Every March, thousands of people gather at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate 1965’s Bloody Sunday. It’s an annual event that draws people from all over the country, including some notable Democratic Party politicians if it falls before an election year.
They all assemble here in Alabama’s Black Belt to mark the anniversary of the March 7, 1965, attack by Alabama State Troopers on approximately 600 people attempting to begin a march from Selma to Montgomery in the name of equal voting rights.
But on this seasonably mild November Wednesday, there is very little going in downtown Selma.
As traffic crosses over the Alabama River and heads east toward Montgomery, vehicles pass boarded-up windows and hollowed-out buildings that litter this plot of hallowed ground. Below the Edmund Pettus Bridge, near the corner of Water and Broad streets, graffiti is painted on the backs of dilapidated buildings along the river.
A block up the street, the historic St. James Hotel is boarded up. The city of Selma earlier this year threw in the towel on the St. James, which occupies a building that was constructed in 1837 and survived the Civil War. A peek inside the window of the last hotel in the city’s historic downtown reveals everything was left probably as it was when the final guest checked out in September.
If downtown revitalizations are in vogue in America, that trend has not made it to Selma.
No question, Selma has problems. As with a lot of places in the South after desegregation, Selma experienced the phenomenon of white flight. According to U.S. Census data, what was a city split evenly along racial lines in the 1960s now has an African-American population that outnumbers the white population by a 4-to-1 margin. Also, according to recent Census data, over 40 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line.
People had their reasons for leaving Selma. The laws of human nature and economics trumped those created by man. Thus, the people of Selma paid the price for being at the forefront of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and their descendants are still paying it today.
It is striking that the place where events unfolded that were pivotal to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — legislation that changed the course of politics in the U.S. and still has reverberations today — seems to be nothing more than a footnote. With the exception a few days a year, the crown jewel of Alabama’s Black Belt is a forgotten city of another era.
Not even Tinseltown has been able to create enough interest in this historic landmark to generate a pulse of a tourist economy. In 2014, the movie “Selma” opened in theaters and featured Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr., and offered a stirring soundtrack that included a hit single by Common and John Legend. Hollywood gave itself a reason to feel good by nominating the $20 million film for Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
Nearly three years after the movie’s release, not many outsiders want to come and see where, as the film depicted, the civil rights movement scored a hard-fought victory in a region of Alabama that at the time was ruled by an entrenched, brutal power structure.
It’s unreasonable to think Selma could be a big draw like Orlando, with its theme parks and resorts, or even like Washington, D.C., with the seats of powers, museums and landmarks.
That being said, if Washington, D.C., is the swamp controlled by the evil orange dictator, and Selma, as Hollywood has pointed out, is a place where the struggle for equality triumphed over adversity, why is Washington, D.C., favored as a destination over Selma?
So many in our society live off of trading in social justice. Consider how in the NFL a courageous stand is taking a knee during the national anthem. Groups like the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center can steer millions of dollars in corporate donations to their nonprofits, all in the name of promoting social justice.
All of these feel-good measures that seem to be meant to assuage white guilt or create the perception of doing their part for equality are just checking a box. After decades of this, the country seems to be more divided, at least according to our news media, than it has been in recent memory.
Nonetheless, 163 miles to the north of Mobile, off the beaten path sits a forgotten Selma, Alabama, with its rich history and modern struggles. Aside from the yearly Bloody Sunday event and the politicians and dignitaries that pop in for the photo op in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma deserves better.
Many of the preachy executives at Silicon Valley tech companies aren’t shy about telling Alabamians how they should vote, live their lives and what religious tenets they should observe and ignore. Could they even find Selma on a roadmap?
These elites could shoulder some of the effort to revitalize Selma. Outsiders shouldn’t be expected to resuscitate every old derelict town in the U.S. with pockets of urban blight.
Commemorative movies and passages in history books don’t put food on the table. Given Selma’s unique place in history, it deserves more than the lip service it has gotten.