In Selma, history often eclipses a harsh reality
Many residents say progress left their city behind
They worry that some things are little changed from the days of Jim Crow
The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. As many as 70,000 people in attendance. Civil rights foot soldiers and a new generation of activists. America’s first black President delivers a speech of a lifetime. Tears. Remembrance. Celebration.
But beyond the hoopla and the headlines, there were other sentiments present Saturday. And beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was a city that was largely unseen this weekend, one that is rarely glimpsed by America.
‘Get off my shoulders’
First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.
– President Barack Obama, March 7, 2015
Amelia Boynton Robinson was beaten unconscious and left for dead at the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. At 103, she is a living legend, the “Queen Mother” of the civil rights movement. Saturday, she crossed the bridge again, this time in a wheelchair with President Obama holding her hand.
It was perhaps the most poignant image of the weekend.
She didn’t speak Saturday, but her words nevertheless stirred the crowd when Terry Sewell, a Selma native and the first black member of Congress from Alabama, quoted a favorite line of hers.
Young people often tell Boynton Robinson they are standing on her shoulders.
“Get off my shoulders,” she tells them sternly. “There’s work to be done.”
The crowd in Selma roared. Just as they did when Obama took the stage.
Obama carefully chose his words to strike a perfect balance between joy and solemnity. He honored history but also knew he had to look forward, especially at a time when race is once again at the forefront of national discussion. Many in Selma said it was the President’s best speech ever.
Younger activists, rejuvenated and rededicated to action by recent incidents of police killings, converged in Selma with their own messages. At times, when I looked out onto the sea of people, it was hard to tell this was a Bloody Sunday anniversary.
The placards said: “Stop the Violence” and “No More Killing.”
People wore t-shirts remembering Eric Garner in New York. “I Can’t Breathe.”
They had buttons adorned with Michael Brown’s face. “Black Lives Matter.”
A millennial protester told me that Ferguson was the Selma of her generation. Yes, she said. They were getting off the shoulders of those who marched before them.
Others called for the protection of the landmark Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, a few months after Bloody Sunday. But a lawsuit brought in nearby Shelby County led to the Supreme Court striking a key provision of the act in 2013.
That was a big reason why Martin Leon, 27, traveled from Chicago. As a young Latino, he was deeply troubled by the adoption of various voter ID laws in several states.
“We have a long way to go,” he said.
Selma police estimated 70,000 people descended on the city this weekend. I thought about what a convergence this was. The Oscar-nominated movie that opened in January, along with the anti-police protests and the President, had prompted many people to come who might not have been here otherwise.
“We’ve seen the movie,” Leon said, who came with two friends. “I can’t believe I am standing on the same ground. It’s a little bit crazy!”
So many people remarked on how different things were today than they were 50 years back. That was obvious.
But then the words of Robert Stewart flashed in my mind.
“Selma is a very resilient place but it’s a place that is stagnant,” he told me back in December, when I visited his hometown. “The sad thing is that it has so much potential.”
Stewart is young – 24 – and just embarking on a career as an accountant. He wants so much to contribute his skills to improving Selma, but like many others, he had to move away to get a job.
In Selma, a future is sometimes difficult to see. Here, history often eclipses a harsh reality.
I spoke with Selma residents on Saturday who echoed Stewart’s sentiments. They repeated a line that is often used here: Everything had changed in Selma since Bloody Sunday. And nothing had changed.
We just need to open our eyes and ears and hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.
– President Obama, March 7, 2015
The only store open in downtown Selma on Saturday was the GAW Trading Post, teeming with antiques and on this day, souvenir sweatshirt hoodies. “Colored, Negro. Black. African American,” they said on the front. And on the back, the N-word with a red X.
Store owner Gracie Powell, 72, was born and raised in Selma by a single mother. She told me black people here have been called all the names on the sweatshirt.
Outside, the crowd grew thick. People had come from all over America to commemorate the day when police attacked civil rights protesters. They had planned to march to Montgomery to demand an end to voter discrimination.
Powell’s mother lost her job when she tried to register to vote long before Bloody Sunday.
“People fought hard for this,” she said. “Now we can vote. Now we must vote.”
Otherwise, she says, how will things ever change? How will Selma ever move forward?
There were few opportunities for black people around these parts when Powell graduated from high school. So she left Alabama in 1961 for New York to study and work. She remembers sitting on the couch in her Brooklyn apartment and watching the horrifying images of Bloody Sunday flash on her television. Of men and women beaten and bloodied and the haze of tear gas filling the air.
She set a goal for herself: One day she would go back home.
Decades passed and when she found herself with custody of her young grandchildren, she moved back to Selma. It would be good for them to experience life as black children in the South, she thought.
“It was a big adjustment,” Powell said of her grandkids’ experience. “They were in shock.”
They had never been in an all-black school. They were aware of color, she said, but here they learned life’s limitations for black people.
In the years since Bloody Sunday, Selma saw Jim Crow laws abolished and integration ushered in. White people – 10,000 of them – moved out to nearby Valley Grande and took their money with them.
The few white people who remained mostly live on the west side of town in stately houses with manicured lawns. The Selma Country Club reportedly has no black members, though my calls to confirm that statement were never returned.
The gap between black and white is so wide that sometimes it feels like it’s still 1965.
On my reporting trip in December, I sat in a cemetery filled with Spanish moss-laden live oaks and tributes to the Confederacy. One monument honors Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who burned black Union soldiers alive and later was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
I could see the housing projects on the other side of the road. And nearby is the house where Boynton Robinson lived when she was working for voting rights. It’s a house that was frequented by Martin Luther King Jr. but is now boarded up and falling down.
It makes a statement opposite from the one I expected to see in a place of history.
Consider the devastating statistics: Selma’s population today is 20,000 and 82% black. That’s nearly 10,000 fewer people than in 1965, when the town was half black and half white.
More than 60% of the people are impoverished; 40% live below the federal poverty line. They live in shacks and dilapidated housing – some don’t even have indoor plumbing.
All I had to do was drive around for a few minutes to understand how progress left behind the “Queen City” of Alabama’s Black Belt – the term that originally referred to lands rich in soil that became known for civil rights struggles.
Powell sent her grandchildren to Selma High School, where there are no white students. Graduates told me they have to move away to get jobs and prosper. In that way, things have not changed much since Powell did the same.
It took many years after integration, but eventually black people gained political power in Selma. The mayor is black. So is the police chief.
But they don’t yet have economic power.
When Powell left Brooklyn, she decided she would hold on to her house. Just in case she wanted to go back.
A few years ago, she opened the antique store in a downtown building her family owns.
“How is business?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Sometimes it does well.”
It wasn’t so evident last weekend because of the massive crowd, but downtown Selma is a patchwork of old structures that were once architectural gems. Some buildings have been revived, but others have faces of plywood and broken glass.
I suppose downtown here is not that different from those in other small cities I’ve visited in Mississippi or south Georgia. It’s just that everything seems magnified in Selma.
Powell told me it felt good to be reconnected with the place of her birth, despite its despair. It was a part of her.
“Now I’m sure,” she said.
Sure she would stay in Selma.
Sisters, schools and skin color
We do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we’re willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts their sights and gives them skills. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.
– President Obama, March 7, 2015
Geraldine Martin, 59, and her sister Belinda Goss, 50, stood with me in the security line Saturday. They were excited beyond words, incredulous almost that so many people had come to honor their hometown.
Martin was only 9 on Bloody Sunday. She remembers being with her mother, who had just given birth to her sister.
The two women grew up here and graduated from Selma High School. There were still white kids in the school then – not everyone had pulled out yet.
Goss moved away after graduation. Martin stayed behind and taught special education for a while at her alma mater.
What was on their minds at the 50th anniversary? Their hearts were heavy with concern for the future of Selma’s children.
“We need to re-evaluate our education system,” Martin said. “We need incentives for young people.”
She said students in Selma need strong mentors who can inspire them to think and act big. The schools need to do a better job teaching black kids their own history.
“My son didn’t even know Booker T. Washington was black. His school did not teach him that,” Martin said. “I am hoping today’s events will help us move forward.”
Goss shook her head at her sister’s comment. Her view of Selma has changed. She is now an outsider looking in and she doesn’t like what she sees.
“There is no diversity in Selma. People don’t live together.”
Just last week, former Selma City Councilman Glenn Sexton trashed the Bloody Sunday anniversary in a story in the Los Angeles Times: “It’s going to be nothing but a n—-r street party,” he said.
His language was straight out of 1965, but several Selma residents told me the racial epithets are still very much in use today.
Goss said she wants to question white people. “So why are you so angry at us? Is it really the color of my skin or something deeper?”
It was personal
We can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on – the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for – the protection of the law.
– President Obama, March 7, 2015
Ed Shaw came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a hole in his heart.
He stood patiently in the crowd to hear Obama and remembered the day 50 years ago.
He was 19 on Bloody Sunday and had marched to the bridge with his mother and brother Ananias, he said. He wished his brother were with him Saturday.
Police shot and killed Ananias Shaw in December 2013. They said Shaw, who was known to be mentally unstable, was wielding an axe. But the Shaw family believes it was an extreme case of brutality. They wanted answers. Transparency.
There is so much distrust of law enforcement in this city.
Everyone here knows that an Alabama state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death triggered the march from Selma. Everyone knows Sheriff Jim Clark ordered his men to attack peaceful demonstrators.
It doesn’t matter that there are black cops today, Shaw said. The culture of policing, he said, still stems from the days of Jim Crow.
Ed Shaw regularly protests his brother’s killing at the bridge. This weekend, it felt as though the masses were with him.
He was glad Obama addressed police violence in his speech. For Shaw, everything the President said was personal.