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Selma's March Backward

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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This weekend, President Barack Obama and more than 90 members of Congress are gathering in Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday -- the attempted civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that was violently turned back just outside the city limits by Dallas County sheriff’s deputies and Alabama state troopers. The beatings were replayed in America’s living rooms that evening on the national news, and the resulting outcry led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which put an end to state laws that kept blacks from the polls and transformed American politics.

You probably already know all that. Maybe you saw the movie.

This winter is also the 25th anniversary of another big event in Selma history, the protests and boycott that left Selma’s schools resegregated and the town polarized. There are no movies about that, although it is being mentioned in some of the articles written in the lead-up to the Bloody Sunday commemoration. I was there for all of it, as the Selma correspondent for the Birmingham News. It was devastating.

The Selma I arrived at in October 1989 (after driving from California with all my possessions packed into a red Ford Festiva) was a struggling, divided little city that nonetheless seemed like it had at least a shot at fulfilling the promise of the civil rights movement.

Selma had about 24,000 people, and had recently shifted from a narrow white majority to a narrow black majority. Residentially the city was mostly segregated, with whites on the west side and blacks on the east, but the newer neighborhoods to the north were integrated. Politics remained very much a black-white thing, with the same mayor as in 1965 (it hadn’t been an uninterrupted reign) and whites still in the majority on the City Council. But there were powerful, independent black political figures in town, too, notably state Senator Hank Sanders, his wife Rose Sanders, and their law partner J.L. Chestnut Jr. Chestnut had come home to Selma in 1958 to set up shop as the only black lawyer in town; the Sanderses were idealistic Harvard Law graduates (he from south Alabama, she from North Carolina) who joined up with him in the early 1970s.

There were also two historically black colleges in Selma, and the two top people in the city’s public schools, Superintendent Norward Roussell and Selma High School Principal F.D. Reese (a leader of the 1965 voting-rights protests), were black. When Selma was forced by a court order to merge its black high school and its white high school in 1970, a lot of the whites had left for a new private school on the west side of town. But by the late 1980s the tide seemed to be turning. Selma High had begun to send graduates off to Ivy League schools, and affluent white parents wanted in on that.

I visited the high school on my second day in town in the company of the first of those Ivy Leaguers, Terri Sewell of the Class of ‘82. Sewell had been a year ahead of me at Princeton and before that had been the star of the debate team and the first black valedictorian of Selma High. She was on leave from Harvard Law School and was spending a few days with her parents before flying to England to try to turn her University of Oxford master’s thesis into a book (which she did!). She was, not surprisingly, hailed at the high school as a sort of conquering hero. Touring Selma with her during my first week there inevitably led me to see the place through somewhat rose-colored glasses.

Even after Sewell left, though, I kept discovering things about her city that charmed and encouraged me. I had an apartment with a view of the Alabama River, just a few blocks from downtown in one of the most beautiful old residential neighborhoods anywhere. The city was full of interesting, colorful people who were remarkably willing to welcome a newspaper reporter from California into their midst. And the politics were fascinatingly complex. On the City Council, lots of votes didn’t break down along racial lines. There were white politicians, such as the mayor, who were just trying to hold on to power as long as they could. But there were others who were trying to lay the groundwork for the inevitable day when the political balance shifted. And the mayor, Joe T. Smitherman, was at least always willing to see me and say quotable things when I showed up at his office unannounced.

Then, just before Christmas, the six white members of the city school board voted not to renew Superintendent Roussell’s three-year contract, which was due to expire in the summer. The five black members walked out of the meeting. I missed all this because I was on a plane headed west for Christmas, but when I got back there was lots of anger in the black community and talk of a school boycott.

The boycott began when school reopened, but it felt very much in keeping with the Selma I thought I had gotten to know. Lots of black kids didn’t participate, some white kids did -- one even gave a speech outside the school administration building extolling Roussell. When a local pastor stood in front of one school urging kids not to go in, Roussell signed a warrant for his arrest.  And after a couple of days it was decided to call the whole thing off until after exams.

For the next few weeks, Roussell stayed on the job and kept urging against boycotts. There were negotiations between black and white leaders and talk of a compromise plan. I’ve kept a diary from those days, and it contains repeated predictions that things were about to blow over.

They didn’t. In early February, the white school board members voted to fire Roussell. The protests resumed, this time with Rose Sanders publicly leading the way and Roussell no longer trying to stop them. Roussell was soon reinstated, but it was too late. The school board closed the schools, the governor called in the National Guard and, with the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday just weeks away, the national media descended on the town.

It was hard during all of this for an outsider to tell exactly what the disagreement was about. The white school board members released an evaluation saying Roussell had been “dictatorial” and “abrasive,” but those didn’t really seem like firing offenses. Rose Sanders said he’d been fired for challenging the way schools divided students into different academic tracks, with classes in the highest track filled mostly with whites, and those in the lowest track entirely black. That was news to me at the time, but in an autobiography published later that year her law partner J.L. Chestnut Jr. argued convincingly that this was at least part of the issue -- along with the fact that Roussell was indeed "arrogant" and "independent-minded." (Chestnut died in 2008; Roussell in 2014.)

In any case, over a period of just a few weeks, all the fascinating nuances of Selma life yielded to a simple divide, with black people on one side and whites on the other. When it was over, almost all the white families had taken their kids out of the public schools, everybody was angry and Selma no longer felt like a place with a lot of hope or promise.

I was already gone by then. I moved to Montgomery to take a job in my paper’s state capital bureau at the beginning of March 1990. I’d go back occasionally to cover things in Selma, and when I left Alabama in 1995 one of my colleagues even got Smitherman to declare me honorary mayor (I still have the plaque). But I can’t claim to have spent a whole lot of time thinking about Selma since.

Lately, though, it has been hard to avoid thinking about Selma. It isn't just the movie, and all the media coverage leading up to this weekend’s commemorations. It’s also that the members of Congress who will be hosting that big delegation this weekend is none other than my old friend Terri Sewell. She has been representing Selma, parts of Birmingham and Montgomery, and a great swath of rural west Alabama in the House since 2011.

Sewell missed the 1990 brouhaha -- she was in England, remember? -- but she’s still lamenting its consequences. I visited her on Capitol Hill this week, and she launched into a story about visiting Selma High School. “I walk through those halls and it’s all black. The only white student I meet is a foreign exchange student. And there’s no debate team!”

The result is a city that doesn’t feel like the Selma she grew up in. The population has fallen below 20,000, it’s 80 percent black and poverty is endemic. “My city is dwindling away,” she said. “Those of us who grow up there do not come back.”

I shouldn't overstate the impact of what happened in 1990. Selma’s economic decline began well before then -- the closing of nearby Craig Air Force Base in 1977 may have been the real turning point -- and it isn't unique. Small cities surrounded by miles and miles of countryside generally haven’t done very well in the U.S. during the past few decades, unless they’re home to big universities, great corporations, tall mountains or some other major attractive force.

Still, this is Selma. Sewell’s big hope at the moment is that civil rights tourism can provide at least something of an attractive force. Obama -- her law school classmate -- included $20 million in funding for the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in his 2016 budget. That’s hypothetical money at this point, not real. But at least this weekend there will be a lot of real visitors in Selma.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net