Expansion of the previous AFRO article, “Selma Celebrant Observes: State of Selma Belies Civil Rights Victories”.
(Official White House Photo)
During spring break, Alexis Toliver, a senior neuroscience major at Johns Hopkins University, forewent the sandy beaches of Cancun, Mexico, for the southern climes of Selma, Ala. Toliver wanted a hands-on volunteer experience in a place that defined a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. It was like stepping into a time warp.
“After a few days in Selma, I felt like Jim Crow was still in effect . . . everything felt separate and unequal,” Toliver told the AFRO.
The Baltimore-based co-ed said she was “perplexed” by the “disorder and horrifying state” of the city, particularly in light of the nostalgic media coverage accompanying the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” demonstration that precipitated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Politicians and activists agree with Toliver’s assessment of the city. “It’s true. Selma is in a pretty bad state . . .. is a ruined shadow of its former self,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a social justice advocacy group. “That is the part that was lost in the exuberant coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.”
The first thing Toliver noted in Selma was an “air of White supremacy,” which she confronted almost immediately upon crossing the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to enter the city. A huge billboard honouring Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general remembered for his brutality, met her. The sign features Forrest astride a horse above his signature battle cry: “Keep the skeer (scare) on ‘em.”
“I was horrified,” the college senior said.
The billboard was sponsored by the neo-confederate group Friends of Forrest, led by Patricia Godwin, known as the “Wizardess” around Selma and also known for denouncing the 1965 march as “The Mother of All Orgies.” Godwin’s group was also responsible for a Forrest monument that has been a symbol of the racial acrimony that still exists in Selma since it was erected in 2000. The monument has been beheaded, defaced, and shuffled around, including to a cemetery.
“Race relations have come a long way but it still needs some improvement, because we have Blacks who don’t trust Whites, and Whites who don’t trust Blacks,” said Selma Councilman Samuel Randolph, D-Ward 5.
Some of Forrest’s future adherents were also very present during the recent commemorations, distributing thousands of KKK fliers to Selma homes. “We went down there to do recruiting and to tell our side of the story,” Robert Jones, grand dragon of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, told the AFRO. “Alabama has always been a good, strong state for the Klan . . .. It’s easy to recruit there.”
The KKK’s “side of the story” included alleged truths about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (“The guy was a communist agitator,” Jones said), about Blacks and their alleged penchant for crime and about immigration.
“The old Klan was concerned about African Americans, but the new Klan is more concerned about immigration,” Jones said. “I think it is going to be the downfall of this nation.”
The Klan’s upfront presence – its members no longer wear masks, Jones said – is evidence, some said, of the way Selma’s segregated past has remained little unchanged. ““I’m not really surprised because there will always be people who don’t want to see progress, who don’t think Whites and Blacks should be united,” said Randolph.
Added Jones, “You can’t put this many races and religions one continent and don’t expect them to try and step on each other’s necks. There’s always going to be a confrontation between the races.”
The Klan leader said they are not White supremacists – they are not trying to enslave any other race – but they are separatists.
In Selma, that separation is very evident. White residents have fled the city, which in 1965 was evenly divided but is now 80 percent Black. And those that remain live in cloistered communities. The Selma Country Club has yet to admit a Black member. Schools are segregated as well. “There are very, very few White kids in public schools in Selma. I think there is a handful – if even that,” said SPLC’s Potok. “Almost all the White children attend private schools.”
In fact, Morgan Academy – named after John Tyler Morgan, a former Confederate general-turned-grand dragon of the KKK and lynching advocate, and founded in June 1965 just months after the voting rights marches in Selma – only accepted its first Black child in 2008, stirring significant resentment.
Some say the civil rights battles of the ’50s and ‘60s were not in vain, that there has been progress in Selma. City politics marked a significant turning point in 2000 when it elected its first Black mayor James Perkins. Today, the city is run by a Black mayor; six of the City Council’s nine members are Black and the police force is run by an African-American chief. Still, activists point out, that political power has not translated into economic power and the majority-Black town is foundering.
Decades after Dr King articulated his dream for a politically empowered people, in Selma, “not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble,” wrote Selma state Sen. Hank Saunders and his wife, attorney and activist Faya Rose Toure, in a recent New York Times opinion piece. They later added, “For the tens of thousands of African-Americans in Selma, life, as Langston Hughes said, ‘ain’t been no crystal stair.’ Better off is not equal.”
The pair cited issues of police brutality, inequities in the criminal justice system, and other social ills. Dallas County, where Selma is located, ranked as the poorest in the state last year, and in January had an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 42 percent of Selma’s families live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, and violent crime is five times that in other towns around Alabama.
“We have a lot of dilapidated houses in Selma,” added Randolph, the 16-year member of the Council, about the pervasive blight in the city.
“It is a tough town,” Potok agreed, adding that since Whites fled, and businesses along with them, “There is no work there; no one is doing well. And, it is very much the legacy of White racism.”
Just as Selma was the poster child of the hard yoke imposed by Jim Crow back in the civil rights era, it is an example that the struggle for equal rights and justice continues, Potok added. “Selma is an absolutely shining example of all that is left to be done,” he said. “We are so far from any social equality still.”