Selma is tired of being just a symbol — it wants change

Politicians flock to Selma to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a stage for their agendas; meanwhile, the city is one of the poorest in the country

People gather near the Edmund Pettus Bridge during commemorations of the 57th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on March 5 in Selma, Ala. The bridge is where Black civil rights activists were beaten by police in 1965 as they protested for their constitutional right to vote.
People gather near the Edmund Pettus Bridge during commemorations of the 57th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on March 5 in Selma, Ala. The bridge is where Black civil rights activists were beaten by police in 1965 as they protested for their constitutional right to vote. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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SELMA, Ala. — With the blistering Alabama sun beaming down, the crowd at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was growing restless. The mass of marchers, which stretched a full city block, audibly groaned when it was announced that not only would Vice President Harris speak, but so would the Cabinet members and many of the national civil rights leaders present. As the speeches continued, a cry would occasionally ring out from the crowd, echoing the calls made by marchers 57 years before as they tried to cross the same bridge: “Let us march.”

On March 7, 1965, more than 500 demonstrators gathered at Brown Chapel in Selma to protest poll taxes, literacy tests and other policies designed to keep Black people from voting. They marched six blocks to Broad Street, Selma’s main thoroughfare, and then tried to cross the Pettus Bridge, where they were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas when they refused to turn back. Dozens were injured, and at least 17 were hospitalized. The brutal scene was broadcast around the world, and overnight the protesters and the city of Selma became worldwide symbols of the fight for equality.

Two weeks later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined by more than 3,000 protesters, marched across the same bridge and kept marching 50 miles to the state Capitol in Montgomery — a demonstration that successfully pressured Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.

In the nearly 60 years since those events, Selma has become an annual stopover for politicians looking to bolster their civil rights bona fides. Each March, to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday, the city hosts the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee. VIPs descend on the city to walk across the bridge arm-in-arm and commemorate the sacrifices of people like Amelia Boynton, who was being beaten unconscious by police on the bridge and became a symbol of the voting rights movement, and John Lewis, the then-future member of Congress whose skull was fractured by police as he led that march and bore scars from that day for the rest of his life.

During the Jubilee, the city’s usually sleepy downtown takes on a carnival atmosphere. Tens of thousands of people crowd streets filled with hawkers selling T-shirts and other merchandise with pro-Black slogans, and the air is filled with the smoke from barbecue pits cooking up ribs and turkey wings for sale. It’s a huge moneymaker for the city — this year’s event brought 25,000 visitors, according to the city’s chamber of commerce. The number climbs even higher during election years. But aside from the once-a-year infusion of tourist dollars and fleeting national media and political attention, Selma feels very much like a city left behind, with little to show for its vaunted place in America’s civil rights history.

This Black Belt city of 18,000 residents, more than 80 percent of whom are African American, is one of the poorest in the country. Many of its homes and storefronts are visibly in disrepair. The median household income is $26,581, about 40 percent of the national average, according to census data. Over a third of its residents live in poverty — including nearly 60 percent of its children. Unemployment is double the national rate.

Like many of the cities across the Deep South that became household names during the civil rights era, the victories won with blood and lives haven’t translated into economic opportunity in Selma. In some cases, activists say, ground has been lost, such as in voting rights.

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Politicians at the Jubilee need “to be making commitments and vows to fight for voting rights, to fight for health-care insurance, to fight to end poverty in Selma by bringing in jobs and donations for the Selmians that you leave here every year worse than you found them,” longtime community organizer Callie Greer said.

Many of the dignitaries show up “just so that it could be seen and heard that they were in Selma,” said Greer, 61.

“You have all these governors or congresspeople from places like Wyoming and California, and they come to stand on the people of Selma’s shoulders to get a national platform,” she said. “If nothing else they should come down with a donation check.”

Joyce O’Neal, a retired social worker who participated in the 1965 marches as a teenager, said Selma’s Black community has never gotten what it deserved.

“Once the [Voting Rights Act] passed, that legislation was in place, those who came into Selma to help get voting rights just left,” she said. “And we were left on our own to deal with what came next.”

What came next was a city deeply divided along racial lines, with Black residents living on its east side and White residents living on the west. Through the 1980s, Selma’s population was almost evenly split between Black and White, but at-large elections gave the White community control of local government. In 1990, tensions boiled over when the White-controlled school board fired the city’s first Black schools superintendent. Black residents staged a sit-in at City Hall. Joseph Smitherman, the White mayor who had been in power since 1964, including during Bloody Sunday, asked the governor to send in state troopers and National Guard members, a move that reminded many Black residents of the worst days of the civil rights era.

Alabama spends more than a half-million dollars a year on a Confederate memorial. Black historical sites struggle to keep their doors open.

Not long after that, White residents began to flee the city, shrinking its tax base. In 1990, Selma’s population stood at 24,000 people, 41 percent of whom were White. The city’s leadership remained White until 2000, when Smitherman was ousted and the first Black mayor was elected. But by then White flight had devastated the city’s tax base. Selma’s fiscal 2022 budget is $21 million. By comparison, the budget for Cullman, Ala., which also has 18,000 residents — 88 percent of whom are White — is $182 million.

“I’ve seen the governmental face of Selma change, and I’ve seen those people working in the local government doing their best to make a change,” said O’Neal, 73. “But you’ve got to have help from the outside. Our governors have to be invested in our communities as well. Sometimes it looks like the little cities in the Black Belt don’t get as much attention as the rich, mostly White and Republican counties that are already doing well.”

O’Neal believes tourism could be the key to boosting Selma’s fortunes, but not without big investment in the city. She recalled a conversation with two tourists who were looking for bananas. There was nowhere in downtown Selma where they could buy fresh fruit. They would have to go to the edge of the city to find a grocery store, a reality that many of the city’s residents face every day. The city stopped operating its municipal bus service in 1966.

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After this year’s Jubilee, Selma City Council member Lesia James demanded an apology from the vice president and other officials because she felt the city had been “walked over” and “disrespected.”

“Someone asked me, ‘Well, why are you so mad? Is it because you wanted to take a picture with the vice president?’” James said. “No, that’s not why I’m mad. I’m mad because we need help in Selma. When these VIPs come they need to meet with the leaders in Selma and ask what can they do to help Selma be what it can be instead of just coming for one day and taking photos and putting it on Instagram. That’s not what we need. Anybody can come to a bridge and take a photo, but what are you depositing in Selma?”

A White House official said that Harris has “worked to uplift overlooked communities throughout her career.”

“In Selma, she focused her remarks on the importance of protecting our democracy,” the official said, adding that Harris brought with her Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, and Donald Remy, deputy secretary of veterans affairs. Before the march, the official said, the Cabinet leaders had a meeting with local leaders hosted by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) that also included regional agency representatives. “The meeting was focused on regional needs and the Administration’s work to address those needs,” the official said.

Selma native Evelyn Manns was among the foot soldiers who put their lives on the line during the protests of the 1960s. She returned for this year’s Jubilee with a broken heart, coming home to a city where progress seems to have halted. But she also came with a mission.

“The struggle has not ended, it continues, and if you think I’m lying just look around Selma,” said Manns, vice president of the New York Christian Times, a Black-owned weekly newspaper. “But I also came back with a message to the young people. I pass the mantle to you, young people, because it’s your responsibility now. You have a responsibility to carry out what we started.

Preaching a sermon the Sunday before Vice President Harris spoke on the bridge, the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, chided himself and other leaders for their complacency in the years since a conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 decision ended the process of pre-clearance, which required states and counties with a history of voter suppression to have any changes to their voting procedures approved by the Justice Department or a federal court.

“There were a lot of times where we made this mistake, and we need to repent for it,” Barber said in a rousing sermon that brought people to their feet at Tabernacle Baptist Church, where the first mass meetings of the 1960s voting rights movement took place. “We would come here to Selma after 2013, after the Roberts court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and we would remember what they did in the past, but we didn’t launch a consistent, all-out, nonviolent protest in the face of what the Supreme Court had done nine years ago. What we see today has been years in the making.”

Barber said a new movement is needed to counter the assault on voting rights and the decades of economic inequality that have scarred Black communities such as Selma. He said Biden should have tied the passage of a new Voting Rights Act and his Build Back Better plan to his successful push to secure new infrastructure funding. The problems facing Selma, Barber said, are a prime example of how those issues are interconnected.

“You can’t separate the battle of voting rights from economic justice,” Barber said. “And last year, when there were some that said, ‘Well, we’ll support the Build Back Better plan but we’ll talk about voting rights later,’ or Black groups that said, ‘We will support the Voting Rights Act, but not say anything about Build Back Better or the fight for a $15 minimum wage.’ These should have been linked battles.”

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Tony Eskridge, a 23-year-old policy program associate at the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, had come to Selma to participate in the march to Montgomery with the Poor People’s Campaign. Eskridge said that he was grateful that high-level officials took the time to come but that he wished they had stuck around for more than speeches and the now-famous symbolic walk across the bridge.

“I’m so thankful that Vice President Harris and Cabinet members and these national organizations were there, and their voices are important, but even more important than us hearing from elected leaders is the elected leaders hearing from us,” Eskridge said. “Sometimes it feels like people in power want to speak to what solutions they have to offer, but they cannot even hear the problems that people are facing.”

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, had returned to her native Selma for the Jubilee feeling conflicted. On one hand, she was returning to a city that was economically depressed and seemed stuck in time, where people were fighting many of the same battles their parents and grandparents had fought before.

On the other hand, Brown was nostalgic, thinking back to the joys of the Jubilee weekends of her youth, where the community came together to celebrate the freedom fighters Selma had given to the world.

“I want to come here and show up to have a festival to celebrate what our ancestors accomplished,” Brown said. “But I’m like, ‘Wow, we are just in the same fight.’ And in the back of my mind, I’m questioning: ‘What is it going to take? How many times do we have to walk across that bridge? How many times do we have to retrace the steps of our ancestors?’ So it feels like we don’t have the privilege to just celebrate. We’re still in the question of whether Black people will have equal access and equal rights.”