History Was Made in Selma—But Not For Selma
Most weekdays for the last 10 years, Letasha Irby, 36, has driven her car across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to get to a job that pays $11.33 an hour. The black mother of two lives about a 20-minute drive from the iconic bridge, which is named in honor of a Reconstruction-era Alabama Ku Klux Klan leader and U.S. senator and is the spot where demonstrators were set upon by police in an event that's come to be known as Bloody Sunday.
The events of March 7, 1965 cleared the way for an historic march from Selma to Montgomery and passage of the federal Voting Rights Act. But Irby says she never much thought about what had happened in Selma and how it might have shaped her destiny until the past year, when she became more involved in an effort to unionize her shop, which makes auto parts. And not until Oprah Winfrey came to town earlier this year to promote Hollywood’s movie about the struggle did Irby ever get out of the car and cross the bridge on foot to trace the steps of the marchers who were tear-gassed, beaten, and trampled by horses after orders from Governor George Wallace, and the steps of the thousands who crossed two weeks later with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. She was struck by how many more details she noticed on foot: The beauty of the Alabama River below, and the weight of an unfulfilled promise that still hangs over the city.
In the era leading up to Bloody Sunday, Selma was racially mixed, though far from integrated. According to the 1960 census, its 28,385 residents were about equally split between black and white. The town has shrunk since then, to a population of 19,912 in 2013, and many of its white residents have left—by 2013, four in five residents were black. More than in 1960, it's mired in poverty. The median household income for the years 2009-13 was $22,478—about half of Alabama’s median household income—and 41.9 percent of Selma residents lived below the poverty line.
“I can appreciate what they went through back then with the civil rights and the voting rights,” Irby said in an interview one night last week at her mother’s modest home in Orrville, which she also shares with her son, 10, and daughter, 4. Irby moved back and forth between the kitchen table and the stove to check on dinner. “Now we’re fighting for workers’ rights. I can’t afford a house on $11.33. I can’t save for college on $11.33. All you can do is pay the bills.”
“With all that’s gone on in Selma, it should be a big tourist attraction like New York City, all lit up,” Irby said. Instead, it’s “buildings all closed up, run down. It should be better than that.”
The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday this weekend is drawing thousands of politicians, celebrities, and civil-rights leaders to Selma, and bringing together many of the city’s older residents who were there that day. President Barack Obama, who came to Selma as a candidate in 2007, will speak at the bridge on Saturday. He’ll use the occasion to frame his administration’s own civil rights initiatives and investigations after a year in which clashes between white law enforcement and black citizens from Ferguson, Mo., to New York and Cleveland spurred examinations into excessive force and institutional racism and a debate on how far toward racial equality in the nation has really come. The Obama administration also has been challenging voter ID laws in southern states that advocates say disenfranchise minority voters and would set back the gains of the 1960s. These, paired with the theme of economic inequality, will become rallying cries for the Democratic base in the 2016 presidential election.
“When we look at where we were and where we are, we can give some thanks to the Almighty God,” said Reverend F.D. Reese, a local voting-rights activist who marched in Bloody Sunday and later led the march to Montgomery with King. “We can always look and see some progress that was made.”
But many people who live or work in Selma today say it’s not enough to be a symbol for the country; they’re still fighting the aftershocks of what happened there so many years ago and they want some help for themselves. Voting rights gave them some dignity and standing and helped them to elect two black mayors, black representation in the U.S. Congress, and a black president. But overall, white flight, cash-strapped schools, and the changing economy have left this Black Belt city struggling.
U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, Alabama’s first elected black congresswoman, is an ambassador of the city. She grew up in Selma, was the first black valedictorian at Selma High School, went to Princeton University and Harvard Law, became a lawyer, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 to a district that covers Selma. “Selma is now,” said Sewell. “It is relevant for our fight for human rights and social justice around the world. What the people of Selma need are better opportunities. It’s not enough that the world come and walk across the bridge.”
Advocates for the city have called for expanding the Interstate system in a way that drives traffic to the city, outside funding for tax incentives for companies to move to the area, more money for early college education in area high schools, and millions of dollars to fulfill a Clinton administration vision for a voting-rights tourism center including a high-tech theater, parking, staffing, and equipment.
“The United States of America owes Selma,” said James Perkins, who served as the city’s first black mayor. “The sacrifices that were made here to ensure that a Cory Booker could sit in the Senate house, and to ensure that a Barack Obama could be president of the United States or a James Perkins could become mayor of this city, that ground-zero experience took place right here in Selma, Alabama. If this government has the heart to rebuild Iraq and other foreign lands as a consequence of their ground-zero experience, it should do no less for Selma. That’s where I’m coming from.”
“To see where we are today hurts, it’s painful,” Perkins said. “To see our schools now back at 90, 95, 99 percent black: that hurts.” Many of the city’s black residents who were in Selma to experience Bloody Sunday never left. Others moved away but came back, bound by a sense of commitment to family or to fulfilling their city’s destiny. Some are more optimistic about the city’s legacy than others.
“Things obviously are better” for blacks today than they were in 1965, in Selma and the country as a whole, said Johnny Crear, 78, who was working at Good Samaritan Hospital on Bloody Sunday as the wounded poured in. He later became the hospital’s administrator. Crear and his wife had five children, and stayed put and engaged in the community. “Selma, Alabama, was the place for us to raise our children and I sincerely doubt we could have had the success” anyplace else, he said. All five of their children are college graduates; four are engineers and one a physical therapist. Two stayed in Alabama. None stayed in Selma. “Our children have had to in many instances leave the area to find employment,” Crear said. “I don’t think the civil-rights movement was to blame. If you cannot find a job you have to go elsewhere. That’s just a given.”
It’s also a given that last summer’s police killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson stirred up painful memories in Selma, Crear said, but he fears younger blacks are missing the most important lesson of the 1960s. “Go and vote,” he said. “Change comes about when citizens participate in their government. That’s when their voice gets heard. History does repeat itself.”
Joanne Bland, 61, grew up in the George Washington Carver Homes public housing across from Brown Chapel, a staging area for the protests. She was 11 when she joined the marchers on Bloody Sunday, wanting to do her part to earn the right to sit and order food at the counter at Carter’s drugstore like the whites. “I know it made me what I am today, but I didn’t realize the impact it had on my life ‘til much later,” she said. “You could outrun the men on foot but you couldn’t outrun the men on horses. What I remember were the screams. I thought they were killing the people down front. They were just beating people—old, young, black, white, men, women.” Two weeks later, she walked the first leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. In life, she said, “whenever I saw anything I thought was wrong, I cried out loud and long ‘til somebody did something.”
Bland left Selma in 1973, became a legal specialist in the Army, and lived in Germany a while before being reassigned back in the U.S. She had a plan to move to New York, but went home to spend time with family. Her plans stalled, then derailed. She stayed in Selma. She raised a relative’s son as her own. He’s in his thirties now, she said, a detective in Birmingham. Selma’s story, she said, motivated him to become a policeman “because he knew the problems in the community.” Blacks all over the country are still struggling for fair treatment by police and opportunities, Bland said. “Ferguson highlights the problem. Ferguson brought to light that the struggle still continues.” She looks at Obama’s election as a sign of progress and said she thinks he’s doing the best he can to confront lingering prejudice. Still, she admits, she sometimes gets frustrated with the first black president's calm approach. “He’s such a gentleman and I want him not to be a gentleman,” she said.
She doesn’t sugar-coat her take on how Selma is faring today. “Oh please, look around,” she said. “And it’s so ironic because Selma gave so much to the world.” Bland, a former director of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, also runs a tour business in town. “Tourism is all we have,” she said. “With this 50th anniversary, I hope people will start to realize Selma’s potential.”
Sadie Moss, 73, is Bland’s half-sister. She was on her way to the bridge on Bloody Sunday when she saw horses chasing the screaming marchers back. Her parents had picked cotton for a living. She said she tried it one day and found the labor so hard and the payoff so poor that she vowed to find another path. Moss made a life in Selma as a public-school teacher and guidance counselor and now runs the McRae-Gaines Learning Center, a private center that sprang from the civil-rights movements and was envisioned to help prepare its students, ages 18 months to 7 years, for school. It once catered to middle-class blacks; increasingly, it provides a structure for children whose parents are on welfare. Many of the parents of the school’s 70 students can’t pay a $330 monthly tuition, she said. The building is old and in need of improvements. The money isn’t there. Moss stayed, she said, because “I wanted to help make Selma the place I knew it could be.” She said she tells her students that “you can be anything you want to be”—but that “you must be better” than your peers, because of the color of your skin.
On a recent tour of the school, Moss showed off her students and their work and pointed out some of her needs, from supplies and equipment to renovation needs. The tour ended in her office, where, on her desk, was a copy of a fundraising letter from the president of the school’s board of directors to prospective out-of-town donors. “Selma is known as the gateway to Alabama’s Black Belt, which includes some of the poorest counties in the United States,” it said, citing a county unemployment rate of 13.7 percent and an underemployment rate of 29.8 percent. “Living in Selma is no excuse for us to allow our children to be deprived of the very best education and the broadest possible opportunities.”
Irby, the union organizer who walked the bridge in January, said one legacy of Selma’s history may be that she was registered to vote at 18 and votes in elections. She came later to activism, and even in the midst of what was happening in Ferguson last summer, she said, she didn’t spend much time thinking about what it all meant for the country because she was more focused on her fight at work. She’ll soon be getting a 67-cent-an-hour raise, which feels, she said, like “giving a bum nickels and dimes.” In her push for better wages and protections at work, she said, she feels like she’s picked up the mantle of civil-rights era in its modern form.
Selma’s struggle today is less about rights than about money, Irby said, even if most of the others working alongside her are also black. “I felt good knowing I’m basically doing the same thing Dr. King and all the foot soldiers did.”