorn in the side of Selma’s establishment for decades. And she makes for a formidable foe.

“It’s in my blood,” she says. “I feel compelled.”

Faya Rose Toure draws from her African roots in her activism. Her office is filled with images that evoke the past.
William Widmer for CNN
Faya Rose Toure draws from her African roots in her activism. Her office is filled with images that evoke the past.

Born a preacher’s daughter in North Carolina, Toure landed at Harvard Law School, where she met and married her husband. They could have acquired jobs with big law firms up North but instead they headed to Selma. It was the start of the 1970s, and Toure knew there was much work still to be done.

“Selma is small enough where you dare to think you can make a change,” she says.

She was at the heart of several major civil rights cases, including one that led to billions of dollars in damages for black farmers. She spearheaded the effort to end a system of “tracking” students by ability in schools, which essentially warehoused black students in inferior classes. And she founded a group that educates young people about the political process and encourages their involvement.

The first black woman to become a judge in Alabama, Toure created the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute and each year coordinates the Bridge Crossing Jubilee to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

She was known as Rose Sanders until 2003, when she decided to walk into the probate office and shed her slave name. She chose a West African name: Faya Toure.

Toure has a lot of respect for Jewish people who have kept alive the memory of all those who perished in the Holocaust. If only African-Americans would treat slavery the same way.

“We rested on our laurels,” she says about the era after the civil rights struggle. “We hung up our shoes.”

So, generations later, she says, not enough has changed.

With almost 42% of Selma’s residents living below the poverty line, or on less than $22,000 for a family of four, Toure says, the Queen City of Alabama’s Black Belt is hurting badly.

The new segregation

Segregation has long been illegal, but in Selma, the gap between black and white remains wide. Some say wider than ever.

About 20,000 people live here, almost 10,000 fewer than in 1965. Back then, the city was half black and half white, but Selma suffered from white flight after segregation ended.

After a bitter, racially divided fight over tracking, whites sent their children to private institutions and the public schools in Selma became almost all black.

Accountant Robert Stewart, 24, graduated from Selma High School in 2008. He did not know a single white student. He has no white friends.

The lack of integration in the schools was the biggest shock for the police chief when he settled in Selma.

“I remember my daughter and my son came home from school and said, ‘Daddy, where the white people at?’” Riley says.

As much as Riley came with notions of changing the police department, he gave up on the schools. His wife and daughter, a middle schooler, no longer live in Selma with him. They returned to Newport News more than 18 months ago because of the schools. Their son is a junior in college.

Just months after they left, the state took over the Selma schools. While the system is improving, Riley says it will likely be another year before he’ll have his wife and daughter back.

Riley also can’t get his head around dropout rates in the black community.

“Less than 100 years ago, it was illegal for me to get an education. Now we can’t keep minorities in school. I tell my kids, ‘You hold the key to your futures.’”

In Selma the future for young African-Americans often looks bleak. That’s why Stewart, the accountant who was born and raised there, is moving to Atlanta to work.

“There are limited opportunities for growth,” Stewart says. “People in leadership did not push economic development for many years. Selma is a very resilient place but it’s also a place that’s stagnant.”

Irving Smith, a 42-year-old father of three, is planning to open a shop that will do custom painting, rims and tires. But, he says, Selma has done little to help entrepreneurs like him. This will be his fourth crack at starting a business. Try getting a loan in Selmont, the area of town where he lives, he says, and you can forget about it.

But city officials say residents aren’t taking advantage of assistance the city offers. They point to entrepreneurial workshops and training programs that they say are sparsely attended.

But if you ask Smith, black men in Selma are going through the same struggles of yesteryear.

“All that got forgotten,” he says, motioning toward the historic bridge and referencing the strides made there. “There may have been a shift of guard, but they still have a puppeteer.”

That’s what Toure believes. Still, some longtime residents see her activism as well-intentioned but harmful to the city.

Former City Councilman Jim Durry, 86, says Toure did not preach inclusivity at a time when blacks and whites needed to come together to solve Selma’s bevy of problems.

“There was a feeling of getting along” after the successes of 1965, he says, and then she showed up.

“She was divisive,” says Durry, who is black and served on the city council from 2002 to 2006. “Rose came into Selma and started talking blackness. … She made the whites here in Selma have a different attitude.”

Now whites have abandoned the city, Durry says, and Selma has become “too black in terms of the city structure.” He believes Selma needs a different kind of face charge. That face, he says, should be white.

As controversial as that might sound, Durry believes a white mayor would be more successful in luring businesses and investments into the struggling city.

Another former city councilman and state legislator, Yusuf Abdus-Salaam, 66, says Washington’s politics pale in comparison to Selma’s. To succeed here, a person needs to walk with others and be sensitive to different perspectives.

He says the past consumes Toure. It’s like an ominous cloud following her into the future.

Never and no more

Riley understands the significance of holding a law enforcement position in Selma. It was, after all, the brutality of Sheriff Jim Clark on Bloody Sunday that swayed the nation’s attitude on civil rights.

Clark wore a lapel button emblazoned with a single word: “Never,” meaning never integrate. On Bloody Sunday, when someone called for an ambulance to help the injured, Clark infamously declared, “Let the buzzards eat them.”

If Riley wore a lapel button, it would likely say, “No more.” That’s what the blue signs on porches and front yards in Selma say.

No more. As in crime.

Burglaries, break-ins, theft. The lawn signs resulted from a campaign launched by Mayor George Evans.

“When is enough, enough?” Evans says. “This crime, these shootings, these robberies, it has got to stop.”

There were more than 3,000 felony offenses in Selma in 2001 – most of them burglaries, breaking and entering of vehicles and thefts, according to city records. By 2007, that total dropped to 1,900. The numbers have continued to decline most years since Riley took over in 2008. The most recent figures available for 2014 show 1,541 offenses through November.

It hasn’t been easy tackling crime in Selma. A small city with a limited budget, Riley says, can’t compete with the salaries offered in larger cities.

An entry-level salary on his force is little more than $28,000. He doesn’t begrudge those who leave and tells them they should do what’s right for their families. But he hates knowing that with adequate manpower, and simply more police presence around the city, he could reduce crime dramatically.

The mayor, too, would like to see more officers in Selma. But the city is in a constant battle for funding. Selma is too small to get big money, he says, and too large to qualify for federal Housing and Urban Development dollars.

But Riley remains optimistic. He sees a city that could be so much more than it is now.

Not black and white

When Oprah Winfrey, one of the producers of the new movie, came to Selma, Toure refrained from having her say at a public forum. She didn’t want to put a cloud over a cinematic event that is generating so much buzz, one that will return her city to the national consciousness.

But the tragedy, Toure says, is that people will see the movie,the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday will arrive in March, people will symbolically cross the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Selma will stay the same.

“People need to do something for Selma,” she says. “They come, peer at us and leave.”

But Dr. F.D. Reese, a local civil rights leader who marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worked in Selma long before Toure arrived, says the focus shouldn’t be on what the rest of the nation does for Selma, but on what Selma can do for itself.

Reese, the pastor of Selma’s Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church since 1965, believes the people of Selma, and the nation, have come a long way.

“Selma needs to realize that we are a diverse people – diverse in color and diverse in opportunities,” he says. “And we always need to look at the greater good to come.”

The city’s first black mayor, James Perkins, echoes that sentiment: “Selma has done more for the rest of the world than it’s done for itself.”

In the city where blood was shed for the right to vote, only about a third of registered black voters went to the polls in November.

Young people are detached from Selma’s history, Perkins says. “We have to be better at telling our story. Dr. Reese should not be able to go anywhere in Selma and not be recognized.”

Reese is certainly not unknown to the police chief, who drives by Ebenezer and raves about the pastor inside. Riley remembers, with awe, first meeting iconic figures like Reese, the late Annie Lee Cooper (played by Winfrey in the film) and Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Riley is honored to be in a place, he says, “that played a dynamic role in how our country was shaped.”

In that sense, he and Toure are not so different. Where they diverge is in how they move through the world today.

He likes to surround himself with doers who look forward, not back. He sees Toure’s rhetoric as unproductive. Around his office are posted phrases hinting at his life philosophy. Among them is this one: “A complaining tongue reveals an ungrateful heart.”

Toure still preaches what she has for years. She speaks of slavery’s brutal legacy, of how black people have been killed with impunity for centuries. To her, Ananias Shaw is the most recent in a long line of victims.

“What makes this more painful is that a black government did this,” she says. “A black person can devalue a black life just as quickly as a white man. … This isn’t just about color. It’s about a mindset.”

Selma’s present-day reality is far from black and white. And though Toure and Riley share an appreciation of the city’s brave history, the longtime activist and the outsider police chief cannot agree on how to move Selma forward.

There’s no obvious bridge to bring them together. Only the Edmund Pettus and the ghosts of the past.