SELMA, Ala. — In just a few days, the small city where he has lived for most of his adult life would be deluged with politicians, celebrities and tens of thousands of civil rights pilgrims.
“The whole world is going to be watching us,” said Kimbrough Ballard, who serves as the elected head of the county government here.
President Obama and former president George W. Bush will be at the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. There are rumors that Oprah Winfrey will show up, and even that Lady Gaga will sing.
They are coming to rekindle the spirit of a city where, 50 years earlier, nonviolent demonstrators endured billy clubs, cattle prods and clouds of tear gas as they protested for their right to vote. Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” a day of shocking violence and stirring courage, spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important achievements of the civil rights era.
“What happened in Selma is quintessentially an American experience,” Obama said last week at the White House.
“The civil rights movement . . . at its best” is how Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose head was cracked open by state troopers on the bridge that day, describes it now.
On Tuesday morning, though, the celebration hadn’t begun; the celebrities hadn’t started to arrive. Selma wasn’t so much a place of imagination and triumph as a poor Alabama city where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and the unemployment rate is twice the state average. It was a place still struggling to overcome the racial divisions that have in many ways defined it for generations.
Ballard, 71, glanced down at his watch and headed off to his pickup truck for his first big event of the day: a ribbon-cutting at the local Sonic drive-up restaurant. In the past few months, Selma has lost two of its biggest department stores: J.C. Penney and Goody’s. The restaurant event offered a rare bit of good economic news.
“Technically it’s more of a reopening than an opening,” Ballard said. “The place looked terrible. Thank God Sonic saw fit to invest thousands of dollars in it instead of picking up and leaving.” The restaurant was festooned with balloons and a big red ribbon.
Today, almost all the top elected officials in Selma and surrounding Dallas County are black. Ballard, who is white, stood next to Mayor George Evans, who was elected in 2008 as the second black mayor in Selma’s history. Also in the ribbon-cutting line was Benny Lee Tucker, a City Council member and one of the heroes of the Bloody Sunday march. The mayor snipped the ribbon, and a Sonic regional marketing executive handed out raspberry and lime sodas.
“He was a true foot soldier,” Ballard said of Tucker. “A bodyguard for Martin Luther King. A lot of people say they were there. He really was.”
“What was that like?” the Sonic executive asked.
“It was dangerous,” said Tucker, 74. “They told me to throw my body over King if anyone took a shot at him.”
A Sonic waitress glided by on roller skates. Tucker walked to his car and returned a few seconds later with a manila envelope containing copies of an interview he did with a German newspaper and photocopied pictures of him standing watch over King as the civil rights icon knelt in prayer on a Selma sidewalk.
“Thanks for what you did,” the Sonic executive said. Tucker slid his papers carefully back in the envelope.
“Thank you for what you’re doing for Selma today,” Ballard added, gesturing to the restaurant.
For Obama, the trip to Selma on Saturday is a chance to tap into a place where the civil rights movement reached its apex. In the days after Bloody Sunday, more than 30,000 protesters from across the country — college students, pastors, businessmen and homemakers — converged on Selma. “It reminds us that the history of America doesn’t belong to one group or another,” Obama said recently. “It belongs to us all.”
The president will be making the trip with his wife and daughters. There will also be at least 95 members of Congress in attendance — Republicans and Democrats — making the journey, organized by the Faith and Politics Institute.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the co-leaders of the delegation with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), said he believes the trip could help spur some Republicans to reconsider their positions on voting rights legislation. “I hope we can help change some hearts here,” said Brown, who will be making the trip to Selma for the fourth time.
Scott, one of just two African Americans in the Senate, had a more modest goal: “Hopefully we will form the bond of friendship,” he said.
Obama recently met with some of the activists who were part of the voting rights battles in Selma in the 1960s. His message to them was that his presidency was their legacy. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it was not for you,” he told them, according to senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Aides said the president has been writing portions of his Saturday speech himself, rather than leaving it to speechwriters. One of his goals is to link the spirit of the 1960s Selma protests to today’s battles over issues such as gay marriage, income inequality and immigration. Jarrett said he wants to make the point that “we are all inextricably linked together, and it rests on everybody’s shoulders to create a country where that fair shot is possible for all.”
For the past five decades, Bloody Sunday has been as much burden as blessing to Selma. Now Ballard and other elected officials are hoping that the world’s attention might provide their town with a much-needed jolt.
“Something very insignificant can happen here and it will make national news, just because we’re Selma,” Ballard said.
When the all-white Selma Country Club initially rejected a Japanese businessman’s application in the early 1990s, it was national news. The club, in a county that is 80 percent black, still does not have any black members, an omission that Ballard said has more to do with history than with current racial tension. “I’m not a member of that club, but 99.99 percent of the people there are friends of mine,” he said. “It is a great organization run by a lot of great people.”
More recently, the city has been divided over whether to repair a monument honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully defended Selma during the Civil War and later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The monument, which sits on city property, was unveiled in 2000 and has been a target of vandals and a source of controversy ever since. “There’s such a small segment of the population that even gives a crap” about the monument, Ballard said. “It isn’t important to anyone.”
Selma’s longest-lasting wound — and its biggest barrier to attracting outside industry — remains its schools, which have been effectively segregated since the early 1990s. A bitter fight over whether to renew the contract of the superintendent led the white population of the city to abandon the system en masse.
Today, the public schools in Selma are 99 percent black. “The first thing my daughter said to me when she came home from school the first day was ‘Where’s all the white people?’ ” said Selma Police Chief William Riley, who moved to the city from Newport News, Va., seven years ago to run the department. Last year, his wife and daughter returned to Virginia so his daughter could attend middle school there.
Fifty years after Bloody Sunday, the brutal, institutionalized racism that outraged much of the country is gone from Selma, replaced with murkier problems that cannot be repaired by a brave stand on a bridge or a single sweeping piece of legislation. All morning, Ballard’s fellow county commissioners — black and white — had been calling to check in on his health after he missed the previous day’s work with the flu.
The last call was from the sister of one of the black commissioners. “It was bad, but I’m on the side of the living now,” he said. “Okay, love you much, too.”
He hung up the phone and headed off to a joint interview that he and the mayor were taping for a weekend segment of NBC’s “Today” show. The two elected officials — one black and one white — sat side by side on a courthouse bench. The interviewer, who had flown in from New York, asked them about any lingering racial divide in the city.
“I don’t see it,” Ballard said. “I’m elected to office in a population that is 80 percent African American. I had very strong African American opponents both times.”
Evans — who will be marching across the bridge with a group that includes Obama, Lewis and Robert Bentley, the state’s Republican governor — offered a similar assessment. “Hearts change, minds change, people change,” he said. “I am proud of our city.”
More than anything, he said, Selma needed more skilled workers. “We have the jobs,” Evans said, “but we don’t have the skill sets to man the jobs.”
The interview finished and Ballard headed back to his office in the county courthouse. He had arrived in Selma from neighboring Marengo County in 1967 to sell life, health and burial insurance door to door, mostly to black families. His slogan was “We insure from the womb to the tomb.”
“There was still a lot of tension, but I was too naive or too young to be worried much about it,” he said.
Eventually, those clients became his supporters when he ran for city and county office. In the past few years, as his tax base has dwindled, Ballard has cut his county maintenance staff from seven people to two, slashed the number of county cellphones and postponed road repairs to balance his budget.
“We got a black eye in 1965, and that followed us,” he said. But Bloody Sunday has also brought some benefit to Selma, Ballard said.
The flood of visitors to see a sitting president and pay homage to a moment when right triumphed over wrong would probably add up to one of his best months for sales tax receipts in decades. “These days, I live and die by that revenue,” he said.