Fifty years ago, when future congressman John Lewis attempted to lead 600 peaceful protesters out of Selma, Ala., across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met with tear gas, nightsticks and horses’ hooves. The widely publicized brutality of Bloody Sunday helped ensure that the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, two weeks later, was not just a rally; it was also a symbol. Civil rights leaders such as Lewis, hoping to build support for the Voting Rights Act, wanted to show the determination of African Americans to fight the Jim Crow system that disenfranchised them. Five decades later, the march remains synonymous with the struggle for change. Change did follow — the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibited racial discrimination at the polls — but the vision behind it has been only partially realized. Especially along this 54-mile route, the goal of economic equality, the target of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final efforts, is far from fulfilled. Signs of segregation persist. And many people, say some who participated in the movement, neglect to honor the voting rights won for them by their forbearers by going to the polls. From the dilapidated housing around Craig Air Force Base (once the busiest in the nation) to the grand old plantation homes in Lowndesboro, the region that President Obama will visit with Lewis next week still echoes the divisions of 50 years ago.
Charlotte Phillips, 49, from Tennessee, of her marriage a year ago to Selma native Theodore Glover. Seen here with their friend Eddie Smiley, the couple lives in the Minnie B. Anderson Homes, which used to house personnel from Craig Air Force Base. The base closed in 1977, and Phillips estimates that about 20 people live in the run-down brick buildings. “For what we pay, it’s what we get,” she says.
The marchers of 1965 stayed at four ad hoc campsites along the route, on land owned by supporters of the movement. On the third night, the tents were pitched at Robert Gardner Farm, where some of the host’s relatives still live. Some marchers sheltered from heavy rains on the porch of the big house, but nobody lives there today. It has fallen into disrepair, and Gardner’s widow, Mary, 89, has moved into a mobile home next door.
Robert Gardner’s sister was married to A.G. Gaston, a wealthy black entrepreneur from Birmingham. Mary Gardner remembers him telling march organizers, “Look for Robert Gardner’s farm, and they will let them camp.”
“I was a little scared,” she remembers. But the protesters were protected by the Alabama National Guard, federalized by President Johnson, along with FBI agents, federal marshals and 2,000 soldiers. And the Gardner property was monitored long after the marchers left, for fear of retribution.
Elsewhere in Lowndes County, white landowners evicted blacks who registered to vote, forcing them to create a tent city where an interpretive center now stands.
“We were taking a risk,” Gardner recalls. The old injustices continue to rankle the former elementary school teacher. “I had a BS in elementary education from Alabama State University,” says Gardner, who went on to get a master’s degree. “And I couldn’t vote because I was black.”
Gardner’s warm, one-story home is decorated with photographs of Gaston and other family members commemorating the achievements of the past. It all seemed so full of promise.
It’s the future she worries about. “Young folks need to get themselves in school, get a job.”
The 13 fluted Doric columns lining two sides of Bob Hagood’s Greek revival mansion could do with a coat of paint. A number of the colored windowpanes around the doorways have had to be replaced — broken by kids playing ball or shot out by BB guns. And if the furnishings in the grand hallways that bisect the building are family heirlooms, their history is hidden under dust.
It’s all more than one man can maintain. And Hagood, 64, is unemployed: “I twiddle my fingers,” he says.
Meadowlawn has been in Hagood’s family since 1905. The house was bought by his great-grandfather, Ransom Meadows, who was the last surviving Confederate veteran in Lowndes County by the time of his death in 1940. Hagood, who grew up in Tennessee, used to visit during a childhood he remembers as “pretty blissful for the most part.”
More than three-quarters of the people in Lowndes County are black, but the ratio is reversed here in Lowndesboro.
Hagood’s grandfather, a doctor, delivered many of the elderly African American people in the county. And Hagood used to work as a mailman. “You won’t find many black families that don’t know me,” he says.
Hagood wasn’t in Alabama for the 1965 march, which went across family property out on the highway. But he remembers the “social upheaval” of the era well. “People were concerned,” he says. “The status quo was fixin’ to change. . . . A lot of black people here were worried, too. They didn’t know what would happen.”
There are still great tracts of farmland along Route 80, some used for paid hunting. But cotton is no longer king here. Many tenant farmers left in the ’50s and ’60s to go north. John Deere drove them away, Hagood says. “You don’t need huge numbers of people with modern agriculture.”
“We had people who stayed, older people, cooks, things like that,” he says.
In the living room of the tiny Lowndesboro house that Mantha Lee and her husband, Cato, have called home for almost 70 years, the TV is broadcasting a meeting of the Selma and Montgomery mayors, who got together earlier in the day to kick off National Voter Registration Month.
The politicians’ lament about low registration and poor turnout (about 40 percent of registered voters and 38 percent of black voters across the state went to the polls last November) echoes Mantha Lee’s worry that the younger generation is squandering the right her generation fought for.
Lee didn’t march 50 years ago — she had a 3-week-old baby. But she participated in mass meetings with her “lady friends,” she sat with a crowd on the lawn of the Hayneville jailhouse hoping to register and she was there waving by the roadside when the marchers came through.
Most of the changes that have come since then have been for the good, Lee says. But she still remembers the sharp divisions of the past when she thinks of a few of the people in whose homes she used to work. “Some go along with you in the daytime. [Then] if they meet you out, they don’t know you,” she says.
Lee won’t be joining the marchers on Sunday. She’s 88 and has trouble with her balance. But, she says, she’ll never miss an opportunity to vote. “Ever since they’ve been voting, I’ve been voting,” she says. “Long as I’m able, I’m gonna vote. I earned it.”
Dwayne Smith, 41, who came to Alabama from California almost two decades ago, when his first son was born. For the past two years he’s been working at trailer washout on Route 80, hosing down trucks to sanitize them between shipments of cattle.
Fifty-four miles and five days’ walk from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marble steps of the State Capitol rise up from Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue. It’s here that 25,000 protesters gathered on March 25, 1965.
Celebrities — including Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte — arrived at the final campsite for a rally, joining marchers who had “walked every step of the way,” says Rep. John Lewis, whose dress-shoe soles were worn through. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the crowd: “I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama.”
Memorial marches still finish at these steps, as the next one will on March 13. Rooms in the handful of hotels in Montgomery’s few renovated downtown blocks have been booked for months.
On a recent Saturday, a few hundred members of the Sanctity of Marriage movement assemble here. Aaron Motley, an African American pastor, condemns the notion that the gay rights movement is comparable to the civil rights struggle: “One seeks to protect our rights as human beings under the U.S. Constitution and moral laws, and the other seeks the acceptance of a perverted lifestyle.”
From the podium, a voice intones that, if Americans legalize same-sex marriage, “we should legalize murder, rape, child pornography and theft.”
It is a striking inversion of the speeches from half a century ago, when a minority requested the rights readily granted to the rest of America.