SELMA, Ala. — This is a city seemingly frozen in time.
From a symbolic and surface standpoint, Selma is the feel-good story of the year. It had a major motion picture with its namesake nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one, and the president of the United States was stood at the base of the town’s only tourist attraction, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a savage bloodbath that led to a landmark civil rights bill.
But when fellow Atlanta reporters who traveled with this writer into the heart of the town, we were struck by the many vestiges of impoverishment the permeated country outpost about an hour west of the the city capitol of Montgomery.
“I have been here many times, and not much has changed in Selma,” said Rev. Albert E. Love, the CEO of the Voter Empowerment Cooperative, an organization that’s working with major legislators to push the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 through Congress.
Selma still struggles not to overcome its legacy of vicious racism, but also the lack of economic opportunities, a shoddy education system and continued segregation some 41 years after President Kennedy (then President Johnson) pushed through the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 which outlawed legal segregation and Jim Crowism.
In 1965, the first ground troops arrived in Vietnam. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had begun his first (and last) full term in office. And UNICEF won the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize, the year after Dr. Martin Luther King won the prestigious award.
Of Selma’s 20,000 residents, 80 percent are African American. More than 40 percent live below the poverty line. The median income of this tiny Alabama city — that no one would have ever have heard about except for “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — is about $22,000, less than half the state average.
“Alabama has been behind the curve for not just 50 years, but 150 years,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told the Associated Press. “We are just now starting to get out from under the stigma.”
Reporters were startled by the number of abandoned buildings with broken windows and the skeletal remains of buildings that used to house businesses.
Selma is a city in, and the county seat, of Dallas County, in the Black Belt region lower west Alabama, located on the banks of the Alabama River. College in Selma ironically include George Corley Wallace State Community College (Wallace Community College Selma) located at the end of the Selma city limits near Valley Grande, Ala. Wallace, as you recall, was the governor whose most famous images were of him standing in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent the admittance of the first black students, and for bellowing out the phrase “Segregation now, segreation tomorrow and segregation forever!”
Selma is also home Concordia College Alabama and Selma University. Industries in Selma are very limited and include International Paper, Bush Hog (agricultural equipment), Plantation Patterns, American Apparel, and Peerless Pump Company (LaBour).
With the lack of opportunities for upward mobility and a dearth of a strong tax base, Selma has hemorrhaged its most talented citizens iln the ensuring decades following the 1965 “Bloody Sunday.” The city’s population has declined by about 40 percent in the last 50 years, according to the latest Census Bureau report, and Dallas County’s unemployment rate is nearly double the state average, the U.S. Department of the Labor stats reveal. Public schools in Selma are nearly all black; and most of the white residents go to private schools.
Another exemplification of Selma’s continued segregation is this fact: every year, blacks lead the annual “Bloody Sunday” commemoration, while whites lead an annual re-enactment of the 1865 “Battle of Selma” to attract Civil War re-enactors.